Author: Herzog’s Child
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Given we’re at the midway point in an already bemusing – some would say disheartening – season, perhaps now is as important a time as ever to glance back over our shoulder at what has gone before surmising what is happening and what will be in the future. Daniel Taylor was the Guardian’s man in Manchester until last week and has just been appointed chief football writer at the newspaper. Our warmest congratulations go towards him on a richly deserved promotion. Daniel has been kind enough to answer at length on a number of issues surrounding United. For this and the insights that follow, I thank him. Daniel has had two Alex Ferguson-related books published, the links for which follow below. Cheers.
Q: Okay, the dull stuff first, Daniel. Despite United’s glaringly obvious deficiencies, their form to this midway point has been admirable. Their away record has vastly improved on last year’s shambles on the road, and despite the two appalling home losses and away defeat at Newcastle they’ve been more or less as consistent as ever. However, there is a complacency to this United side. The midfield issues have been scrutinised thoroughly over the last three years, but throughout the squad there appears to be something lacking. Not just a midfielder, but a driving force, balls. Injuries haven’t helped, of course, but what can we put United’s generally unconvincing displays down to? A lack of genuine quality? Not enough investment? Negligence from the management? And what can be said of Scholes’ return – nostalgia or desperation?
I’ve said for a while that when you analyse the way City were playing until Christmas, the records they have set scoring-wise and the impact of the 6-1 at Old Trafford, United have actually done really well to be only a few points behind. It’s strange because, points-wise, it has actually been one of the more impressive half-seasons of Ferguson’s 25 years in charge – and yet, apart from the opening month or so, it doesn’t really feel like that, does it?
Ferguson himself has been talking about Tottenham playing the best football in the league. I would say it’s probably been City. But the thing is: nobody is making a case for United – not even Ferguson. Injuries, as you say, have been a significant reason and you wonder how City, with a smaller squad, would have coped if it had been the other way around. We’ve seen Jones, Rafael and Rooney all playing in midfield at times, and the Scholes thing . . well, I’m sure he’s given it a hell of a lot of thought and, yes, United do need some experience in there, so it does make sense in a lot of ways. But I’ve sat with Scholes and listened to him talking about how he knew his legs weren’t up to it and how he hated not being the player of old, so it is strange, to say the least, and I’ll be honest, my first thought was that it was a little desperate. Yes, it was a great story him scoring on his first game back at Old Trafford but it doesn’t say a great deal about the club’s spending ambitions or what they really think of Pogba etc.
Everyone talks of United needing another central midfielder; I’d say you actually need two – one to hold, tackle and lay the ball off, and another to play the Modric role. Is the money there? No journalist gets close to the Glazers so we can only guess, like everyone else, but what you can say is that all that stuff they came out with when they took over, spending £25m every season etc, it was PR bullshit, wasn’t it?
Q: Whilst the majority’s immediate concerns are centred on the league campaign, the early exit from Europe, the ever-widening black hole permeating the midfield base and a swathe of other on-field issues, the small minority are still only too rightly concerned with the owners. The continuous spoiling of profit on debt-management will cause many eyes to roll, but for most that’s the only action that takes place. Post-takeover a small furore ensued, but the futility of attempting to change things when your numbers are minute in comparison to the club’s overall fan-base quickly came to light. A significant share of the hardcore cut their financial ties with the club and established FC United. Others have simply stayed away and watch in pubs. More bemoan the club’s perilous state but – for whatever reason – can’t drag themselves away. And many more just watch the game, trust the club and delude themselves into thinking everything’s rosy. Does this highlight just a lack of real care for the club’s health? Has Ferguson’s complicity skewed perceptions for those only too willing to devote total trust in the man? When, if ever, will the majority open their eyes to the damage being waged?
It’s hard for me to answer that last question, but even from the tone I can sense your own disillusionment. The volume has gone down a little on the Glazer protests, the green and gold movement isn’t so prominent and, with that, it’s not getting the media attention that it did before. Plus, of course, Ferguson won’t have a bad word said against the owners. But the same issues are there, and there are an awful lot of “no value in the market” mistruths coming out of Old Trafford. Ferguson broke the transfer record three times in seven years at one point. Now we have a club that has spent less in net transfers than Stoke and Aston Villa over the last five years. OK, spending money doesn’t necessarily equate to success but it can help and has always been a part of United’s success. I think United have been fortunate in one sense because Chelsea and Arsenal are having such erratic seasons and Liverpool are still treading water. Maybe the volume will go up again if City go on to win the league.
