Having been undermined, criticised, and ridiculed at Old Trafford, the Scot changed the narrative by overseeing a revival at Real Sociedad and making himself popular
When David Moyes takes on Diego Simeone and his team of Atletico Madrid champions at the Vicente Calderon on Tuesday, there will be no grand prize on offer. Relegation and European qualification are equally beyond Real Sociedad with nine La Liga games to go; the best-case scenario is the kind of top-half finish typical of more than a decade of understated achievement at Everton.
More significantly, no one will be laughing. That in itself is a credit to Moyes and his work in San Sebastian, less than a year removed from a 10-month ordeal and brutal professional trauma that threatened to become a permanent blight on an admirable – if over-promoted – managerial career.
Memories of Moyes, wide-eyed, attempting to explain yet another inept Manchester United performance but more often lurching unwittingly from one press conference faux pas to another, already feel like fragments of an ancient past. This is partly because Louis van Gaal’s sheer force of personality inevitably cows any recollection of what came before at Old Trafford, but it is also due to the fact that, more than 1600km away on the Bay of Biscay, Moyes’ rehabilitation progresses at a healthy pace.
Taking over La Real was a left-field choice and yet also a no-brainer. Having been undermined, criticised, ridiculed and finally sacked in the most cruel way possible, Moyes needed to escape – and not just on holiday to Miami, where paparazzi cameras still found ways to harass him. He needed to change the narrative, and the easiest way to start was a complete change of environment.
His new club had dire needs of its own. Less than 18 months after a thrilling Champions League qualification, the first 11 matches of the 2014-15 La Liga campaign had yielded just two victories. Despite selling the likes of Asier Illarramendi, Claudio Bravo and Antoine Griezmann, a squad that languished in 19th was better than previous coach Jagoba Arrasate had shown. Above all, La Real lacked organisation and toughness. They lacked Moyes.
He has done exactly what he was appointed to do. Having lost seven of 15 games prior to his arrival, La Real have tasted defeat just five times in 22 since. Two La Liga wins this season have become nine, including a famous triumph over Barcelona at the start of January, and the upturn has transformed an unforeseen relegation battle into mid-table serenity.
“Our immediate aim has been achieved,” sporting director Loren told Marca after a 3-1 swatting of Cordoba secured a third straight victory to end March. “I think the first thing that David [Moyes] did when he arrived was to try to give the team more solidity and consistency, and you can see that he has achieved that. The team is improving.”
No longer second-guessing himself on matters of style, Moyes has reverted to proven type. La Real are a disciplined, physical side that defends with a plan and attacks with haste. Four of their seven victories since mid-November have been achieved with a 1-0 scoreline, while there have been nine clean sheets in all.
As a couple of viral press conference clips have highlighted, the Spanish speaking is progressing somewhat more slowly than the on-field results. But Moyes is showing desire, attending classes two nights a week and undertaking tests on his iPhone daily, though he jokes he will never get his head around Basque.
Limited language skills have been no barrier to his bonding with supporters – or clashing with officials. In mid-January, during a hard-fought Copa Del Rey clash with Villarreal, Moyes was sent to the stands for making a ‘you need glasses’ gesture at referee Carlos Velasco Carballo. No sooner had he seated himself among the home fans than a friendly arm snaked towards him bearing an open packet of crisps. He good-naturedly dipped his hand in and munched as he watched.
Moyes is popular and, more importantly, seemingly happy within himself again. His contract with La Real runs just one more season beyond this one and he and his wife are still living in a local hotel, but he insists he loves San Sebastian and is looking for an apartment. The signs are that if an opportunity arose to extend his stay at Anoeta beyond 2017, he would be very open to taking it.
Before then, there will surely be clubs willing to offer Moyes a return to the Premier League – not least because the year since his departure has only served to accentuate his successes and mitigate his failings.
Roberto Martinez’s disastrous second season at Everton is rooted in a loss of the defensive cohesion his predecessor cultivated so well. Elsewhere in the north west, it has taken United eight months and more than €200 million of summer spending under Van Gaal to finally stumble across the beginnings of a post-Ferguson identity, with Moyes recruits Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata both playing significant roles in the revival.
But such thoughts will not assail the Scot as he pits his wits against Simeone at the Calderon for the first time. On his mind will be three points, and the chance to take another step away from the humiliation that already feels a long time ago.