Moments before Alex Ferguson left Old Trafford for the final time as a coach, he issued a defiant message to the Manchester United fans who were so used to hanging on his every word.
“I’d like to remind you,” Ferguson said as he stood inside the centre circle, getting lightly coated with raindrops, “that when we had bad times here, the club stood by me. All my staff stood by me. The players stood by me.
“Your job now is to stand by our new manager.”
That was eight months ago. United had just beaten Swansea 2-1 with a late winner by Rio Ferdinand in so-called “Fergie Time” and the team had already romped to a 20th English league title, enhancing Ferguson’s status as the greatest British manager of all time after more than 26 trophy-laden years at United.
How ironic, then, that Swansea was back at Old Trafford on Sunday, administering a fourth loss in United’s last six home matches to usher the creaking hosts further into decline under Ferguson’s successor, David Moyes.
Swansea won 2-1, its winning goal coming in the final minute, by which time Ferdinand had hobbled off injured. The contrast to that day in May when United lifted the Premier League trophy on Ferguson’s Old Trafford farewell was acute.
The natives are getting restless. The atmosphere at Old Trafford is soporific. The smattering of boos greeting the final whistle of each home defeat — there have been five already this season in all competitions — is small but growing in number.
United fans are undoubtedly prepared to give Moyes time. They are a knowledgeable bunch, clearly understanding that replacing Ferguson is nigh impossible, but they expect better than what they are getting at present.
For the first time, local and national press are calling it a crisis, an empire in decline. United is seventh in the Premier League, 11 points behind leader Arsenal and five points adrift of the fourth and final Champions League place that just so happens to be occupied by Liverpool — United’s biggest rival.
Sunday’s defeat to Swansea came in the third round of the FA Cup, only United’s second exit at that early stage — the first hurdle for top-flight clubs — since 1985.
“It has been a tough start, a tough opening period,” Moyes said, when asked to sum up his first six months in the job. “I am disappointed we have not won more games or played better but I am sure it will change, I have no doubt about that.”
Moyes’ first half year in charge of England’s biggest club has been turbulent but interesting. He was accused of lacking European experience from his 11 years at Everton but qualified United from a tough Champions League group with a game to spare. With a last-16 match against Olympiakos to come, he will be confident of at least reaching the quarterfinals.
He has guided United through to the League Cup semifinals, where it plays Sunderland in the first leg on Tuesday, and has got the best out of England striker Wayne Rooney, whose relationship with Ferguson had broken down by the end of last season. The blossoming of Adnan Januzaj, a young winger with superb balance and movement, is also a major plus.
But the negatives outweigh the positives. Failing to qualify for next season’s Champions League, which is a real possibility, would be a disaster not just because of the loss of finances but because United’s pulling power would be seriously hit.
Disappointments in store
Moyes and United chief executive Ed Woodward already found attracting the big names hard enough in the offseason transfer window so January is likely to be even tougher, especially since Champions League football next season can’t be promised. Moyes said Sunday there is an “urgency” to bring in players this month but acknowledges the ones he wants won’t be available.
Rooney and possibly goalkeeper David de Gea aside, United’s senior players are missing or aren’t delivering. Robin van Persie, the league’s top scorer for the last two seasons, is currently injured and has played only twice since November 10 while Michael Carrick, the heartbeat of the midfield, has also had a spell out and hasn’t been such a dominating force.
There’s no consistency to United’s defensive unit and players such as Rafael da Silva, Javier Hernandez, Nani and Antonio Valencia appear to be lacking in confidence. One of Ferguson’s greatest strengths was squeezing that extra 10 percent out of players, but Moyes hasn’t quite been able to do that yet.
Ferguson, famously, was given time by the United board despite going his first four seasons without a trophy. Beating Crystal Palace in a replay to win the FA Cup in 1990 was seen as pivotal.
“Without that triumph at Wembley, the crowds would have shrivelled. Disaffection might have swept the club,” Ferguson wrote in his recent autobiography.
Maybe winning the League Cup will be the catalyst for Moyes, who is six months into a six-year contract. Ferguson hand-picked Moyes as his successor and still holds massive sway at United through his past achievements and his role as a director.
Ferguson attends almost every United home match, sitting in the directors’ box behind Moyes. His backing is imperative for the new man in charge but his continued presence around Old Trafford is a constant reminder of the difference between United then and United now.