Last August it was difficult to know who wore the biggest grin in British sport.
Was it Andy Flower, arranging his foot on Australia’s throat as he supervised his England team to comfortable victory in the Ashes?
Or was it David Moyes, in his first Premier League game in charge of Manchester United, presiding over a 4-1 win against Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium, suggesting the step into the most sizeable managerial shoes in the game was the smoothest thing in the world?
Just four months on and the smile has long disappeared from the face of both men.
After watching his side demonstrate the spinal consistency (not to mention the batting technique) of a garden slug in their whitewash by the same Australians they had comprehensively defeated in the summer, Flower resembles a fugitive hunted by every police force in the world, his eyes constantly scanning the horizon for the exit.
On the touchline at Sunderland on Tuesday night, meanwhile, Moyes looked simply ill. The pressure of their calling has rapidly aged many a football manager. Usually, though, it is their hair that turns grey. In Moyes’s case, it is his face. Nothing is as inexplicable in sport as the sudden disappearance of confidence. England were bloated with it last summer. The moment they landed in Australia, however, it seeped away under the dressing room door, its departure making the previously competent suddenly resemble cack-handed amateurs.
For Moyes, the decline has been even more precipitous. At the turn of the year, his team had just compiled six successive victories. Albeit not achieved with quite the panache of old, at least such a run spoke of promise ahead, of the steady accumulation of competitiveness.
After a shaky autumn, it looked for a moment as if normal service had been resumed at United. If nothing else, it turned down the volume of guff surrounding the new manager. On the radio phone-ins and on Twitter the sound of toys being ejected from the prams of the spoilt was stilled.
Since the New Year, though, any hint of optimism has dissipated and the shrieky volume of complaint has been turned up to 11. It was not just the fact that his Manchester United have lost every game in 2014 that will have alarmed the manager. It is the manner of the defeats.
There has been a dispiriting lack of snap and fizz. Moyes has too many players lacking the assurance to seize hold of momentum and turn it their way. Confidence has evaporated.
Given the way his tenure is going, on his drive in to Carrington Moyes must have run over every black cat in Cheshire. Anything that can go wrong has. He has been deprived of his best two players, officials have turned myopic on him, opponents have collectively exploited the rapid diminution of aura.
As a result, on the touchline the manager resembles a hapless Dutch farmer in a flood, running out of fingers in the failed attempt to plug the holes in his crumbling dyke. Worse, if there is any light at the end of the tunnel, right now it appears to be generated by the full beam of an oncoming train. While the support from United’s hard core at Sunderland on Tuesday was magnificent, loyal and unswerving, Moyes’s problem is that he is the most significant executive in an organisation whose business model is built on pleasing the fickle.
United’s profit – the only thing that interests the club’s absentee landlords – is swelled by persuading passing trade to associate with the brand. When foreign corporations sign up to become United’s official Malaysian potato chip manufacturing partner they do so on the assumption of success – and lots of it. The responsibility to deliver that rests entirely with Moyes.
Now, the first hint of desertion by the capricious is becoming evident. This week, United sent an email to supporters announcing that tickets for the next three home matches were on open sale, available to anyone. This is unprecedented. In the recent past fans who did not have season tickets had to be members just to enter their name in a ballot for admission to league games.
Whole communities have grown up on Twitter to help steer fans towards rare spares. Now, anyone with a phone and a credit card can pick them up. Not just one either. Four together? No problem, Sir.
Old Trafford insiders insist there are special circumstances at play here. This weekend’s fixture with Swansea is a speedy repeat of last Saturday’s FA Cup tie. The game against Cardiff is on a Tuesday night. The club have always had to work hard to fill the house for the League Cup, so, while it may be a semi-final, it is no surprise the match with Sunderland is not a sell-out. These are all legitimate explanations. It is just that when United were in the mix for silverware, they never needed to be rolled out.
In football, there is no better barometer of current commercial viability than casual ticket sales. At the top end of the game, the moment dissatisfaction is writ large in empty seats in the stadium a manager will find himself in trouble with his employers.
It was not the fans moaning on phone-ins, it was not the grumbling from the Kop, it was not even the sight of his signing Paul Konchesky in a home shirt that ultimately did for Roy Hodgson at Liverpool. It was the large swathes of empty red plastic visible in the stands during a game against Bolton.
Moyes is not there yet. There is time for the next three games still to sell out (though frankly the casual United fan is not exactly being overwhelmed with feel-good reasons to pay to watch). But what would best ensure the games after that are full is the sight of confidence returning to United’s ranks.