David Moyes did not need long to consider the question. Sunderland’s manager, their fifth in three and a half turbulent years, had just been asked if he would be happy to finish fourth-bottom of the Premier League next spring.
“Yes, I think I’d take it,” he said, before adding an important caveat, emphasising his ambition of being the man to end Wearside’s seemingly interminable cycle of short-term fixes and seat-of-the-pants relegation escapes. “I’d take it if I felt I’d brought players in who would help us progress, give us a backbone.”
The former Everton, Manchester United and Real Sociedad manager made it clear such resilient spines take time to knit and cannot be constructed overnight. Yet without such a framework it will be impossible to fulfil his twin aims of restoring Sunderland to a position of eminence and proving he really is one of the game’s best managers.
“Managing Manchester United gave me an unbelievable idea of what life’s like at the top,” said the 53-year-old, looking slim, trim and slightly understated in a smart but conservative blue suit and tie. “I believe that [the top] is where I can work and where I should be working and where my level is. That’s what I saw in the time I was there.”
The shattering experience of being sacked only 10 months after succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson could easily have broken a different personality but Moyes feels strengthened – and, strangely, vindicated – by that sojourn.
“You don’t get offered those big jobs – Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United – for no reason,” reflected a coach whose latest club have not made a signing this summer. “I’ve said all along I was unfairly treated there. When you sign a six-year contract and you end up with 10 months … I didn’t win enough matches but you must say there were mitigating circumstances. And I think you could say there are maybe things which have gone on since then that would actually justify that even more so.”
As Van Gaal’s once sure touch began to desert him in Manchester, Moyes was experiencing Spanish culture shock at Real Sociedad with that job, too, culminating in the sack last November.
“I had a great time in Spain and I believe I’m a better manager now,” he said. “I got a chance to see a different culture, a different mentality, a different type of football, a different way of doing things. There’s an awful lot of bullshit out there but it was a great experience.
“In Spain I came up against arguably the best teams in the world and the best players in the world. I hope to be able to use what I’ve learnt here.”
His reputation may have taken a few knocks since he left behind 11 largely successful years at Everton but Moyes’s confidence remains undented. “I don’t think I’ve anything to prove,” he said. “I think I’ve got the fourth best win record of any Premier League manager. I have a big job here to get the right players in, with the mentality I need to be able to change things and play the way I want.”
If that style is likely to be slightly less pragmatic than that of his predecessor, the England manager, Sam Allardyce, Moyes made it clear he is no slave to philosophy. The days when Lee Congerton, Sunderland’s former director of football, spoke of the team pioneering “a Spanish style with a British heart” and Martin O’Neill, another managerial predecessor, dreamed of turning them into “another Barcelona” are clearly long gone. “What I want to do is win,” said Moyes, sounding very much in keeping with the zeitgeist of an era in which Leicester City are Premier League champions and similarly unfrilly Portugal won the European Championship.
“I’d like to excite our supporters. I want to see crosses and goals scored with the head and I want to see good defending. There are very few successful teams that don’t have the best defence. We saw a different European Championship this summer and I think England are now saying they’d like to go back to a playing style which is normal for them.
“People want to see winning football, commitment and a good attitude. I want all that too but I also want to see my team improve and be good on the ball. There’ll be differences to Sam. But, if I have to win ugly I’ll do it, then try to improve the ugly bit.”
There has been precious little beauty about either Sunderland’s football or loss-revealing balance sheets in recent years and Moyes appreciates many peers may regard his task as unenviable. “The biggest thing is that squad’s short of numbers,” he said. “It’s down from last season. There’s no doubt we have to make signings.
“We’re short of a right-back, we’ve only got one centre-forward in Jermain Defoe [whose thigh injury makes him touch and go to be fit for the start of the season] and I’d like to strengthen in most areas but, the truth is, I won’t get it all done this summer.”
In an ideal world Moyes would sign Marouane Fellaini and Adnan Januzaj from Manchester United. “I’d love to get that level of player, that’s my aim,” he said, before suggesting Januzaj was a rather more realistic prospective signing than Fellaini. “If those players want to come to the north-east I’ll drive down to Manchester and pick them up.”
That pair would walk straight into a side who only narrowly escaped relegation in May.
“I think Sam did brilliantly to keep Sunderland up; what he did was amazing, incredible,” Moyes said. “I turned this job down last autumn [before Allardyce succeeded Dick Advocaat] and the main reason was because I didn’t think they could survive.”
Since then Sunderland have returned the loanees Yann M’Vila and DeAndre Yedlin to Rubin Kazan and Tottenham respectively. “We need competition for places,” Moyes said. “At the moment we don’t have that.”
Ellis Short disappointed Allardyce with the size of his transfer budget this summer but Moyes, courted several times previously by Sunderland’s owner, clearly retains faith in both the American financier and Martin Bain, the new chief executive.
“Ellis has given me carte blanche to do what I need,” Moyes said. “I trust him. Am I going to get a player at £50m? No. But I know he will do everything he can to make things happen for me and I’ve also been really impressed with Martin Bain. I have assurances we can improve the squad. We may not be paying outrageous figures but wheeling and dealing is part of the job now.”
In many ways the new challenge reminds him of the once he faced at Goodison Park. “I’ve had many opportunities to take other Premier League jobs and also to work abroad again,” Moyes said.
“The Premier League has an exciting group of managers and I want to compete against them but the big thing is Sunderland’s brilliant potential.
“We get around 45,000 fans every week, we’ve got a great stadium and training ground, and we’ve got an owner who reminds me an awful lot of Bill Kenwright at Everton. Bill allowed me to build a club. I didn’t have a great deal of money – £5m a year was all I was ever allowed – but I think our recruitment was as good as anywhere. I’d argue we had the best recruitment in the Premier League’s history.
“I think Sunderland have got a lot more in place than Everton – the stadium for example. But we need to change from just bobbing along at the bottom of the league and I hope I get time to put my vision in place. We can’t always just buy players just to stay up. We have to bring in players for the long term who will maybe take six months to make an impact but are right for our journey.
“If we don’t progress, we could fall off the cliff at any time – but I’m confident in my ability. If I can build a good team, we’ll get this place jumping. That excites me.”
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