Jim White, according to his potted biography, went to Manchester Grammar School and then chose Bristol University. And here’s the consequence of that: a man in middle age still completely and utterly at home with being a complete fan, uncaring, if not unaware, of the dignity-stripping absurdity of the fan’s prostration and snowblindness. A bad choice of alma mater there. Oxbridge would have knocked all that nonsense out of him. It did it to me. At least, it took out what little was left after the ’85 rioting, the Bradford fire, and Heysel.
But because the disease is stillÂ in him, he could write “Manchester United: the biography.” And, for theÂ overwhelming most part,Â it’s better forÂ it. It’s no good writing about a football club asÂ if it’s the Foreign OfficeÂ or Pilkington Glass, with footnotes and equal treatment of all those suits.Â Â I used to speculate on how football in this country could be improved by getting the psychology right, by teaching tactics better, by getting rid of the drinkers, by becoming less like the way we are in general. But who would pay to watch a game run in that fashion? Who would read about it?
Jim understands, in that fundamental way, thatÂ the chant is “You fat bastard.” It’s not, will never be, a sprinkle of applause with the odd “Excellent shot!” from onlookersÂ in deckchairs, although you could write an excellent satireÂ in which precisely that happens. And what the biographyÂ makes clear is that, for allÂ the money and commerce, for all the cynicism and hypocrisy, the eventual victoryÂ of Alex FergusonÂ over his foes, which makesÂ upÂ the extended coda to this book,Â is also the victory of the best parts of the traditional game.
He gets his bibliographyÂ outÂ ofÂ the wayÂ in anÂ introduction which is also the acknowledgements and a who’s who of United fandom since the sixties. And then gets stuckÂ into the football. I wasÂ once owned a history of Irish music in which each chapter covered about two hundred years. ButÂ the final, and longest, chapter was called, simply, Van Morrison.. Ferguson does even better, turning up just beforeÂ halfway. He’s done in depth, rather more than Busby, which is perhaps fair as the BusbyÂ periodÂ has other heroes,Â to say nothing of a villain or two.
But there’s a price to payÂ for giving Govan the elbow room. The beginnings are covered well enough, perhaps better than other historiesÂ of UnitedÂ haveÂ managed. But it’s still done with that patronising honkey-tonk Edwardian joanna’s giggling presenceÂ in the background, and in the foreground, the jerking, distorting comedy of hand-cranked film. The firstÂ thirty years of proper football are still written up as though they aren’t anythingÂ in their own right, asÂ though they only matter for what cameÂ laterÂ on. MostÂ purchasersÂ of White’s book will take exactly that attitude, so from aÂ purely commercial standpoint, Jim willÂ have had no choice but to dealÂ with things this way. AndÂ it does make it readable. But there wasÂ real drama, risk, danger and excitementÂ in those years, and isÂ there no way to bringÂ it across?
TheÂ other loss comes at the very end. The storyÂ of Manchester United since, say, the Treble,Â is a formless mess. It’s still a mess even after a writer of Jim White’s talent has done his best with it. The Murdoch and Glazer affairs areÂ purely depressing, the kindÂ ofÂ thing that wouldÂ have you changing channels if this were television. And it hasÂ usually been television,Â hasn’tÂ it,Â in the last tenÂ years, and what a strange place it’s gone to, leaving BBC Five Live as theÂ last broadcastingÂ outlet that trusts football to tell itsÂ own stories and to entertainÂ purelyÂ on its own merits. Manchester United too has gone somewhere I wouldn’t care to go. It’s gone to Alderley Edge..
But between the beginnings and the eventual filling of the club bath with asses’ milk and asses’ money is a story told with all ofÂ the tangible warmth and humour readers of Jim White’s earlier books and excellent journalism has come to expect. He’s the kind of writer whoÂ knows not to disparage an anecdote, and asÂ he’s spoken to just about every survivor of the whole extraordinary ride, there are some goodÂ ones.Â Â I’d tell you a few, but I just don’t have the space. Well, there is the one about the Edwardian referee who got too cold to blow his whistle, and asked the United captain of the day to do it for him, but this is a family blog. Go read the book.
AndÂ though it’s not an academic biography, it’s not hagiography either.Â Â Busby, his lieutenants and teams live in Jim’s pages: they are not “legends” or for that matter figures from myth. In particular, if you want the young Busby, rather than the eternal grandfather of the ’80s and ’90s, you’ll find him here. The mostÂ interesting period of United history, 1971-8, feels like I remember it, and I’dÂ have liked even more thanÂ the generous number of Tommy Doc and Gordon Hill stories we’re given.
At the back, rather than notes, are a series of United lists. InterestingÂ ones – did youÂ know, forÂ instance, that Duncan Edwards,Â on his debut, wasÂ onlyÂ the fifth youngest person to play for United? And there’s a chart of United’s best ever seasons, expressed as two points for a win and also as a percentageÂ of available points won. It says a lot for the changing competitiveness of the top division down theÂ years that eightÂ of the best ten seasons are FergusonÂ ones. Nutrition and wealth matter: most of the oldest and tallest players for United are from recent times: the tenth oldest is still there, an automatic pick.
Every time I’ve come across this bookÂ in the shops,Â it’s been flanked by at least three other United histories, and all ofÂ the volumesÂ have beenÂ the same uniform red. This is the bestÂ one – the one to buy – although I’d hang onto your copies of Geoffrey Green as well.
But it’s not for Chelsea fans. I’mÂ not theÂ onlyÂ one with a penchant for digs at John Terry.