An empty Old Trafford may be a kinder arena than a full one for visiting teams. But for David Moyes, it will always be inhabited by noisy ghosts.
Moyes, who takes his West Ham to Manchester United in the FA Cup on Tuesday, was once upon a time serenaded by a 1.5m image of his face, next to the words "The Chosen One" on a banner stretched across the Stretford End. No trip to the workplace where he held his biggest job can ever feel routine.
Moyes was United’s manager for 51 matches, up until April 2014, fewer than any United boss – caretakers apart – since the early 1930s. It still preys on him that so little of his six-year contract, signed when he was identified as the successor to Alex Ferguson, was honoured.
On Monday, he drew pointed attention to how long the current United manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, has had to construct a team and develop a strategy. “Given the time he has been given,” said Moyes, “Ole is doing well to mould an exciting young team. I think they are building a nice team.” And, as if for emphasis, he added: “The time he has been given has allowed him to do that.”
For the record, Solskjaer and Moyes’s first 50 matches as United manager are a mirror of each other: Moyes won 26 and lost 14 before being sacked after a defeat to Everton; Solskjaer won 24 times and lost 14 to bring up his half century. The Norwegian’s reward was a different level of patience. Tonight will be his 126th game in charge.
Other employers stopped being so generous with the time they offered, once Moyes, 57, had been deemed the wrong fit at Old Trafford.
He became a short-stayer: A year at Real Sociedad; a season, which ended in relegation, at Sunderland; a mere six-month contract when he was first asked to rescue West Ham in the autumn of 2017. They were in the Premier League’s relegation zone. Moyes had them clear of it before Christmas and 13th at the end of the season, when the club thanked him but still said farewell.
The return of Moyes to East London, on an 18-month deal from December 2018, was an admission by West Ham that his rigour, his clarity about the right balance of a side and his intimate knowledge of the Premier League – where he first managed, at Everton, nearly 19 years ago – were better suited to the club than had been acknowledged.
He came back and again performed his firefighter role, lifting the club clear of the threat of relegation last season.
West Ham 1 Manchester United 3: player ratings
The consolidation since has been spectacular: last month West Ham recorded their best opening half of a league season since the mid-1980s. Were it not for the last 25 minutes of United's match at West Ham in December – when a 1-0 home lead turned into a 3-1 away win – Moyes's club and Solkjaer's would now be joined on 42 points each.
That head-to-head left Moyes angry. The long pass that led to United’s equaliser, launched by United goalkeeper Dean Henderson had curled out of play, in his view, before dropping inside the touchline. Moyes felt the assistant referee should have raised a flag.
He seldom conceals his ire when he sees a poor refereeing decision. He detected another on Saturday, at the end of the goalless draw at Fulham, when Tomas Soucek, his leading scorer this season and chief beneficiary of the array of set-piece drills that West Ham have cultivated under Moyes, was sent off.
The red card heard on Monday that the red card has been overturned on appeal and Soucek has avoided suspension.
“This is a really big game for us, against an in-form team,” said Moyes. He seeks improvement on what he called “a poor performance” at Fulham and to recover their recent momentum.
West Ham, a squad with limited options at centre-forward and a net spend of just over £6 million ($8.2m) in the last two transfer windows, are punching above their weight. Since losing to United two months ago, they have recorded just two defeats in 14, and, in the Premier League, are a point off fourth spot.
“We have another step to go,” says Moyes, “but I have seen levels of performance recently that show we can keep getting better.”