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Marketing the Manchester myth

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

Manchester United: A Biography, by Jim WhiteFootball 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 the mythologising of the famed 'Busby Babes', the promising young team that perished in the Munich air disaster in 1958, are excellent. White separates fact from fiction — or, more accurately, from the marketing hype that came later. The portrait of a team ripped apart is moving and well presented. His interpretation, in subsequent chapters, of the impact of '58 on the club's brand, and the manner in which some argue it has been exploited, is spot on.

Similarly, the chapters on Busby's later, equally storied team — the European cup-winning team that contained the 'holy trilogy' of Bobby Charlton, Dennis Law and George Best — is excellent, as are the chapters on the rise and rise of (now former) chairman Martin Edwards, who made the club the global brand it is today.

Again, though, White drops the ball when it comes to the club's most successful manager, and arguably most important figure, Alex Ferguson. White is deferential to the point of blandness when it comes to analysing the Scotsman. Yes, we know he has won rather a lot of trophies, and yes, we know he has a bit of a temper — so what?

This feels like a book that was written in a hurry, or at the very least, edited in a hurry. A case in point: the author seems obsessed with the size of Busby Babe Duncan Edwards' thighs. White's 'mentionitis' is so pronounced I checked the index in the back of the book to see if thighs were accorded their own entry (they aren't).

This is a light-and-breezy, easy-to-read book. It kept me turning the pages, but I couldn't recommend it to anyone but new Manchester United fans, who will enjoy the book and learn a lot.

Given that there are approximately 200 million people in that category, the book will doubtless be a big success — a fact that will not have escaped the publisher's mind.

James MassolaJames Massola is a reporter in the Canberra Times parliamentary bureau. He supports the Demons, Liverpool, Barcelona and FC Medina.



Topic tags: james massola, manchester united, jim white, football, soccer, busby babes



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