Q: United’s financial situation is, of course, in complete contrast to Manchester City’s. Many will accept City’s complete transformation from being a club of mediocrity to the richest club in the world is just another sign of the how the game is crippled by money. It hurts to see them edge ever closer to an inevitable league title, but even the most ardent of City supporters would surely admit their pursuits contain a certain hollowness. As a reporter on both clubs, their current jousting at the upper echelons of the league table must be rewarding, particularly for someone like yourself who has no real ties to either side. It’s said that, as a club at least, City are the easier to deal with. Is this true? Other journalists have bemoaned United’s lack of media-friendliness, particularly in recent years. Elsewhere, you have lamented the almost painful experience of Fergie’s press conferences and how they rarely now, if ever, offer much in the way of intrigue. To the outsider it’s hard to perceive. It won’t be for some time, but is it fair to say the journalists following United’s every move are looking forward to the day when a new manager finally does arrive, to be closer to things?
To be honest, Ferguson’s been there so long now it’s almost surreal to imagine what it’s going to be like without him. My own role has changed now and it means I won’t purely be covering Manchester but, for the reporters who are still there every week, it probably will be easier when he’s gone in terms of developing a relationship with the club
The flipside is that everyone is so accustomed to it by now it feels like a normal way of life and you just have to get on with it, whether you like it or not. United keep the media a long arm’s length away and Ferguson decided a long time ago that he was going to view us as a collective menace and that we were all to be disliked. He doesn’t know us individually and what we do, how we work etc. There are reporters from the Indy, Associated Press, Guardian, Mirror, Mail, Star all banned right now, for varying offences or non-offences and, in my opinion, it’s often petty in the extreme and doesn’t do the club any good in the long run.
Obviously I’d rather it wasn’t that way but I’m also conscious that if I start to whine about it there’s not going to be much sympathy. It’s all a bit boo-bloody-hoo isn’t it? It’s still a great job, in a privileged position, and I would never lose sight of that. But yes, I wish they would let the journalists on the plane to away trips and not pretend it’s about filling the seats with sponsors. I wish, when they did up the pressroom a few years ago, they hadn’t removed the plaque for the journalists who died in Munich. I’d like to have known Ferguson properly and work with him in the way that other managers work with the press. But what can you do? It’s the nature of the beast and I’m sure he has some legitimate grievances as well as the fantasy ones. Sometimes journalists do make problems of their own. It’s the same as any profession: there are excellent journalists, good ones, average ones, bad ones. I happen to think United have some very good reporters covering them – the likes of Ian Ladyman, Ian Herbert, Mark Ogden, Jeremy Cross and James Ducker. As for City, yes it’s a lot easier dealing with them, both behind the scenes and also in terms of Mancini’s press conferences. Mancini’s very much into control and power but he’s far more approachable and willing to engage.
Q: The past weeks have centred on two ugly affairs: the John Terry and Anton Ferdinand spat, and the now settled Evra/Suarez race-row. Whilst the grotesque exchanges can be pondered on and be met with disgust, the most remarkable occurrence during the fiascos was the approach with which Liverpool fronted before, during and directly after the case. Justice, they initially declared, would be done. When Suarez was charged, they denounced the F.A.’s conclusion and vehemently supported their player in a deranged statement dressed up to make it look as though Suarez was a member of the U.N. Then the t-shirts followed – worn, we now know, by a number of those who knew the truth all along. The concluding report was damning and offered little room for Liverpool to appeal. The fact that the two clubs involved are fierce rivals perhaps skewed perspectives from various circles, but it was refreshing to see that the majority found Liverpool’s approach repulsive. Away from the articles penned, what was the general reaction throughout media circles and how much damage to their reputation have Liverpool inflicted upon themselves? Do you feel 8 games was a fair ban for the crime?
I think everyone was a bit taken aback by their stance. They’re obviously entitled to defend their player and, fair enough, they should have their say if they feel he has been wronged. That’s absolutely fine. But those statements were so badly written and aggressively worded and I think, in hindsight, they would have done things a lot differently and professionally. When United/Evra had the Chelsea groundsman incident the club travelled down to London with Maurice Watkins acting as their lawyer, whereas Abramovich had hired some of the most powerful legal people in London. United and Evra came out of the case badly and attracted a lot of criticism in the media, and rightly so. United learned their lesson and I think Liverpool have learned theirs because their legal team were badly exposed.
As for whoever was doing their PR, well even the Merseyside journalists who are most supportive of the club will admit in private it’s been handled really badly. It’s been a difficult, sensitive issue and I’ve got a lot of respect for someone like Tony Evans of the Times who has gone with his convictions despite being a Liverpool supporter, despite the abuse he has received as some kind of ‘Judas,’ and been brave enough to say it how it is.
