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 still in him, he could write “Manchester United: the biography.” And, for the overwhelming most part, it’s better for it. It’s no good writing about a football club as if it’s the Foreign Office or Pilkington Glass, with footnotes and equal treatment of all those suits. 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, that the chant is “You fat bastard.” It’s not, will never be, a sprinkle of applause with the odd “Excellent shot!” from onlookers in deckchairs, although you could write an excellent satire in which precisely that happens. And what the biography makes clear is that, for all the money and commerce, for all the cynicism and hypocrisy, the eventual victory of Alex Ferguson over his foes, which makes up the extended coda to this book, is also the victory of the best parts of the traditional game.
He gets his bibliography out of the way in an introduction which is also the acknowledgements and a who’s who of United fandom since the sixties. And then gets stuck into the football. I was once owned a history of Irish music in which each chapter covered about two hundred years. But the final, and longest, chapter was called, simply, Van Morrison.. Ferguson does even better, turning up just before halfway. He’s done in depth, rather more than Busby, which is perhaps fair as the Busby period has other heroes, to say nothing of a villain or two.
But there’s a price to pay for giving Govan the elbow room. The beginnings are covered well enough, perhaps better than other histories of United have managed. But it’s still done with that patronising honkey-tonk Edwardian joanna’s giggling presence in the background, and in the foreground, the jerking, distorting comedy of hand-cranked film. The first thirty years of proper football are still written up as though they aren’t anything in their own right, as though they only matter for what came later on. Most purchasers of White’s book will take exactly that attitude, so from a purely commercial standpoint, Jim will have had no choice but to deal with things this way. And it does make it readable. But there was real drama, risk, danger and excitement in those years, and is there no way to bring it across?
The other loss comes at the very end. The story of Manchester United since, say, the Treble, 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 are purely depressing, the kind of thing that would have you changing channels if this were television. And it has usually been television, hasn’t it, in the last ten years, and what a strange place it’s gone to, leaving BBC Five Live as the last broadcasting outlet that trusts football to tell its own stories and to entertain purely 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 of 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 who knows not to disparage an anecdote, and as he’s spoken to just about every survivor of the whole extraordinary ride, there are some good ones. 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.
And though it’s not an academic biography, it’s not hagiography either. 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 most interesting period of United history, 1971-8, feels like I remember it, and I’d have liked even more than 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. Interesting ones – did you know, for instance, that Duncan Edwards, on his debut, was only 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 percentage of available points won. It says a lot for the changing competitiveness of the top division down the years that eight of the best ten seasons are Ferguson 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 book in the shops, it’s been flanked by at least three other United histories, and all of the volumes have been the same uniform red. This is the best 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’m not the only one with a penchant for digs at John Terry.