Marxists may deny that history is made by great men, but the rise of Manchester United from a railway works team to the red-shirted, money-spinning behemoth of football provides ample evidence to the contrary. At the conclusion of this engaging history, Jim White is keen to stress that the organisation itself is bigger than any individual. But the facts, which he sets out with gusto and panache, suggest strongly that the club is the product of the massive will of three men, all workaholics with a single idea – to make United the greatest football team in the world.
Even those most antipathetic to Britain's national sport could probably name United's two managerial Scots knights, Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson, each of whom rebuilt the club in his own, very different image. Before them, it was Ernest Mangnall who before the First World War laid the foundations of greatness. Mangnall ran both club and team with few curbs on his power, and after he departed, steep decline ensued. "A bit of a Brian Clough, an early precursor of Jose Mourinho," according to White, he demanded respect and "ruled the club with patrician good humour that belied a fiery competitiveness."
That could equally have been written about the avuncular Busby, who took charge in 1945. Famously the first "tracksuit manager", he took a hands-on role without precedent. "Skill, flair and character" were the attributes he looked for, and the Busby Babes, told to go out and enjoy themselves, were playing the beautiful game decades before Pelé uttered the phrase.
Modesty in victory with no shame in defeat was Busby's mantra. As he rebuilt the team following the 1958 Munich air disaster, there was almost a feeling that everyone in the country had an emotional stake in United. It would be hard to make that case these days. When Busby retired at the end of the 1960s, there followed more wilderness years, which came to an end thanks largely to one man. If Busby had preached the virtues of losing well, his words were lost on Alex Ferguson.
The Glaswegian, who has dominated English football for the last 20 years, did it by fostering an us-against-the-world bloody-mindedness: see enemies everywhere, and rail against them when necessary (and sometimes unnecessary). From the early 1990s, United came to be seen as an exemplar of all that was bad about modern football – too much money, too little grace.
White sets out to discover what constitutes United: "Does it have a soul? A beating heart?". It does inspire fanatical loyalty. He describes a fan in Old Trafford's Stretford End, holding up a banner bearing the words, "United, Kids, Wife: in that order". Another tells him, "I look at United in the same way my dog looks at me. No matter what I do he loves me. It's unconditional." When Sir Alex finally retires, White says, there will be someone else to carry the torch. But unless another great man is found to fill the void, United fans may have reason to fear the future.Reuse content