Instead of opting for Jose Mourinho, Alex Ferguson and others on the board gave the Manchester United top job to David Moyes, writes the football columnist
The Oxford Dictionary has this definition for a hospital pass: 'a pass to a player likely to be tackled heavily as soon as the ball is received.' It isn't deliberate, but it does the recipient no favours at all. And as we move into March, David Moyes is probably thinking of the one that Sir Alex Ferguson slipped him.
Manchester United manager David Moyes during the Champions League game against Olympiacos FC and at Karaiskakis Stadium on February 25 in Greece. Pics/Getty Images and (inset) Alex Ferguson
Ferguson quit after nearly 27 years as Manchester United manager, once the 13th Premier League title of his reign was safely stowed away in the trophy cabinet. In many ways, it was his greatest achievement in English football, topping the first league-and-cup double in 1994 and the treble in 1999. As he had done with Aberdeen in the European Cup Winners Cup three decades earlier, Ferguson scaled the heights with a team that had no business being at such altitude.
Robin van Persie, acquired from Arsenal, had a stellar season, but the support cast was a far cry from the glory days of the 1990s or even the early 2000s, when Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney terrorised defences in tandem.
The midfield was laughably lightweight, the defenders had seen better days and Rooney appeared to be in irreversible decline. At the time Ferguson was taking his last bow, it was common knowledge that Jose Mourinho was seeking pastures new.
Nearly a decade earlier, he had danced on the touchline at Old Trafford as his Porto side sent United tumbling out of the Champions League. Many had seen that encounter as an audition for Ferguson's job. Even the incredibly successful spell at Chelsea that followed was an apprenticeship. Mourinho himself had never bothered to hide how much he coveted the biggest job in English football.
But instead of opting for the man who has enjoyed managerial success in four countries, Ferguson and others on the board handed over the reins to Moyes, who, despite sterling work on a limited budget at Everton, hadn't won so much as a tin pot. Moyes was often cited as an example of getting the most out of scarce resources, but his record in the big games – not a single away win against Arsenal, Chelsea or United during his decade at Goodison Park – was indicative of someone that lacked the gravitas and nous for the biggest stage.
There are those that say Ferguson's appointment in the mid-1980s was a similar gamble. It wasn't really. Even then, Ferguson was a proven winner, having smashed the Celtic-Rangers domination of Scottish football, in the days when it wasn't the joke that it is now. United also had nothing to lose, having gone through a decade and a half of relative mediocrity as Liverpool won championship after championship.
It still took Ferguson nearly half a decade to mould a team in his own image, and nearly seven years to win the title. Those were also simpler times. Transfer fees and wages were not astronomical, and there were no sheikhs or Russian billionaires to make a mockery of financial fair-pay regulations.
If a club with United's history wanted to sign someone, they usually got them. And Ferguson's eye for talent was unmatched. The signings of Eric Cantona and Roy Keane were the springboard for the most successful decade in United's history.
Moyes now has to deal with owners who have leeched on the club for years, and who have pockets nothing like as deep as those at Manchester City and Chelsea. He also faces a season without Champions League football, with United 11 points off the top-four pace. Good luck convincing a Julian Draxler or Diego Costa that the Europa League is where it's at when they can pick from the continent's finest clubs.
It doesn't help either that the football under Moyes has been largely dire. The hugely gifted Shinji Kagawa is a fringe player, and Adnan Januzaj, the best young player at the club, didn't even make the bench for the miserable defeat against Olympiakos earlier this week.
Given how badly he has used Kagawa, you fear for Juan Mata as well. The decision to award Rooney, who Ferguson wanted to get rid off, a 300,000-pound-a-week contract is a sign of how Moyes has been backed into a corner. When Ferguson was in a similar situation in 1990, he saved his job with an FA Cup win. For Moyes, in this winter of discontent, the trophies seem as far away as they were during the Everton years.