Football club executives like to talk up the amount of “due diligence” they routinely undertake before hiring anyone but such boasts sometimes end up ringing hollow.
Anyone who watched Sunderland regularly last season can be forgiven for wondering precisely how much homework West Ham United did before appointing David Moyes to replace Slaven Bilic.
Had they, for instance, talked to Jermain Defoe? In a revealing interview last autumn Defoe, now with Bournemouth but then leading Moyes’s Wearside attack, said he felt the team had gone backwards since the Scot replaced Sam Allardyce in July 2016.
“We’ve given away stupid goals with schoolboy errors, the kind of goals we wouldn’t have given away last season,” Defoe said. “From where we were I feel like we’ve gone backwards. We’ve not hit our old levels. We’re trying to play one-twos on the edges of our box. We’re not solid. We need to get back to the mentality we had before.”
At that point the majority of Sunderland’s squad – admittedly not necessarily the most harmonious or high-quality bunch – had already lost faith in the former Everton, Manchester United and Real Sociedad manager.
They duly finished bottom of the Premier League, winning only six top-tier games all season – none at home after mid December – and signed off with a goal difference of minus 40.
The general tone was set as early as August when, following a home defeat by Middlesbrough, Moyes announced that a relegation struggle beckoned. Prophecies can rarely have proved as self-fulfilling. Granted Sunderland were woefully short on pace and creativity but it did not help that he kept describing his players as “limited”.
As senior professionals muttered about training being “old-fashioned”, with inordinate amounts of time devoted to crossing practice, Allardyce’s successor increasingly came across as a bit dated.
Despite deploying multiple formations through the campaign, his tactics often seemed two-dimensional at best. “David couldn’t get inside the players’ heads, particularly the foreign players,” said an insider, citing his sidelining of the previously influential, suddenly underachieving Tunisia winger Wahbi Khazri as a prime example.
It is said that travel broadens the mind but Moyes’s Spanish odyssey appeared to exert the reverse effect. Perhaps his Basque culture shock explains why part of his £30m summer of 2016 spend for Sunderland was invested in several players he had previously worked with at either Goodison Park or Old Trafford, including Victor Anichebe, Adnan Januzaj, Steven Pienaar and Paddy McNair. Last January the arrival of Darron Gibson, Joleon Lescott and Bryan Oviedo boosted the number of old boys reunited. True, money was tight but such signings smacked of laziness.
In mitigation Moyes had been unaware that Ellis Short, Sunderland’s owner, wanted to sell up or that the club was £110m in debt. Such straitened finances led to a mass of redundancies, announced in February. Moyes was aware such cuts were looming when, only a week before, he was away in New York with the squad, indulging in “boys bonding”, which he suggested could help avert relegation.
It not only failed spectacularly but prompted suspicions that his refusal to cancel the trip when so many support staff were about to lose their livelihoods betrayed a shallow, uncaring character arguably out of touch with the reality of many lower-paid colleagues’ lives.
As the months passed and the disillusion deepened, Moyes’s combination of misplaced complacency and the sense he was doing Sunderland a favor simply by being there heightened.
With no opportunity to moan about the toxic legacy he had inherited or Short’s broken promises passed up, he became regarded as a broken man, shrouded in a cloak of negativity. As winter turned to spring he oscillated between defiance and despair, with his troubles deepening when, taking offence to questions from the BBC’s Vicki Sparks, he told her “she might get a slap” before subsequently apologizing.
A coach renowned for dynamism and meticulousness at Everton bristled at the merest suggestion that his own limitations may have been “found out” on the road between Stretford and San Sebastián while persistently blaming others for Sunderland’s failings.
“A lot of good managers have been relegated,” he said in April. “I’ll use this to motivate myself.”
West Ham have given him that opportunity but did they get round to consulting Short first? “We’d been in the Premier League 10 years,” Sunderland’s owner said only last Friday. “And I’d always felt like we were fighting. But last season the way we got relegated was particularly frustrating because I didn’t really feel like we had that fight. Getting relegated in last place was particularly galling, especially since the second half of that season before, when we’d survived, was the best half season we’d ever had. We’d been quite good so we’d gone into that summer on a note of optimism.”
Moyes soon put paid to that.
Moyes’ summer spend for Sunderland in 2016
Victor Anichebe (free agent, former Moyes player – Everton)
Adnan Januzaj (Man Utd, loan, former Moyes player)
Paddy McNair (Man Utd, £4.5m, former Moyes)
Donald Love (Man Utd, £1.5m, former Moyes)
Steven Pienaar (free agent, former Moyes – Everton)
Papy Djilobodji (Chelsea, £8m)
Didier Ndong (Lorient £13.6m)
Jason Denayer (Manchester City loan)
Javier Manquillo (Atlético Madrid, loan)
Joleon Lescott (free agent, former Moyes – Everton)
Darron Gibson (Everton, former Moyes)
Bryan Oviedo (Everton, former Moyes)
The last two for a joint £7.5m