By Kevin Baxter
6:30 PM PST, February 8, 2014
When Sir Alex Ferguson, the most celebrated manager in British soccer history, stepped down at Manchester United last spring, he personally anointed David Moyes as his successor.
Nine months later, you have to wonder what Moyes did to Ferguson to be punished that way. Soccer's dream job has turned out to be the worst of nightmares for Moyes, whose deep-pocketed club goes into Sunday's Premier League match with Fulham seventh in the EPL standings, 16 points behind first-place Chelsea and 11 points out of a Champions League berth.
Many teams would be happy to be in the top third of the table with a chance at a Champions League berth with three months to play. But Manchester United is not most clubs, and for that Moyes can thank — or curse — Ferguson, who won 38 trophies, including 13 Premier League titles, in his 26 years at United.
It's a string of accomplishments that put Moyes in a no-win situation in his first season with the club, says United legend Bryan Robson, who played eight seasons under Ferguson and is the longest-serving captain in team history.
"Sir Alex is probably the most successful club manager there's ever been. It was always going to be difficult for whoever took over the job," he says.
But Moyes hasn't made the transition any easier. In fact, he's guiding the franchise through its worst season of the Premier League era. Consider:
• United's 40 points is its worst total through 24 matches in 23 seasons. And the team must climb four spots in the standings over the final 14 games just to match its worst-ever Premier League finish in a full season under Ferguson.
• Its four league losses at home are the most since 2001-02 — and that doesn't even include the embarrassing FA Cup loss to Swansea City, the Swans' first-ever win at Old Trafford.
• United's eight Premier League losses are the most in one season since 2003-04.
• With three consecutive Premier League losses in December and early January, the team matched the most since 2001-02. Moyes, 50, wasn't even born the last time United lost four in a row in 1961.
• United failed to get past the third round of the FA Cup or the semifinals of the Football League Cup.
Disgruntled fans, pointing to the numbers, have called for Moyes' head less than seven months into a six-year contract. And even one of his players, former captain Rio Ferdinand, has been accused of using his Twitter account to muse about his manager being fired.
Robson has seen the numbers too. But he remains in Moyes' corner.
"Whoever was going to take over the job, it was always going to be a difficult transitional period," he says. "That's the way the club is at the moment.
"But I do believe that David Moyes is the right guy. And I'm sure he'll get it right as he goes on in the job."
Robson is paid to say such things, of course. As United's global ambassador — yes, Manchester United, which claims 650 million supporters worldwide, has a global ambassador — Robson's job is to burnish the brand, not tear it down.
He also knows soccer, though, having played in three World Cups for England before retiring to coach five clubs, including two Premiership sides and Thailand's national team. For Moyes to succeed, Robson believes he must escape from Ferguson's shadow.
"He just needs to put a few of his own ideas across to the players before it will come together," Robson says. "Every manager is their own manager in their own right. And you're always going to have different types of techniques."
Moyes, a three-time manager of the year at Everton, has begun to flex his muscles. With key performers such as Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney slowed by injury, Moyes pressed ownership to spend a club-record $61 million for midfielder Juan Mata during the January transfer period.
And one British tabloid reported Moyes has drawn up a hit list of seven players he plans to drop from the team this summer. Defender Nemanja Vidic has already said he won't return when his contract expires, and defender Patrice Evra and the unhappy Ferdinand could leave as well.
So if United can get past Greece's Olympiacos to reach the quarterfinals of the current Champions League tournament while closing the EPL season strong enough to finish in the top four and qualify for the next UEFA tournament, Robson said that would erase much of the current unhappiness around the team.
"I don't think we're so bad," Robson says. "Given where we are now and the way we started the season, if we have a strong second part then that's going to be pretty good.
"If we could get to the Champions League final, finish in the top four [in the EPL], that's going to be quite the successful season for David Moyes."
Certainly better than the coach who preceded him. After taking over a quarter of the way in the 1986-87 season, Ferguson led his first United team to 11th place.
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