There are some Liverpool fans who seem to believe that it’s some kind of anti-Liverpool agenda, the FA are bent, the Manchester-based journalists are all bias etc etc but the simple fact, when you scrape away everything else, all the smokescreens and diversions and tit-for-tat Liverpool-Manchester arguments, is this: Suarez admitted calling Evra ‘negro’ during a heated argument and the language experts have all confirmed that, in that kind of context, it is offensive.
The QC who chaired the commission – and this is a guy who sat there for five days hearing every scrap of evidence rather than skim-reading a 115-page report and cherry-picking the bits that suit – described it as “simply incredible” to argue otherwise. You can’t get away from that fact, you just can’t.
Q: Twitter, a tool which you utilise, has dramatically changed the way football supporters communicate with one another over the web. Whether it’s friendly nattering and debate between fellow fans, or relentless abuse and winding up between rivals, the medium offers a bemusing insight into the minds of those contaminated by both the game and the internet. I remarked elsewhere that it appears to be a cyber-sanatorium for the mentally deranged, which is probably telling given I use it far too often myself. How do you find using it? As a writer, you’re obviously opening yourself to a plethora of abuse from those incapable of accepting that others will hold a different view, but now and then civil exchanges between regular fans and journalists occur and suddenly it appears useful. Obviously your tweets would attract most attention from United and City supporters: is madness and intelligence in equal share between the two, or does one fan-base contain more level-headed supporters than the other?
The good outweighs the bad on Twitter but, from the World Cup onwards, it has got bigger, angrier and a bit silly at times. For journalists, if you dare to have an opinion you can be sure there will be abuse, almost always anonymous, and accusations of bias against/for United/City/the FA/refs or whoever else suits the argument.
You just have to remind yourself there’s a lot of angry people out there. One guy, for example, on the hottest day of 2011, sat on Twitter and tweeted over 300 things about how much he disliked Mark Ogden. This guy spends all day, every day, abusing journalists and you just think ‘have a look out the window, it’s a big world out there, mate’. Another guy, a United fan, was giving me relentless abuse around the time City were thrashing everyone. He didn’t like the fact I was giving them so much praise so, every day, there was a barrage of insults, what he wanted to do to me etc etc. I googled him in the end and there was an article in a local paper, Staffordshire or somewhere, about him being David Beckham’s number one fan. He’d called his kid Harper Seven in honour of his hero. So what can you do?
That said, I have to say Twitter’s generally very good. It’s difficult to articulate in 140 characters sometimes how you work and what you find is that people assume they know how journalists do their jobs when, really, they have very little idea about the mechanics of the industry – just as I wouldn’t tweet a teacher or doctor about how they should do things differently. But it’s good for info, for contacts and that slightly weird thing when you become friends with people you have never actually met. I’ve had little breaks from it here and there, gone out, talked to real people. Hated it!
Q: How do journalists view the blogging world? The advent of social networking sites has heralded a tidal wave of blogs detailing all football matters. Anyone can know attract an audience and believe what they’re writing is good and offers insight, because the majority of readers will lap up the mundane and clichéd and keep returning. That view coming from one who blogs about the game regularly may appear odd, but removing myself from any bias I see that there are too many and quality ultimately suffers as a result. Is it painful when scores of wannabe writers request reads and retweets, and are there any blogs you regularly read?
If I’m really honest, I’m probably a little bit outdated and still prefer the fanzine scene. It’s one of the things I like about United – they have a very well-connected and strong fanzine community via Red News, Red Issue and United We Stand. I get sent a lot of blogs, people want them retweeted etc and you can feel guilty sometimes because you simply don’t have the time to read them all. Plus retweeting someone else’s work is always a bit dangerous in case there’s something you hadn’t noticed that will then be held against you. But as one example, one of the most sensible things I read about Suarez/Evra was on Republik of Mancunia arguing that supporters on both sides should not turn it into a Manchester-Liverpool thing and not have blind loyalties. I retweeted that one without realising RoM had upset a few Liverpool fans in the past so, naturally, some people took it as me taking sides with United’s fans and more accusations of bias. The whole thing has been very tedious from that angle.
Q: I started dull and I’ll finish likewise. Call it: City or United – who’ll win the title?
City. Sorry, but I think they will do enough providing they stay clear of a real injury crisis. Their squad isn’t as big as people think but they have a really good manager and some brilliant attackers for a 4-2-3-1 formation. Going back to what we were saying earlier about United’s midfield, you look at David Silva and wonder why United didn’t go there.
Thanks again to Daniel. You can buy his first book, This Is The One: Sir Alex Ferguson: The Uncut Story of a Football Genius here; and his latest book, Squeaky Bum Time: The Wit & Wisdom of Sir Alex Ferguson here.