Moyes' home debut suggests he just may be deserving of West Ham job
LONDON -- There was a point in David Moyes's first home game as West Ham manager when things could have really turned against him. His team was being emphatically outplayed by a Leicester side who had taken an early lead, and Moyes's men looked like they didn't have the wit to string three passes together, never mind score a goal.
The new manager stood on the touchline with his arms folded and head shaking, as if he was the only man in the stadium who couldn't believe what shambles was unfolding in front of him. Alas, for most of the 56,000 present, they were all too used to it.
The atmosphere was on the brink of becoming poisonous, a collection of fans who were mad as hell and unwilling to take it anymore. "We could easily have gone under at that point," said Moyes after the game. Then Cheikhou Kouyate bundled home a scruffy equaliser shortly before the break, and the gales of opprobrium that would almost certainly have greeted the half-time whistle were held off.
Kouyate's goal was roughly the equivalent of hammering a bit of wood over a window as a storm approached: a temporary fix, but on this occasion it was just enough. It's easy to over-emphasise the significance of these things when they happen, without the context that the rest of the campaign will bring, but if Moyes is to succeed, Kouyate's goal might go down as the most important of West Ham's season. Because this could really have been ugly.
Before kick-off there was a palpable sense of grimness at the London Stadium. Nerves, yes, but it felt more that those present were wondering what else they could be doing with their Friday night. It was whatever the opposite of FOMO is. You got the impression that plenty almost resented being there, and wouldn't be afraid of vocalising that.
This isn't surprising. After a long period of dissatisfaction in the stands, a new managerial appointment is supposed to renew enthusiasm, to spark some optimism about what's now possible. The arrival of Moyes, to say the least, hadn't done that. It was in that sense an entirely tone-deaf appointment, the West Ham board showing they are almost entirely out of touch with both common sense and what their fans want.
Davids Sullivan and Gold reportedly paused before confirming Moyes's appointment because of the adverse reaction from the fans, but went through with it anyway. Which only serves to reinforce the idea that they're a little like Principal Skinner from the Simpsons pondering: "Am I out of touch? No, it's the children that are wrong."
Moyes wrote in his programme notes that it showed "just how quickly football can change now, as well as how quickly yesterday can be forgotten." Well, quite: that might explain why he has a Premier League job. It still seems remarkable that the man who oversaw the dumpster fire of Sunderland last season could have walked straight back into such high-profile work.
What could have been a fresh start just felt like more of the same: the same frustration, the same grim football, the same sense that things could still get much worse. At this stage you might as well call West Ham's ground "The Temple of Gloom".
Moyes said afterwards that he didn't think his team deserved to be behind in the first half, but most neutral observers would agree that the real surprise was they weren't further behind. Riyad Mahrez had one of those games where he showed both why he's so good and also why he's still at Leicester: had he picked the right pass on a couple of occasions rather than look for some way of hogging the glory himself, the game might have been over inside half an hour.
Something changed in the second half, though. After Kouyate's equaliser it was as if the fans spent half-time contemplating how they would approach the next 45 minutes of football: would they boo themselves hoarse, wallowing in their own misery as some form of bleak self-flagellation? Or would they steel themselves and show some positivity and encouragement?
They seemed to choose the latter. They became more energised, a rolling noise replacing awkward silence and frustrated grumbles. The renditions of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" were sung with gusto rather than reluctant obligation. "I thought the second half was much more like Upton Park," said Moyes. "It was terrific, the way they got behind the team. But I thought they did that because they saw the effort from the team." For once, the atmosphere at the London Stadium fizzed; for a while it almost resembled a football ground.
It almost seems churlish to point out that while the game became more even in the second half, this wasn't because West Ham were that much better. Leicester regressed significantly, to the point that only a slight improvement by Moyes's side was enough. Marko Arnautovic had his best game for West Ham and Andre Ayew was sparky after coming off the bench, but the number of outright chances they created was minimal. Still, any improvement represents encouragement for a set of fans unused to such emotions.
"It was important to win, but arguably even more important that we didn't lose," said Moyes afterwards, in the manner of a man who knew the potentially dire consequences of another defeat.
With about 10 minutes remaining, West Ham were awarded a free kick shortly after several decisions had gone against them. The crowd roared with ironic appreciation, and Moyes joined in, raising his hands above his head to applaud with the utmost sarcasm. Was that the moment when he endeared himself to his support? Would they look back on that as when they bonded? Had Moyes just become "one of them"?
Well, no, almost certainly not. Wins will do that. Good performances will do that. A sense that the club has some sort of direction will do that. Moyes has around two thirds of a season to show that the prophets of doom are wrong, and that he deserves this chance. There was just enough in this performance to suggest that could happen, but one wonders how many are convinced it really will.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.