Europe's big stage beckons for Moyes

Posted by Richard Jolly

The newcomer isn’t quite the novice he seemed. David Moyes is hardly a seasoned veteran of the Champions League but, he was quick to point out, he has featured among the European elite. "I played in the European Cup," he said.

And so he did, although only those with long memories and a fondness for Celtic are likely to recall his three appearances against Juventus and Ajax in 1981 and 1982. He was a makeshift right-back deputising against a contingent of future World Cup winners when he faced the bianconeri, a starter at centre-back and then a substitute when Celtic eliminated an aging Johan Cruyff’s Ajax the following year, yet a teenage defender’s glamour games became obscured by the mists of time.

So, too, Manchester United’s previous European match under anyone other than Sir Alex Ferguson. For the record, Ron Atkinson oversaw a UEFA Cup quarterfinal penalty-shootout defeat to the Hungarians of Videoton in March 1985.

That was both Videoton and video’s golden age. Fast forward to the era of digital downloads and online streaming and it is a new era, both in technology and for United. Moyes’ belated return to Europe’s main stage comes when Bayer Leverkusen visit Old Trafford on Tuesday. The gross disparity in his managerial statistics -- 431 Premier League games, none in the Champions League proper -- is set to be rectified. For Moyes, a consuming ambition will be realised.

"I’m really looking forward to the Champions League," he said. He has been on the outside looking in for years. "I’ve watched plenty of games. I’ve been to Old Trafford and Celtic Park for the Champions League games and I am always amazed by the atmosphere."

He almost had the chance to experience it; Everton finished fourth in 2005 and, had Pierluigi Collina not strangely disallowed a goal by Duncan Ferguson, they might have progressed from a play-off against Villarreal. "We didn’t quite make the group stages," said Moyes.

It was made all the more agonising as Everton became England’s nearly men, finishing sixth, fifth, fifth, eighth, seventh, seventh and sixth in Moyes’ last seven seasons at Goodison Park, never quite cracking their glass ceiling.

"I’ve been around in the Premier League for 12 years but I have always wanted to get to the Champions League," Moyes reflected. "I tried with Everton and have got another route with Manchester United."

It is a smoother path into the group stages, but with the expectation that the road will be longer. As Moyes said: "This is something different." Quite how different was illustrated inadvertently. Moyes praised Stefan Kiessling, top scorer in last season’s Bundesliga, and said he had often watched the Leverkusen striker during his time at Everton. It prompted a question: Did he try to sign him? "I never had that much money," Moyes replied.

United do, even if Moyes has struggled to spend it. His European experience as a manager amounts to 26 games, none of them beyond the last 16 of the UEFA Cup. It wasn’t an issue for Everton. United will aim higher. He is in a radically different environment.

"I’m now managing a club which is used to getting close to the final stages and I will try and do that again," Moyes said. The last two years have been the famine to follow the feast of three appearances in the final in four seasons; a surprise inability to qualify from a seemingly easy pool in 2011-12 was followed by March’s controversial defeat to Real Madrid in the last 16.

Some would call it evidence of decline. Perhaps out of respect for his distinguished predecessor, Moyes chose to highlight the Champions League’s growing volatility. "It is that little bit more unpredictable," he said, wary of surprises after being drawn against Shakhtar Donetsk, Real Sociedad and Leverkusen. "A leading team from Germany, a leading team from Spain, and we have to go to Shakhtar Donetsk, who are pretty experienced in the Champions League, so it a difficult group," he said.

Ferguson, who made his return to Old Trafford as a spectator for Saturday’s 2-0 win over Crystal Palace, is a sounding board. "We have talked about the strength of the group but not talked individually about Leverkusen or Sociedad," Moyes said. Another confidant is United’s other knight, Sir Bobby Charlton, a visitor to the Scot’s office soon after his appointment. "He is an incredibly humble man," Moyes said. "He explained what it is like to be at Manchester United and what a Manchester United manager should be like."

Winning is the prime requirement, something Charlton did as captain in the 1968 European Cup final and Ferguson as manager in 1999 and 2008. Moyes’ brief taste of the European Cup brought him up against Dino Zoff and Marco Tardelli, Liam Brady and Cruyff. It was enough to teach him this is the big league. After a wait of three decades, he is back in it now.

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