One year in a hotel

It wasn’t just poor performances on the pitch that led to David Moyes’ early exit from Spanish football management.

By Euan McTear

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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he remained resident at what is regarded as one of the smartest hotels in the whole of northern Spain. Damningly, he was staying there at considerable cost to his new club.

Every September the city of San Sebastián in the Basque Country of northern Spain hosts one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. Since the festival was founded in 1952 it has premiered many Oscar-winning movies and has helped launch the careers of stars such as Pedro Almodóvar and Francis Ford Coppola. Known in the local Basque language as Donostia Zinemaldia, it is considered the premier film festival in the Spanish-speaking world, but it also screens English-language films and has over the years handed out awards to classics such as The Full Monty and Alien.

It is little surprise that the city’s plushest hotel, the María Cristina, is fully booked with movie stars and directors come September time. It is nigh on impossible to reserve a room during that month unless you’re involved in one of the festival’s movies or if your name is Brad Pitt or Tom Hanks or Jennifer Lawrence. Or David Moyes.

Last September the María Cristina hotel was filled as usual with movie stars. Only one room escaped the influx of actors and film-makers – that of David Moyes. The Glaswegian had been staying at the hotel ever since his move to San Sebastián in November 2014, when he became coach of the city’s beloved football team Real Sociedad following his sacking by Manchester United.

Moyes has said that he had been searching for an apartment from the day he arrived in the city. Ten months later he had yet to find a home; he remained resident at what is regarded as one of the smartest hotels in the whole of northern Spain. Damningly, he was staying there at considerable cost to his new club – and unsurprisingly this did not endear him to the fanbase in San Sebastián. It is not overstating things to say that Moyes’ choice of address contributed to his early exit as Real Sociedad boss.

It did not help Moyes that he was arriving as manager of a team whose fans had begun to take an increasing interest in the club’s accounts. They would still sing, chant and whistle the referee from the terraces like football supporters everywhere, but would become accountants in the most popular post-match bars afterwards. Fans were all too aware, therefore, of the club’s upcoming £31m stadium renovation – it would be no major surprise if some knew the exact cost of every nut, bolt and screw. That is why it they found it especially controversial that Real Sociedad would contribute to Moyes’ hotel bill just one year in advance of this pricey renovation.

Given how much Moyes was earning from his basic salary, many supporters of the blue and whites were baffled that their club would contribute to his hotel bill. According to France Football’s annual report on player and manager wages, Moyes earned £5.1m in 2014 between his commercial deals and his Manchester United and Real Sociedad payslips, which put him joint-tenth in the world, alongside PSG’s Laurent Blanc. Put simply, he could have afforded any house in the city, and fans felt he was taking one too many cookies out of the club’s biscuit tin.

Moyes is not the first – and nor will he be the last – footballing personality to live in a hotel. Carlo Ancelotti never moved out of his hotel in his two years of managing Real Madrid, while Zlatan Ibrahimović famously joked about buying the Parisian hotel he was staying in when he was struggling to find a house in the French capital. Yet the difference is that Ancelotti led Real Madrid to a Champions League triumph, while Zlatan has fired his name into the PSG history books by becoming their all-time top scorer.

Moyes’ Real Sociedad tenure, however, was anything but successful. No goals. No goals. No goals. That was the story of Real Sociedad’s first three matches in Moyes’ first full season in charge. It had not been much better the previous campaign; Real Sociedad won nine of 27 league fixtures in 2014/15 after Moyes took over. Such uninspiring performances on the pitch did not bring Moyes the unquestioning loyalty of the supporters, which meant he needed to maintain his popularity off the pitch. Staying at a posh hotel at the club’s expense was never going to help.

His relationship with the San Sebastiánites had started off well. In a match against Villarreal in January, 2014 – one of his first home matches in charge – Moyes was sent off for suggesting none too subtly that the referee should have gone to Specsavers by making the familiar glasses gesture. Unfamiliar with the stadium layout, he hopped over a fence and watched the rest of the match with fans in the main stand, even accepting some cheesy crisps from a nearby fan, much to everyone’s amusement and appreciation.

