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David Moyes and the complications of player power

As the dust settles after David Moyes's dismissal, allegations of player dissatisfaction and revolt are being thrown around. But these things are often more complicated than a simple dressing room coup.

Alex Livesey

As you may have heard, David Moyes was recently dismissed as manager of Manchester United. In the fallout, a fair amount of blame has been leveled at a number of players, particularly senior ones, who are charged with underperforming to a greater extent than would have been warranted by Moyes's inadequate management. Comparisons have been drawn with the downfall of United's first manager post-Matt Busby, Wilf McGuinness, after whose sacking Brian Kidd is understood to have turned to the senior players and said, "You lousy bastards, you've let him down".

Kidd, being on the inside of the club at the time, presumably had knowledge of what had and hadn't happened. But for those of us stuck on the outside, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a player who has actively decided that his manager is useless — so much so that he must be ignored to the point of mutiny — and a player who hasn't made any such decision but is still playing badly. Because the thing about bad management, in any walk of life, is that it affects those being managed whether they want it to or not.

Persuading players to buy in to their manager falls, ultimately, on the manager himself, and is arguably the most important aspect of the job, at least in the initial stages. The favoured cliche is that a player will run through a brick wall for the right manager. But a manager doesn't persuade his team to do that by turning up on the first day and asking politely, "Would you run through this brick wall, please?" Instead, s/he makes them believe that they can, that they should and that they want to; for the manager, for themselves and for the club whose badge they bear on their chests. And then: cement dust.

But if none of that works, then the players don't have to decide that they won't be going through the wall. They simply won't be able to.

Players fail to buy in to managers for all sorts of reasons — personal distaste, professional disagreements, personal and professional insecurity. We're not making any outright accusations, but it wouldn't be a surprise if Robin van Persie had been a little put out when Moyes got the job, given reports that he'd signed with the club on the understanding that Alex Ferguson wouldn't be retiring any time soon. Leeds didn't buy into Brian Clough in 1974 because he told them they were all cheating arseholes who had never won anything properly. SB Nation's Callum Hamilton has elsewhere characterised Moyes' now-notorious instructions to Rio Ferdinand — play more like Phil Jagielka — as amounting to an accidental Clough.

All that said, football history is littered with players who have made the conscious decision that the man in charge is an idiot and should be ignored at every turn. Some of these are well-noted — think back to France's run to the 2006 World Cup final, which was reportedly achieved only once everybody realised that Raymond Domenech was best left to his own devices — while others will have to remain speculative for obvious reasons. This is usually not the done thing, of course — players need to be following instructions, otherwise they're stealing a living and the whole thing falls to pieces. Players play, managers manage, and everything stays nice and neat and simple. Yet, for all that, hindsight does tend to demonstrate that these dressing coups are frequently the right thing to do.

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It all depends on whether you believe the players are the ones guiding the axe, or whether they're just hastening its drop — whether they're throwing the manager overboard, or if they're just dawdling on the way to the orange floating life-saving ring thing. Recent notable (possible) scalps in the Premier League: Luis Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas-Boas at Chelsea, Moyes at United and possibly Roy Hodgson at Liverpool, depending on how conspiratorial one feels about Steven Gerrard skying a penalty three days before the doomed manager was dismissed by mutual contempt. All gone, amid rumours of player discontent, and all, to a man, largely unlamented.

Finally, it's important to remember that players, as well as liking large piles of money and being told that they're amazing — that they're brilliant, amazingly brilliant — also like winning football matches. They like being good at football. And they're not always complete idiots about what being good at football requires. If they existed, then most of the rebellions above were motivated at a base level by the thought that this clown in charge was reducing the likelihood that the team would win.

There's an obvious problem here, which is the untestable opposite. If the players revolt — and oh, how they can revolt — then there's no way of knowing what might have happened had they not and instead struggled through the initial clashes and tried their damnedest to get through the wall. Perhaps Moyes was one great team talk away from immortality, or Villas-Boas one tiny tactical tweak away from everything falling into place.

We'll never know. Ultimately, perhaps it's best to conceive of player power in its malign, manager-killing manifestation as not just the straightforward act of dressing room rebellion it's often presumed to be. Sometimes, it doubtless is — footballers, at times, can be all manner of disappointing. Other times, though, it's more likely to be a consequence of the wrong manager thrust into the wrong company, or getting off on the wrong foot. He's not always the cause. Sometimes he's a symptom, and almost never the whole story.