In the talkSPORT radio studios — a holy site for purveyors of no-nonsense, laddy banter — David Moyes found himself being asked a strangely personal question.
When was the last time he cried?
“Oh… err… Probably when I lost my job at Manchester United”.
A bit of awkward laughter followed.
It was never meant to go this way for Manchester United’s ‘Chosen One’, anointed to be the successor to Sir Alex Ferguson by the great man himself.
But just a few months into his tenure, starting in the summer of 2013, Moyes had taken United from champions to 7th.
Writing years later, Sir Alex wrote: “Each defeat was a hammer blow to him. I could see that in his demeanour.
“In January we bought Juan Mata and that gave everyone a lift but I could see the walls squeezing in.”
The arrival of the Spaniard, it was hoped, would change the narrative, turn the team around and save ‘The Chosen One’.
By this point, however, Sir Alex says Moyes already had “less and less room to breathe”.
“I know that feeling from 1989,” he added. “When we went through a terrible spell. You feel you are being crushed. The results gnawed away at David. Nobody could dispute how disappointing the season was.
“And it cost a man his job.”
It was an image so laughably appropriate, the colour-piece writers must have had a field day.
Juan Mata quite literally flying in to save David Moyes’ Manchester United job by helicopter.
If the former Everton boss had appeared desperate before January 2014 — the signing of his old player Marouane Fellaini for a bloated transfer fee, the failure to sign anyone else that summer, the catastrophic home performance to West Brom — then this propelled him to new heights.
Pardon the pun.
Mata was the unfortunate stooge in an elaborate tragicomedy that began to unravel in that club record £37.1million move from Chelsea.
Highly rated by many in the Premier League — Chelsea’s player of the year in 2013 — but discarded by Jose Mourinho in his second Stamford Bridge stint, the Spaniard was deemed something of a coup for United.
Some 18 months later (still before the Special One arrived at United), the ultimate Nice Guy Mata would hit back at Mourinho’s fierce criticism of him.
The Portuguese decided to pick the more hard-working Oscar as his No.10 despite Mata’s brilliant record of goals and assists.
Before sanctioning the Spaniard’s exit, Mourinho said: “It is one thing to play with Ramires and Oscar closing down opponents on each side, and Mata as a No10 behind a striker with his clever assists, clever passes and fantastic actions because he has great talent.
“But it is another thing to adapt to the way we want to play. In this moment, Oscar is my No.10 and, if anyone tells me Oscar has not been Chelsea’s best player this season, I’d have to disagree.
“I have to prove to the fans that I am good. Now [Mata] must do the same.”
There was nothing particularly wrong with the signing of Mata by Moyes despite Mourinho’s criticism.
United had not created enough during his spell in charge of the club and sat seventh in the table.
Mata was a much-vaunted Premier League talent whom, it was hoped, would get Moyes out of trouble.
But the Scot’s interview with MUTV after securing the Mata signing exposed the frustration he had felt at missing out on top targets like Gareth Bale, Thiago Alcantara, Cesc Fabregas and Toni Kroos before Mata.
He was relieved to have signed a top player, but could a player discarded by United’s rivals be the one the cut the mustard? Moyes thought so.
“I never felt that we would get that opportunity, I wasn’t sure that Chelsea would ever sell him to us,” he said.
“This is the first, and there will be many more to come in time.
“I want to build an exciting team.
“We see this as the start, we have to look to improve and I’m going to try to bring in some new players to make that happen.”
Hindsight now tells us that Mata proved to be Moyes second and final major signing at United. To lurch from 6ft4in Fellaini in one transfer window to 5ft7in Mata in the next rather summed up his chaotic spell at the United helm.
The irony is that both players proved rather more useful for Moyes’ successors at Old Trafford and Mata, whose ability has never been in doubt, has turned into something of a club stalwart. He is universally popular and his record of more than 250 United appearances, with 50 goals, is very respectable.
It says a lot that as Mata approaches his 33rd birthday, current boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is seriously considering triggering the one-year extension in his contract, potentially keeping him at United beyond the age of 34 — and almost a decade on from the helicopter touchdown and that awkward greeting with Moyes.
Ultimately, Mata was not able to save Moyes’ job. He alone was never going to manage that. The doomed tenure of the Scotsman had already failed by the time the rotor blades had stopped turning.
Yet Mata deserves huge credit for sticking it at during a turbulent time at United, making himself useful to Louis van Gaal, and Mourinho himself.
His riposte to Mourinho was to question the use of the phrase “luxury player” by some pundits with regards to him and he’s been on a crusade to prove that wrong since 2014. But Mata was something of an indulgence that United could not afford in the Moyes season; he took 10 games to find the net in a red shirt and two of his five United goals in 2013/14 came in one game under caretaker boss Ryan Giggs.
“If a luxury player is a player who scores and assists and has good stats, then I’m happy to be a luxury player,” Mata told the Sunday Times in 2015.
“I want luxury players in my team. I like creative players and players who do different things. It’s easy to say certain players are luxuries, especially when you’ve lost a game.
“When you lose a certain kind of player – the creative players – always get the blame.”
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Manchester United lost 2-1 to Sheffield United as they passed up an opportunity to return to the top of the Premier League table.
There’s no time for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players to feel sorry for themselves, though, with a game against Arsenal at the Emirates to come on Saturday.
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It would be wrong to say Mata was to blame for United’s disastrous season under Moyes, and the Scot was asking too much of his January signing to be his SOS call.
Mourinho went on to win the league the next season, with a Mata-less team centred around Oscar and Willian, two industrious Brazilians.
The Portuguese, of course, ended up managing Mata at Old Trafford and the pair enjoyed a reconciliation of sorts. Mata later insisted “the respect is mutual and we never had any personal problem.”
He also spoke about his failure to save Moyes in the same interview with United’s in-house media.
“I always feel bad when a manager has to go, because it means that you are not doing right, or you are not getting results. So it’s not a nice feeling.”
But ultimately Mata was just a ‘nice’ addition for a United team that was not nasty enough, as it had been under Ferguson. And perhaps it’s reflective that, now seven years on from his arrival at United, Mata has not won either of the two big-hitting trophies during that time.
Mata did not transform United, as Moyes had hoped and not indeed as Bruno Fernandes has transformed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side more recently, after arriving as a January SOS.
But then maybe Moyes was always grasping at some kind of fantasy when he took the United job. Mata is not a bull-fighting Spaniard, he is not a talisman, but he is a fine footballer who will be remember fondly by United fans, if not as an iconic hero of the club.
He was the nice guy, who arrived in the wrong way at the wrong time.