There are three books about Manchester United that are worth reading, and that combined may bring this season into a little better perspective. Two of them were published within the last year, but it’s best to begin chronologically with the third, and perhaps best, of the three.
A Will to Win – Alex Ferguson
With all of last year’s focus on the book My Autobiography by Sir Alex Ferguson having died down, it is a good time to look back at a season and a book that deserve a little more attention. In A Will to Win, Alex Ferguson’s diaries the 1997-1998 season, begin in June while he is on vacation but he’s unable to stop his mind from pacing the sideline, and continuing almost daily through Eric Cantona’s retirement just after Manchester United won the Premier League championship and then less diligently into January of 1998. It is hard to disagree with any of the judgments he makes, unless you really dislike the movie Evita. “Madonna was tremendous,” he writes after screening the film.
It is a fair look at a season that saw the team focusing on the European Cup and depart before the finals, lose out on the FA Cup and the Coca-Cola Cup as well but maintain a strength and determination that brought them out at the top of the League. It was written at a time when the class of ’92 were appearing regularly in the first team and finding themselves in the mix for the big matches, particularly David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.
There are a few whetted knives in the writing – his views on media responsibility and the circulation of rumors, racism and the game, and managerial disputes. Overall, though, it is remarkably even. You get a real sense of the obligations of a manager: the amount of time he spends traveling, at functions, fretting about the team and a starting eleven.
He weights his criticism with humor throughout:
“So much for the kid-glove treatment. Despite all the talk about proper defending, we fail to stop the goals and go 2-1 down to Chelsea.
“So much for my inspired talk…the first half against Sheffield Wednesday was abysmal.
“The first half is just what I didn’t want, and exactly the way I knew Juventus would play.”
There are some truly funny things in the book. For example when his wife meets him at the door after a loss to Sunderland chanting “Fergie, Fergie give him the sack.” And you may be surprised at how often he uses the phrase ‘happy bunnies.’
It is a book that gives you a real feeling for the man, more so than My Autobiography. He ends after a 2-0 win against Tottenham in January 1998 by writing: “Once in front we became too comfortable and didn’t get back into top gear. It can happen that way at home. I think away games see our players more on their toes. There is no lack of desire, though, and when it comes to the crunch for the big games ahead, Manchester United will be more than ready!” Instead of crunch, the season became a crash.
“Modern football,” he writes “is an impatient business.” This book rewards the time it takes to read it.
The Impossible Treble – Steve Bartram, Paul Davies and Ben Hibbs
Released in December, this book by David Bartram et al celebrates a magical year for Manchester United — the 1998/99 season that saw them win the Champions League, the FA Cup and the Premier League title. As Alex Ferguson says within its pages: “I believe anyone watching Manchester United this season will remember it for the rest of their lives. It may prove impossible to repeat.”
Calling a book The Impossible Treble may be a little like entitling a mystery “The Butler Did It”; you know the outcome even before you open the cover. The Impossible Treble however dispenses with suspense altogether and takes a different approach, laying out a monthly overview then going back and covering the games themselves within the chapter when it could have operated effectively as a single blast. Still it is interesting to look at a team and a season that saw Manchester United gut out wins and rise so high. As Dwight Yorke says in January of that year, “The whole concept of not giving up and coming back from the dead was phenomenal.”
That ‘backs against the wall’ play that becomes so concerning in the 2012/13 season is compared here to a steeplechase rider holding something back for the final dash. ‘I picture about 60 games for us, so we must pace ourselves and it’s a matter of trying to keep all the players fit.’ says Ferguson that February. In addition to this focus on the players, that same month a replacement was needed for assistant manager Brian Kidd, and the three names on Manchester United’s list were Steve Bruce, Steve McClaren and David Moyes.
As the season progressed, the players were aware that what they were moving toward was historic.
Gary Neville: “…everything felt really good. I think the whole team felt like that. Each player felt it individually and everybody came together at the perfect time.”
Dwight Yorke: “We had our backs up against the wall and came back from the dead all season. That was our mentality; never give in until that whistle is blown.”
Phil Neville: “By that point we were chalking games off, like a countdown, but we also knew that along the way there was going to be a hiccup, because that’s what happens when you get to March, April, May. It’s not that draw or defeat that you suffer, it’s how you react to that.”
There are few connections to be drawn between that team and the one that Manchester United has fielded this season, but it is worth looking back on a team that rose from the ashes of a season that saw them miss out on all the trophies then snap back into greatness the next.
It is a quote from Sir Alex Ferguson in the final of the three books that links them, when in February 2013 he compares his current team with this team that won the Treble. “The squad I had then is not nearly as strong as the squad I have got today,” he says in Champions 2012/13.
Champions 2012/13 – How We Got the Title Back – MUFC and Steve Bartram
It is impossible to read, Champions 2012/13 – How We Got the Title Back without looking for clues to what is happening with the team this year. Littered throughout is a sense that this is a team that is not functioning at a highest level, that they are gutting out wins rather than putting in dominating performances, even though Alex Ferguson compares them with that Treble winning team, favoring this one.
“If you look back over different periods, you see we recover. When Arsenal won the title from us in 1998, we went and won the Treble the next year,” says the manager in August of 2012. “ We accepted the challenge and did something about it.”
It is a far more suspenseful book, the authors dispensing with the recap and then going back to the events of the month, and in that suspense you feel things build in a way that can be looked back on as troubling.
The players realized that they were starting games slowly, on the back foot, and it was an uncomfortable feeling. “It’s a bad habit” said Patrice Evra in October. “The positive thing we can say is we have had a good reaction, but, in football, it’s better to act not react – that’s what my old coach taught me. In November he continues the thought: “It’s not that we underestimate anyone – it’s just that we don’t expect a Manchester United team to be behind. But it has happened a few times this season.” “We’re very frustrated,” adds Darren Fletcher that same month “It shouldn’t take going a goal behind for us to start playing. The only positive thing we can take from it is that every time we do it we seem to respond. But we can’t keep making a habit of it. We want to go on a run of winning games now and not conceding first.”
It makes you wonder, if you are given to wondering about the collapse of Manchester United rather than just lamenting or celebrating it, with what foresight the manager decided around Christmas time of that year to pack it in, but holds his announcement until May. In February, David Gill decides to move on from the team he helped to build.
In March: A jaded United side squandered a two goal lead and could consider themselves fortunate enough to be pencilling a quarter-final replay after weathering a second-half siege from Chelsea at Old Trafford.
In May: United failed to score in a Premier League game at Old Trafford for the first time since 2009, as Chelsea edged a dour affair to boost their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League.
It seems to be with a great deal of foreshadowing that Alex Ferguson colors part of his speech after his last game as manager at Old Trafford. “I’d also like to remind you that when we’ve had bad times here, the club stood by me, and all my staff stood by me, the players stood by me, and your job now is to stand by our new manager,” he tells everyone there in the stands, in the offices and on the pitch. Michael Carrick though seems to think that the team is moving ahead when he says that there is ‘nothing too much to change.” But it feels like a team with symptoms of the season they are now enduring, a team that didn’t live up to its potential in a year that, granted, saw them win back the Premier League title, but whose performances were categorized as ‘not great’ and ‘mediocre’ by the people closest to the action.
Perhaps Patrice Evra says it best when he says: “We have fought a lot with Chelsea, with Liverpool, with Arsenal, but I always say that the most difficult opponent for Manchester United is Manchester United. “
Taken together, the three books show the rises and falls of Manchester United through the years under manager Alex Ferguson. From winning the Premier League title, to the crash the following year, then on to the Treble, you see things as a cycle. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. The question is, will David Moyes be holding the lamp?