His initial enthusiasm for his new job was obvious for all to see. Moyes tirelessly toured the north of Spain, scouting players and opposition. Reports of him being the first one in and the last one of the club’s Zubieta training ground appeared to be true and not simply the often trotted-out cliché. These were promising early signs, but the problem was that they never developed into anything more than promise.

The team’s performances were a slight improvement on what had come before, making fans optimistic that further advances would arrive. However Moyes’ initial enthusiasm turned out to be the peak rather than beginning of an evolution into the role.

Very quickly approval of their manager among locals faded, not helped by his continued residence at the María Cristina. A manager’s relationship with a Spanish club’s fanbase is as important and complex as the putting together of a Formula 1 car: it can be ripped apart by the slightest bump in the road. Unfortunately for Moyes, the hotel issue was just the first of many hiccups.

The manager started to openly criticise his players’ performances. He relegated to the substitute’s bench one star for addressing him as ‘David’. After a while he brought in his own British backroom staff, Billy Mckinlay and Dave Billows, rather than stick with the established local coaches. 

His lack of effort to learn Spanish also frustrated supporters, who took it as a sign of a lack of commitment to the club, to the league and, most significantly, to the city. No reasonable Real fan expected Moyes to learn the complex Basque language, but that he quickly gave up learning the more straightforward Spanish national tongue Castilian was poorly received. Despite beginning his Spanish lessons with great enthusiasm – even mustering up the courage to slightly awkwardly tell a press conference that some B-team players had been “training with me uno, dos, tres, cuatro times” – Moyes soon began to slack when it came to his Spanish homework and, unforgivably, his Spanish teacher eventually became no more than his interpreter.

That was when the locals at the pintxo bars in San Sebastián began to think that Moyes was giving up. In return, they began to give up on him. “He’s a nice guy, but he doesn’t fit in and he isn’t trying to,” one local bar owner told me ahead of the first home game of last season. “Moyes? He’s weird,” one of the bar’s regulars chipped in.

If you cannot achieve results on the pitch and if you lose the support of the barmen in a city as small as San Sebastián then your days are numbered. Even if the club president has your back. Jokin Aperribay, the president who made it his mission to entice Moyes to La Liga, continued to believe in the man he had hired despite seeing the team limp meekly towards Primera División survival in Moyes’ first season.

With his number one fan conveniently also being his boss, Moyes should have been able to buy himself enough time to turn results around. Because Aperribay still believed that Moyes was a long-term project, the club even tried to tackle the former Everton and Manchester United gaffer’s unpopularity head on by addressing his continued stay in the hotel. In October 2015, as Tito Irazusta of local sports station Deportes Gipuzkoa explained, “Real Sociedad told Moyes that, because of the image it was giving off, he’d have to leave the Maria Cristina.” A week later Moyes confirmed that he would indeed be leaving the hotel for an apartment in the centre.

For the fans it was too little, too late; 11 months too late. The anti-Moyes sentiment was irreversible and when results did not approve, Aperribay had no choice but to listen to the supporters and send Moyes on his way 363 days after his arrival.

Football is, of course, a results business and it was Moyes’ 29% win percentage that ultimately pushed him towards the exit. However popular managers are often afforded a few extra lives; Moyes’ poor standing among the fanbase accelerated his departure. That is why few supporters were distraught to see Moyes depart, although maybe the finance manager at the María Cristina Hotel will have been an exception. The local TV station Euskal Irrati Telebista showed an amusing sketch the week after Moyes’ sacking depicting half a dozen desolate hotel workers holding a banner which read ‘María Cristina Hotel Hearts Moyes’.

Nobody loved Moyes, but nobody hated him. He simply didn’t fit in, and nor did he make much of an effort to do so. That sort of attitude was never going to buy Moyes much margin for error on the pitch.

Every cloud has a silver lining, though. A couple of extra celebrities can now stay in luxury at the smartest hotel in town when they attend this year’s San Sebastián film festival

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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