Ferguson's presence still felt at Old Trafford as Manchester United manager struggles to lay foundations for a new empire
In the worst moments, a press release dropped from one of the more powerful bookmakers announcing a sudden shift on the betting-shop chalkboards, with the headline: "Ferguson 7-2 to replace David Moyes". That was the weekend West Brom won at Old Trafford. Manchester United were in the bottom half of the league, the Derby Evening Telegraph had "Clough Sacked" emblazoned across its front page and, briefly, it felt like everything had gone back to 1973 all over again. Nobody at Old Trafford particularly wants to remember that decade.
The week before, Moyes's team had come close to emulating what is known in Manchester simply as "the 5-1". "David Moyes is a football genius," City's supporters had sung. Sam Allardyce reckoned his mate had aged 10 years. Gary Lineker poked fun on Match of the Day. "All the betting suggests Sir Alex Ferguson is waiting in the wings," the press release announced. "The odds of him coming back to pick up the pieces are getting shorter with every bad result."
Then the northern dinner of the Football Writers' Association, with Sir Sean Connery narrating a video montage of Ferguson's triumphs, and the excruciating awkwardness when the compere asked all 400 guests to give Moyes a standing ovation, in recognition of his "courage". The previous day, United had conceded an 89th-minute equaliser at home to Southampton. There is no point dressing it up: it was a sympathy vote.
Nobody ever said it was going to be easy, and the man depicted on the Old Trafford banner as "The Chosen One" is certainly streetwise enough to understand that replacing someone of Ferguson's achievements was never going to be a seamless process.
Moyes had a copy of Ferguson's autobiography in his luggage for the midweek trip to Real Sociedad and all he has to do is turn to the story in the first chapter – about a letter that was sent to United's manager in January 2010 – to be reminded about the unforgiving nature of his business. "Can you please refund the £41 I paid for my ticket on Sunday?" it asked. "You promised me entertainment. I did not get entertainment. Can I have my £41 back?" United had just lost an FA Cup tie at home to Leeds. Ferguson wrote back saying: "Can you please debit the £41 from my profit over the last 24 years?"
The problem for Moyes is that he does not have that kind of background. With Ferguson, there was always that sense during the rough times that if you were going to dance on his grave be sure to check it was firmly sealed first. It is different with Moyes. The crowd is making up its mind whether or not it can trust him. The results have been erratic and the changeover, in the more harrowing moments, has taken on the form of a failed relay. The baton is on the track and everyone is looking Moyes's way for the explanation.
He probably realises now – thinking back to that harrowing finish against Southampton – that they tend not to like it at Old Trafford when the team are winning at home and the manager replaces a striker, Wayne Rooney, with a defender, Chris Smalling.
Perhaps, in hindsight, he will admit it was a mistake not trying to sever his ties with Everton before 1 July, denying himself another six weeks or so of possible transfer business; and maybe, if he was being really truthful, he would accept the size of the job has taken him aback, just as it did Ferguson when he came down from Aberdeen 27 years ago to the week.
Everton was hardly stress-free, but, with respect, that was a club of 250 full-time staff. United have more than 800 and, on match days, the number exceeds 2,000. A dozen or so journalists used to turn up for Everton's press conferences. At Carrington, it can be 60-odd. Number ones, columnists, bloggers, diarists, patch men, Tokyo correspondents. "Back page, front page, cartoon strip – the lot," as Ferguson used to say. One survey in 2012 wildly estimated United's worldwide fanbase at 659 million. It is enough to make anyone feel Lilliputian.
The bottom line is that Moyes has not won enough matches. His team have barely managed 45 minutes of cohesive football in their three benchmark Premier League fixtures against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City – taking a solitary point and scoring once – and Moyes has sounded a touch sorry for himself at times. Even after beating Liverpool in the Capital One Cup, he finished his press conference by announcing he half expected to get City, away, in the next round, in the same conspiratorial tone he had used when suggesting the fixture list had been fixed to sabotage his chances of a decent start. Those rheumy, ice-blue eyes told his audience he was being serious. Then the draw took place a few minutes later. United got Norwich, at home.
Moyes certainly needs something to lift the club and no doubt a lot of the foreboding will quickly disperse if his team can halt Arsenal's renaissance. The alternative would not be pretty bearing in mind football is so wretchedly knee-jerk sometimes, but, whatever happens, it is worth taking into account there are mitigating circumstances when even United's chief executive, Ed Woodward, has admitted that the squad the new manager inherited is obviously short of stardust.
That is not to make excuses on Moyes's behalf when the feeling here has always been United could have shown greater ambition in their selection process and that discounting José Mourinho because of his past controversies was rich, to say the least, given the number of times Ferguson has gone to war with every rival, authority and newspaper in the land.
