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Marketing the Manchester myth

  • 12 December 2008
White, Jim: Manchester United: The Biography. Little, Brown, 2008. ISBN: 9781847440884

Football books are funny things — you never know what you are going to get.

At one end of the spectrum you have photo-montage hagiographies such as David Beckham: My World. These are best left to style-conscious, Gucci-tracksuit-wearing chavs with an over-developed interest in hair products and body art.

Sport and clichés seemingly go hand in hand, much to the reader's detriment. But for every half-dozen My Worlds (available in a bargain bin near you), there are football books that stand out for the quality of the book, and the perspicasity of the subject(s). Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff by Frits Barend and Henk Van Dorp, and Jimmy Burns' Barca: A People's Passion are standouts in the genre.

Jim White's imaginatively titled Manchester United: The Biography is not. This history of 'the most popular club in the world' is workmanlike, rather than inspired.

White ably traces the history of his subject, but at no time does he ascend to the heights achieved by Burns. There is common ground here, too: Manchester, the subject of Engels' famed study of the working class in England; and Barcelona, the home of Spain's Anarchists.

But whereas Burns' book is rich with sociopolitical context — Barcelona the club petitioned the Castillian government for Catalonia's independence in the 1930s — White's book takes a stab at something similar, and falls short.

There is a sense of the club's origins in the proletariat, but this thread drifts away as the book progresses — perhaps as that 'class' supporter has also done, as English football has been corporatised and fans' wallets increasingly cannibalised.

The author seems to have cribbed a list of important events from the plethora of other books about the club, and having done so, assiduously ticks the boxes — and exercises little imagination or flare in the process.

And when White does get creative, it doesn't work. Chapters are topped with over-written vignettes from recent United matches, the relevance of which to the ensuing chapter is often unclear. These would-be Nick Hornby moments, in which White makes clear his personal connection to the club, are awkward rather than endearing. Whereas Hornby's masterful Fever Pitch takes the reader on a journey in which it's impossible not to, at the very least, barrack for Hornby barracking for Arsenal, White's introduction rings hollow.

It's not all bad, though. The chapters on