I am not worthy

The BBC was looking for someone to interview 25 Manchester United stars, past and present. It was a tough job. Jim White had to do it
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The Independent Culture
At the age of 14 I had a Willie Morgan haircut. In three layers - a thick busby crust on the crown, at either side two side panels that snugged around the ears, a long flap at the back bouncing towards the shoulder blades - it took hours of pampering, teasing, curling dedication in front of the mirror to retain its super-structure. The impracticality of the style was exposed the moment you walked down the street into a Mancunian gale. Yet its progenitor, and my pubescent sartorial role model, Willie Morgan, used to play football in it. And well, too.

I hadn't seen any sight of him for 22 years since he last slipped on a red shirt, and had no idea what became of him or his hair. Now, thanks to The Manchester United Family Tree, an anecdotal television history of the club I was working on, here was the opportunity to swap tonsorial notes with the man himself. When the film crew and I turned up at his large house in Cheshire to interview him (he now has a thriving corporate hospitality business), his daughter invited us in and suggested we set up our equipment in one of several large sitting rooms. Our director wanted to move some furniture around, so I was sent off to seek permission from the owner of the house before he did so. I was told by the daughter to follow the whirring noise emanating from a back room, where I found Willie himself, standing in front of a mirror, curling, flicking and blow-drying the luxuriant foliage that is his hair, its style magnificently unchanged in 20 years.

It is widely assumed that meeting your heroes can only disappoint. Especially if they are footballers, men whose fluency tends to be in their feet, conversationalists locked into a lingua franca of "as I say", "to be fair" and "at the end of the day". But here was Morgan not just doing what I always fondly imagined he must with his barnet, but also, across two hours of conversation, sparkling with quick-eyed gossip about the libel case brought against him by a former manager, about the legendary meanness of a former colleague, about the coprophiliac tendencies of another. He showed me his cupboard of Scotland caps, his Harold Riley paintings of football figures, his collection of Elvis Presley memorial porcelain. Short of being invited to dinner at Bryan Ferry's house and finding myself sitting next to Lou Reed, this was the apotheosis of every teenage fantasy I'd harboured. And it was the first day of a three-week filming schedule.

The point about the Family Tree concept, as invented by the graphic artist Pete Frame in 1980, is that it invites participants in a creative enterprise to talk about their colleagues in a new way, to consider what they do as a family enterprise, to think, in short, about relationships. Frame first applied the principle to music, and his rock family trees tracing the histories of groups like Fleetwood Mac were broadcast to acclaim on BBC2 last summer. The success of that series suggested a diversion into other endeavours was inevitable, and, given the BBC's vast archive, football was an obvious candidate.

It is important in the Family Tree concept that subjects are interviewed at length, to put them at their ease and to extract the one or two dynamite soundbites from a landslip of platitudes. Thus, someone had to be prepared to engage in lengthy conversation with more than 25 former and current players and managers of Manchester United. I was that man.

We recorded more than 36 hours of interviews. For a 50-minute programme this may betray a reckless lack of focus, but boy did I enjoy it. There was 90 minutes with Bryan Robson, kind, polite, considerate, the diametric opposite of the teeth-clenched figure he cuts on the field, telling me about his recreational habits ("five or six pints are good for team spirit"); there was Denis Law, smooth, charming, kissing the hand of the sound recordist ("Ah, the lovely Karen"); and there was Tommy Docherty, a manager of the club whom many of his former players remembered like an unwelcome stepfather ("There is a word for him, but I imagine this is a family programme," said Willie Morgan).

In possession of a commodity all fans crave - inside gossip - many of our interviewees couldn't stop talking: Lou Macari was still giving us a lecture on the perils of booze in the game long after the camera crew had dismantled their gear, taken down their lights and packed them into their car. Much of what they said, sadly, will remain in the BBC archive, dispatched there by twitchy lawyers and a lack of screen time (50 minutes, when three hours was the minimum requirement). But there is still plenty to enjoy, not least finding out where our heroes of the past are these days.

Norman Whiteside, for instance, the Shankhill Skinhead, the hardest of midfield hardmen, the idol of anyone with any sense in the mid-Eighties, we found at University College Salford, about to qualify as a chiropodist. There was something touching, we felt, that after a career stamping on rivals' toes, he is giving something back to feet.

'Manchester United Football Family Tree' is screened on Sunday at 10pm, BBC2 as part of 'Best Night'