Moyes might eventually regret his decision to torpedo United's plans to sign Thiago Alcântara before Bayern Munich moved in to arrange a deal with Barcelona. Marouane Fellaini is not a player to bewitch Old Trafford in the way, say, Mesut Özil will with Arsenal – and Arsène Wenger was not intending to sound patronising when he made the point that Moyes has never experienced this pressure and expectation before. "Welcome to our world," he said.
Yet it is 43 days since United lost. Moyes probably deserves a lot more credit than he has had for smoothing things over with Rooney and he can hardly be blamed for the transfer-market failures that preceded him. There have been plenty, and just because United won the league last year does not make them unimportant.
One of the stranger passages in Ferguson's autobiography – in the sense that he actually allowed it into print – recounts the time his brother, Martin, reported back from scouting on Anderson when the Brazilian was at Porto. "Alex, he's better than Wayne Rooney," was the excitable message after five weeks on his trail. A £20m deal was cut and Anderson is now in his seventh season in Manchester. He has started, on average, half a dozen league games in each campaign.
Watching Paul Pogba orchestrating the Juventus midfield, it can feel like a trick of the mind that David Gill, Woodward's predecessor, risked offering the young Frenchman such a low salary to keep him at Old Trafford, particularly when there was an agent with Mino Raoila's contacts involved. Ravel Morrison is a more complex issue, admittedly, but there is something remarkably self-defeating about the way United, again on Gill's watch, identified Luka Modric as the best candidate to replace Paul Scholes then decided it was not worth the hassle. As Ferguson explains it, United simply did not like dealing with the Spurs chairman, Daniel Levy, and had effectively cut off all ties after the carry-on to bring in Dimitar Berbatov.
Fellaini is actually the first classic central midfielder United have recruited since 2007. And Scholes? He now restricts himself to the occasional dads-v-lads match at Stalybridge Celtic. Pretty well, too, judging by one account of him spotting his mates drinking in the stand, then pinging the ball 25 yards, inch-perfect, to spill their pints. "Beer everywhere."
The gap has never been filled and, until it is, it will be almost as much of a problem as the fact Ferguson now sits 20 yards over Moyes's left shoulder.
Another round of live fixtures has been announced, accompanied by some cheerful blurb from the television companies informing us that we have never had it so good. "We're starting off the new year in style with some fantastic fixtures guaranteed to warm up the fans," as BT Sport puts it.
Try telling that to the Southampton supporters who now have to schlepp up to Sunderland for a 12.45pm kick-off, or the Chelsea fans who have been lumbered with a lunchtime start at Hull.
At least there is a direct train from London to Hull. Southampton's fans will need to board one at 5.12am and rely on three connections, via London Waterloo, King's Cross and Newcastle, before a hop on the Metro to stand any chance of making their game. If they can't face the drive or shelling out for a flight, there is always National Express, as long as they don't mind stopping at Hammersmith, Victoria, Golders Green, Milton Keynes, Doncaster, York, Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees, Billingham, Hartlepool and Peterlee en route. Oh, and setting off at 6.40pm the previous day.
No doubt the television companies will point out the vast sums of money they pump into the game do more than anything to keep the tills ringing in the Premier League. That, however, does not make it feel much better for the Newcastle fans trying to get to a midday kick-off at White Hart Lane. Or the Manchester City supporters planning their travel arrangements for a 12.45pm start at Swansea on New Year's Day.
What can be done? Nothing, unfortunately. Television rules. It would just be nice if there was occasionally the sense that they actually realise there are still a few people out there who like to get off their settee and make their way around the county to watch their team, the old-fashioned way.
Arsène Wenger was on entertaining form when asked what the difference was at Manchester United now Sir Alex Ferguson had retired. "Ask the referees," he said. "Every year there is a company that makes a league table of what it would be like without the referees' mistakes. So check that."
Unfortunately for Wenger, a quick look through the Debatable Decisions website suggests he has not looked too closely himself. The last available figures, after 30 games last season, suggest Arsenal should have been eight points worse off. United had three points too many, but would still have finished champions.
As for 2011-12, refereeing mistakes meant Arsenal should have finished behind Tottenham Hotspur for the first time in the Wenger era, according to the data. United, meanwhile, should have scooped another title with five points to spare, rather than Manchester City winning on goal difference.
A separate 2012 study, taking 200 hours and analysing 674 decisions, also ruled it would have been a United title, albeit by four points. United, it found, had 16 mistakes going against them and 11 in their favour. Arsenal had 11 benefiting them and nine calls the other way.
Probably the best way of putting it is that Wenger and Ferguson think they have had a raw deal – and nothing will ever change.