I’ll be honest. I didn’t really like Rio Ferdinand’s demolition of David Moyes in his autobiography. Much as I expected that at some point disgruntled former players would disclose some of the gripes that clearly existed under the surface in the first team squad last season, I’ve never been a great fan of washing United’s dirty laundry in public and the words ‘serialised in The Sun’ are not exactly my favourites in the English vocabulary.
Having said that, he pretty starkly makes clear his views the kind of things that were going wrong at Old Trafford last season and, although some of the accusations might appear petty and will be received by many as a confirmation of their image of a group of spoilt, pampered footballers refusing to perform because they’ve been denied their Friday night chips, they do give significant clues as to where Moyes went wrong in his attempts to manage them.
One of the first principles of effective man-management is not to allow yourself to get dragged into disagreements over issues that are at best peripheral: in other words, if you’re going to upset your employees, only do it over something important. I recall an organization that, probably for reasons that seemed sensible at the time, banned employees from bringing their own drinks-making facilities into work: they were made to buy coffee or tea from the works canteen. Much as it may seem a trivial matter to outsiders, it was viewed as important by the staff themselves and the damaging effect on staff morale was clear and it quickly became the main issue when disaffected chatter about management began.
These were people who were hardly in the same wage-bracket as Ferdinand, but banning the eating of low-fat chips falls into the same category. Its impact on performance is almost certainly negligible: all it achieves is to annoy those at the receiving end of the dictum. It disrupts a pattern of behaviour that, no matter how trivial it may seem to outsiders, matters to the individuals themselves. Then, less contentious issues like enforcing team walks are judged not on their merits but with the suspicion that they have come from the same illogical or malicious place. You may take the view, as many do, that earning the kind of money they do should make them immune to such ‘hardships’, but the same could be said of football managers: you’d expect them not to be making the kind of mistakes that could be found within the first few pages of the most elementary managerial textbook.
‘Win the person not the argument’ is another common management slogan. In other words, if letting them eat chips keeps them happy and on your side, sacrifice that one very minor victory in the pursuit of something bigger. We may, in time, find similar criticisms levelled at Van Gaal. He is, after all, regarded as something of a control freak. His control, however, is aimed squarely at those areas that impact on performance and team bonding and which will unquestionably make sense to the players under his charge: insisting they learn and use English and eat together are policies that even the most mullet-headed professional footballer would presumably see the sense in. In that context, were LVG to suggest a morning stroll, or something unfamiliar in training, you’d imagine it would be rather better received.
We haven’t, of course, heard David Moyes’ side of this and it may well be he has a very different take on what happened. Much as I prefer the dignified silence he’s observed thus far, if he really was responsible for these kind of policies, he’s guilty of putting a lot of unnecessary obstacles in the way of what was always going to do a difficult enough task in the first place.