'YOUR job now is to stand by the new manager." When Sir Alex Ferguson took to the mic on the Old Trafford pitch at the end of last season to plead for patience to be shown to David Moyes, his hand-picked successor, the message was directed primarily at the Manchester United support gathered to bid him a fond farewell.
They have, by and large, done as Ferguson requested, keeping their growing doubts over Moyes' abilities to themselves despite a season of near-unrelenting misery. Instead, it seems it is the club's owners who have buckled first.
Speculation that the Glazer family were on the brink of sacking Moyes less than a year into a six-year contract began to swirl yesterday afternoon, gradually rising to a crescendo. Although there was no official confirmation from the club that Moyes was on the brink, there was no emphatic denial either. It now seems only a matter of time before the axe falls, either before the season ends on May 11 or shortly after, leaving Moyes free to count his sizeable pay-off and contemplate at length just where it all went wrong.
He may feel he should have been given more time. Succeeding Ferguson and replicating the success story he had constructed over 26 largely trophy-laden years was always going to be a mammoth undertaking. Moyes had been Ferguson's personal choice for the job - selected over bigger names such as Jose Mourinho or Carlo Ancelotti - but a smooth transition was never guaranteed.
Ferguson departed on a high but left behind an ageing side that needed overhauled extensively. Moyes made wholesale changes in the dug-out - bringing in his coaching staff from Everton and dispensing with the likes of Mike Phelan and Rene Meulensteen, Ferguson's experienced assistants - but endured largely frustration in the transfer market. Only Marouane Fellaini arrived in the summer, with Juan Mata subsequently moving from Chelsea in January for a club record fee. The Belgian, in particular, has struggled to make any real impact.
United, champions last season, look likely to finish in seventh place in the Barclays Premier League, out of the European places for the first time in 32 years. That is a damning statistic which will sit like a permanent stain on Moyes' cv.
Without the carrot of Champions League football to dangle in front of potential signings, this could have been another fraught transfer window for the Scot. There are some, though, who argue he should still have been given the opportunity. Brendan Rodgers could do no better than seventh in his first season as Liverpool manager and now stands on the brink of delivering the club's first championship in 24 years in his sophomore campaign. Where one set of American owners resisted the urge to make a managerial change following a poor campaign, another has seemingly decided enough is enough. Moyes, unlike Rodgers, will not get a second chance to put things right.
The impression lingered that he was almost overawed by the size of the job and the club. He made noises about the difficulty of United's early league fixtures, and was drawn to a cagey, cautious style of football that stood in contrast to Ferguson's more cavalier approach. When United managed a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie against Bayern Munich it was hailed by many as a good result. It spoke volumes for how low expectation levels had dropped. Bayern won the return match 3-1 and United were out of another cup competition.
Following the home FA Cup loss to Swansea City, and a tame capitulation to Sunderland via a penalty shoot-out in the Capital One Cup, it became simply another stick with which to beat the manager over the head.
His experience and steadying hand at first Preston North End and then Everton should mean Moyes will not be out of work for too long. No sooner had talk of his sacking leaked out and he was being linked with the impending vacancy at Tottenham Hotspur. It signified that his stock has tumbled but not too drastically, although it is difficult to see him being offered a job of this magnitude again.
A penny for Ferguson's thoughts right now. If it was a bold, perhaps unusual, move to allow a manager to handpick his successor then it appears to be one that has backfired.
Moyes seemed to be carved from the same stone, a stoic Scot who would work hard and suffer no fools. Ferguson, though, was a unique personality, impossible to imitate. Martin O'Neill, the erstwhile Celtic manager, once joked that he would rather be "the man who succeeds the man who succeeds Ferguson" rather than his immediate replacement, given the difficulty of following such a behemoth.
Moyes did not hesitate when called upon but could not deliver the success a club like United has come to expect as its right. It may hurt Ferguson as much as Moyes - "The Chosen One" as the banner at Old Trafford read - that it hasn't worked out as both men had hoped.