Moyes takes centre stage
The supposed successors to Sir Alex Ferguson are scattered across the landscape of English football. They are central figures and men on the margins. They are acclaimed and disparaged, appointed and dismissed.
The best-qualified - if silverware tops the list of criteria - is revisiting his past as Jose Mourinho begins his second spell at Stamford Bridge. Another with Chelsea connections, Mark Hughes, has a reputation to rebuild at Stoke and may be in the last-chance saloon of his managerial career. A former colleague, whose warrior spirit and leadership qualities prompted suggestions he would replace Ferguson, has at least made it back to Old Trafford in the home dugout. Bryan Robson took charge of a Manchester United legends team that faced Real Madrid in June. As far as competitive football is concerned, however, he is an ex-manager.
Yet in the long wait for Ferguson to retire, two men were touted most often. They had much in common. Each had started at a lowly level, fashioned a reputation as a bargain hunter and a man-manager. They often sat side by side in the league table. With the notable exception of Ferguson, they were regularly the best of the British coaches in the Premier League.
Now there is a stark contrast between their fortunes. David Moyes is indeed United manager whereas Martin O'Neill is out of work, summarily sacked by Sunderland after a year of diminishing returns and when they feared relegation. While Ferguson's longevity probably ended the Northern Irishman's chances of employment at Old Trafford - his touchline displays of nervous energy can camouflage the fact his 60th birthday is in the past - there has to be a doubt if O'Neill will manage again.
It also prompts questions of how his star waned while Moyes' rose. The answer, perhaps, is contradictory: in some respects, there are areas where the Scot's case has been strengthened by staying the same while the Northern Irishman changed and others where Moyes' willingness to adapt brings favourable comparisons with an inflexible O'Neill.
Certainly Ferguson recognised a kindred spirit in his fellow Glaswegian. Like him, Moyes took the long-term view. If Mourinho offers an expensive, quick-fix form of management, Moyes promises continuity. Long loyal to Wycombe and Leicester, O'Neill has not come with the same guarantee since his abrupt departure from Aston Villa in 2010. While neither his two predecessors, Graham Taylor and David O'Leary, nor his three immediate replacements, Gerard Houllier, Alex McLeish and Paul Lambert, have enjoyed as much success in the second city, many a Villa fan will argue O'Neill left them in the lurch, resigning just before the season started.
He went at a time when owner Randy Lerner was looking to cut costs after heavy investment. Moyes, it is safe to assume, would not have taken the same decision. He remained at Everton when Barclays Bank called in the club's overdraft just as Ferguson adapted uncomplainingly to the financial restrictions at Old Trafford as they repaid the debts the Glazers loaded on the club. Moyes' net spend in his last five seasons at Goodison Park was just £800,000 a year while Ferguson took several seasons to dispose of the £80 million he banked for Cristiano Ronaldo.
O'Neill, however, earned a tag as a spender. In his last two transfer windows at Sunderland, more than £30 million went on Steven Fletcher, Adam Johnson, Alfred N'Diaye and the goalless Danny Graham. Villa forked out more than £110 million in three years and while O'Neill can cite the sizeable profits they made on Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and James Milner, they made substantial losses on others.
Year in, year out, he bought in Britain, almost exclusively. So, once, did Moyes. These were managers who raided the lower divisions brilliantly - O'Neill taking Crewe's Neil Lennon and Robbie Savage to Leicester, Moyes turning Millwall's Australian Tim Cahill into Everton's talisman - but as the price for domestic talent became inflated, the Scot cast his net wider.
If O'Neill's recruitment was more predictable, Moyes' was more resourceful. Constrained by a smaller budget, he began to look further afield. Many of the better buys in his latter years at Everton - the admittedly costly Marouane Fellaini, Steven Pienaar and Kevin Mirallas - showed the merits of a more cosmopolitan approach. If it appealed to Ferguson, who gravitated from signing north of the border to bringing in Javier Hernandez from North America, it is understandable. Paradoxically, Moyes' reward for not spending is to have United's substantial resources at his disposal now. O'Neill, the bigger buyer, may struggle to find a club who can accommodate his ambitions.
A final difference appears to lie in their legacies. Moyes' replacement Roberto Martinez is attempting to keep the prized assets bequeathed to him, Fellaini and Leighton Baines in particular. O'Neill's successor Paolo Di Canio is more concerned with breaking up the side he inherited, just as the Northern Irishman appeared nonplussed with many of Steve Bruce's signings. Repudiating the past seems a theme at Sunderland but whether or not O'Neill proves to be yesterday's man, Moyes, the constant who nonetheless evolved, reached the peak both men were tipped to scale. Gaze across the Premier League scenery now and O'Neill is not even in the picture.