Jim White

Empty seats could spell the end for David Moyes

Most Glaswegians know what it is like to have a New Year head. Hogmanay hangovers arrive with the birth certificate. But none of his townsfolk can have ever suffered from the turn of the year as badly as David Moyes. On the touchline at the Stadium of Light last night he looked dreadful. Many a football manager has turned grey under the pressure of the job. But generally it is their hair that pales. Not their face.

Football management is a lonely business when things are going wrong. And right now Moyes looks utterly alone, bereft, cut adrift. Last night he paced his technical area trying to find a way to influence events on the pitch, but ended up flapping his hands around like a swimmer failing to attract the attention of bystanders. Not waving but drowning, he looked like someone who really has no idea how he got into this mess, never mind how he can plan his way out.

And in truth it is hard to understand. His Manchester United finished 2013 on a roll of six successive victories. Sure, they were not accomplished with quite the aplomb of old. But they were sufficient to turn down the volume on spoiled United fans whining like six-year-olds deprived of their iPads. As 2013 was consigned to history, it really did look as if upward mobility had returned, as if the season was about to kick on, as if normal service had resumed.

[Moyes blames ref for Sunderland defeat]

But, as Big Ben sounded the end of the year, it turned out to be entirely illusionary. Moyes's team has lost every game in 2014. Worse, these have not been unlucky defeats. Sure, some refereeing decisions have gone against them, but that cannot disguise the fact his team has played like drains. Missing their two most significant resources – Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie – they have offered little hint of the competitiveness of old.

Adnan Januzaj apart, those required to perform in the absence of their betters have singularly failed to do so. There is no drive, no zip, nothing that resembles a proper Manchester United side. Confidence appears to have all but evaporated. Some of the players look frankly terrified. Right now, in terms of precipitous decline, their slide can only be matched by that of the England cricket team.

Moyes is no fool. He was aware when he took over the job that the only currency that will suffice is victory. But the speed things are starting to unravel has left him struggling to control events. And as dire as performances are on the pitch, the most alarming sign for the manager is off it.

[United lose third straight game]

While the support from the hard core at Sunderland last night was magnificent and heartening, Moyes's problem is that he leads an organisation whose business model is built on pleasing the fickle. United's profit comes from persuading passing trade to associate with its brand. The only thing that does that is success. No company is willing to spend big money on becoming United’s official potato chip manufacturing partner in Malaysia unless they are winning. And for the owners, all that matters is that their property delivers profit.

Worryingly for Moyes, the first evidence of desertion by the capricious is starting to appear. After the defeat to Swansea, United sent out a group email to supporters announcing that tickets for the next three home matches were on open sale, available to anyone. This is unprecedented in the modern era. In the recent past fans who did not have season tickets had to be members just to enter their name in a ballot for tickets. Whole communities have grown up on Twitter to help steer the desperate towards a ticket. Now, anyone with a phone and a credit card can pick one up. More than one, actually. Four together is no problem.

The United press office suggests that there are special circumstances for this sudden change. The game against Cardiff is on a Tuesday night. The League Cup has never attracted a full house so, while it may be a semi-final, it is no surprise Sunderland is not a sell-out. The fixture with Swansea is a speedy repeat of last Saturday's FA Cup tie. These are all legitimate explanations. Except when United were winning titles, they never needed to be rolled out. At Old Trafford the queue for the ticket office always stretched halfway to the Etihad.

[MATCHCAST: Sunderland 2-1 Manchester United]

In football, there is no better barometer of 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 wasn't the fans moaning on phone-ins, it wasn't the grumbling from the Kop, it wasn't even the sight of his woeful signing Paul Konchesky lumbering around that ultimately did for Roy Hodgson at Liverpool. It was the large swathes of upturned red plastic visible in the Anfield Road end during a game against Bolton.

Moyes is not there yet. Rightly, he retains the backing of those within Manchester United who know about football, while those in the stands who have followed events closely these past few seasons appreciate how many cracks were being papered over in the latter days of Sir Alex Ferguson. Moyes is a fine manager and a good man. He deserves time and patience. But the momentum appears to have turned against him. It will be on his ability to reverse out of this current predicament that his career at United will be defined.