Stepping into arguably the biggest shoes in British football history is no easy task for David Moyes, yet amid the build-up to his bow in the UEFA Champions League group stage last night, one of the new Manchester United FC manager's former players made a salient point.
Kevin Kilbane, a member of Moyes's Everton FC team that lost in UEFA Champions League qualifying in 2005, observed in the press box beforehand that for all the talk of the Scot's lack of experience in the competition, there was one key thing being forgotten: "He's got a lot of experienced players."
After all, it is ultimately players, not coaches, who win football matches and in Wayne Rooney, United have one of the best – and his display last night underlined why Moyes was so determined that his first summer at Old Trafford would not end with the England striker elsewhere.
Moyes may have enjoyed his highest Premier League placing as Everton manager – fourth in 2004/05 – on the back of a summer dominated by Rooney's departure for Manchester, but he was loath to lose him again. As United's director of communications, Phil Townsend, has said in an open letter to supporters defending the club's close-season transfer business, on the list of Moyes's priorities "the first was to keep Wayne Rooney".
Thus while Old Trafford saw a highly promising full debut in central midfield from Marouane Fellaini – the one big-name signing so far by Moyes and No2 on that reported priority list – and another spectacular finish from Robin van Persie, it was the player who stayed put, after so much speculation to the contrary, who shone the brightest.
Rooney looks in the mood again. He scored two good goals, set up another for Antonio Valencia and but for one glaring miss – putting the ball wide of an open goal – would have had his first-hat-trick in the tournament since that incredible debut against Fenerbahçe SK nine years ago.
And throughout, the home crowd left him in no doubt about their appreciation. "The fans have been brilliant, they have been fantastic with me," the 27-year-old said afterwards. "It's great the reception I get here and hopefully I can repay them with performances and goals like tonight."
Rooney's second goal was his 200th for United and led Moyes to reflect that the Liverpudlian could "go on to become one of the all-time greats here" – reiterating a point he had made to the player during his unsettled summer. As it stands, just Sir Bobby Charlton (249), Denis Law (237) and Jack Rowley (211) have struck more goals for the Red Devils.
A focused Rooney, of course, can only help Moyes in his efforts to leave his own stamp on this celebrated club and yesterday's first win in the UEFA Champions League cannot have hurt as he continues the settling-in process in Manchester.
The United fans sang Moyes's name as he headed down the tunnel at half-time and by the end, he had already achieved something only previously managed by Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson. Of the five men to have taken United into Europe prior to Moyes, only that pair won their first match: Busby against RSC Anderlecht in 1956, Ferguson against Pécsi MFC in 1990.
Incidentally, Busby's United went on to the European Champion Clubs' Cup semi-finals in that first season, while Ferguson's side lifted the European Cup Winners' Cup – another reminder of the high standards Moyes must try to meet. There may well be pitfalls along the way as he seeks to attain them, but this was a surefooted first step.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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