How to break a man (featuring the haunted David Moyes)

If you’re interested by the place of football in the broader psychological landscape – and given that this is Football365, I’m guessing that’s at least ten of you – might I draw your attention to a thing I’m pretty much obsessed by: the ability of football at its toppermost level to ruin minds, and how that plays out. This season’s primary example? David Moyes.

How to break a man (featuring the haunted David Moyes)

How to break a man (featuring the haunted David Moyes)

You don’t hear it talked about that much though, do you? Rarely do we hear good old Danny Murphy on the sofa saying about Christian Benteke: “The thing is Gary, his mind’s gone. No I mean it Gary, he’s effectively eviscerated his ability to reproduce the talent we saw in him that got him that big move, and now that everything in his career is turning to mediocre dust, he just can’t get away from his marker like he used to and that’s why while he was a complete terrorist for Villa, he now looks like he’d be astonished if any of his headers actually went in for Palace.”

But back to Moyes, and his current journey towards completing a sweet two out of three for those proper British managers dragging yet more teams down to relegated obscurity (although I’ll be honest, ever since John Nicholson described him as having the vibe of ‘a randy divorcee, two top buttons on his shirt undone’, I’ve had a soft soft for Alan Pardew). Anyway, Moyes is the ne plus ultra of this affliction. In those haunted, affected, trying-to-still-be-serious eyes, as he clutches for new words with which to describe how this latest 3-0 home reverse is also not his fault, you can see every last inch of what it does to a man.

Of course, it isn’t a crime to want to be higher in the world than where you are, nor less than where you belong. Icarus knew that, kind of. Think, if you will, of the backstory beating through Moyes, when his secretary told him that Alex Ferguson had called for him – all of the rain that would have fallen on him on the windswept, grind-out-a-result pitches of Preston, Bristol, Shrewsbury, Dunfermline, how hard he had to repeatedly work to keep that Everton side punching above their weight, how stomach-scarring would have been the occasions when hope of something higher – the FA Cup final vs. Chelsea, the Champions League qualifiers vs. Villarreal – was dangled in front of his nose, then snatched away.

You sympathise, you have to, with him letting every ounce of self-awareness go hang when Fergie said ‘Davey, I want you to be the one who immediately ensures my legacy has no attention taken away it from it whatsoever’, or however exactly he offered him the job. But life and football are not in the sympathy business.

He knew, when he sat in that chair and let them take that picture on that first day. You know he did. He probably knew every single minute of the time he was at Old Trafford, that this just didn’t feel quite right. I’m sure you tell yourself though, that’s how it feels for everyone, and just hope your natural ability will see you through. And when it proves that it can’t – what then? Where next? Back down to where you belong? It seems not.

This is a central aspect of the phenomenon: you cannot simply revert to the level that got you the big move. Perhaps, given that you, like all of us, have been schooled on the understanding that this game is all about reacting to and taking advantage of the big, high-pressure moments, you have now had something said that rings with devastating reverberations through all of your thoughts, distracting, weakening all your actions. You start making nonsensical transfers, mistiming all of your jumps. Perhaps, after being given an hour in Waitrose, only to then be yanked out and told all your shopping from now will now be done in Tesco, you simply can’t find the energy to try anymore.

Elite sport is a pretty brutally exposing place of those without genuine pep in their step. Every one of your weaknesses has a magnifying glass placed over it; every one of your strengths can now also be categorised as ‘not good enough for the top’, That, in a profession that fetishises the top like no other, is not the kind of energy that helps you burst past a defender.

It happens everywhere. Here is the career trajectory of Royston Drenthe coming unstuck at warp speed: Real Madrid. Good. Hercules (loan). Hmmm. Everton (loan). OK. Alania Vladikavkaz (2012) Reading (2013) Sheffield Wednesday (2014) Kayseri Erciyesspor (2015) Baniyas (2016), retired at 30.

Asamoah Gyan’s date with the sun came on July 2 2010, and the chance to score a penalty in the last minute of extra-time to take an African team into a World Cup semi-final for the first time. In Africa. Having smashed it off the bar, and discounting the brief attempt to recapture the fire at Sunderland – poor Sunderland does seem to have been on the receiving end of this a lot, and perhaps not coincidentally, now finds itself in freefall – take your pick of whether you consider Gyan leaving to score goals in Abu Dhabi or China as the best way to feel there was still some point to it all.

Whither Mateja Kezman? After scoring 105 goals in the four years preceding his flop year at Chelsea in 2004, he scored 37 in the seven years after.

Jack Rodwell? Those free-as-a-bird, driving, cantering legs replaced by…I forget. Where is he again? Sunderland?

Wilfried Bony?

Charlie Adam?

Saved the best til last though. One of the true legends of the Premier League era. I speak of course of Titus Bramble. The thing about Titus is, he stayed. He played it out. It would have been easy to tuck tail and run, take your shattered mind away from the early-noughties torture-chamber of Van Nistelrooy and Henry and Owen to somewhere where being clumsy like a bear and strong like a lamp-post could actually equate to being a defender. A place where you didn’t always have to rush past your crippling doubt at ‘being good’ in that way that turns it into nothing but a pressure magnet for being bad.

But perhaps – and this is the most uplifting reading of it you can find – Titus had entered into some cruel power-play over Shay Given, whereby, and only when the two of them were alone in the dressing room, Titus would sneer cruelly at the goalkeeper, don the crown he kept in his bag, point to himself and say ‘King Titus’. I doubt it, just because Given seems a man blessed with sympathy and you can’t really fake how sympathetic he looked towards Titus’ mistakes. But never forget: he played against Barcelona in the Champions League. And it went badly. The headline of the Guardian match report from 2002 is ‘Bramble tangled by Barcelona’.

So I think you have to give him credit for staying, for all those Mondays after the Saturdays where he had to cross the lobby of the Newcastle training complex knowing that the receptionist and the Director of Cones had spotted him and immediately struck up an awkward conversation.

There is, inevitably, only one direction for a Moyes-led team, now. Footballers, particularly Premier League ones, seem immensely susceptible, biddable types – in a situation like West Ham’s, if you make them feel reassured, if you organise their immaturity, you might just have a shot at squeaking through in 17th. That’s why David Wagner, Eddie Howe and Chris Hughton are all many fathoms ahead in terms of suitability, because they give off the sense that they can make you believe. Whereas if you walk into the gaffer’s office and find him gazing into a mirror with those haunted eyes, muttering to himself, it doesn’t propel your belief that you can grind out a hard-fought draw away at Everton. It may even do the opposite.

I don’t ultimately know how much is the right amount of sympathy to have – they have, after all, chosen a profession that has as its calling card winning and losing; and I have a certain respect for all of them who have accepted the totality of that, and so don’t get too serious about its inherent dangers, and Moyes may indeed be one of those.

But still, it isn’t nice to have Access Denied stamped on your forehead, after how much work it took just to get to the place where the stamp was delivered. The bruise lasts. And in the end, facts are facts – you can see Wests Brom and Ham are going down, and it makes sense why.

Toby Sprigings – follow him on Twitter

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