Laura Thompson on an own goal
Manchester United Ruined My Life

by Colin Shindler

Headline, pounds 14.99

What makes a Mancunian support Manchester City when just up the road stands that toweringly glamorous colossus? Perhaps because supporting United is just too obvious. Declaring for City instead implies maverick wilfulness, a refusal to follow the herd.

In this autobiography, Colin Shindler traces the origins of his obsession with City back to his Jewishness. "United's achievements have always placed them in the heart of the Establishment, the one place where Jews should never be." For him, supporting the "other" team, the "nebbish" team, was the inevitable decision. This idea - that we are prisoners of our passions - is both intriguing and funny. Yet the book leaves rather a confusing impression.

It has not been helped by the fact that the Zeitgeist has passed it by. One cannot avoid a sense of deja vu about much of what Shindler has to say. There seems, too, to be a lack of clarity. On the one hand, be is writing a straightforward book about sporting allegiance. Dutifully he adopts the glum, bathetic style that has become de rigueur for the disgruntled fan. Much of the anti-Manchester United stuff is couched in a leaden humour, then suddenly he will burst into something more heartfelt: "City's revolving door in the manager's office gives the fans a sense of involvement in the club's affairs. What can United fans do but buy the shares, buy the season ticket, buy the cheap-day return to Manchester?" That grandiose detachment of United - its PLC aspect - is well worth attacking; but his sharp points are blunted by the conventions of the tired "sporting obsessive" genre.

Significantly, his book is at its best when sport gives way to simple autobiography. The writing becomes accomplished and honest, and the details can only be described as Jewish: the uncle who carries a ten-shilling note in his driving licence as a ready-made bribe; the aunt who gives Shindler a whole toilet roll to take to bed on the night of his mother's death because "Kleenex was considered a luxury". The reader wants more of this, and would happily give in exchange for it most of the book's match reports.

Most interesting is the description of young Shindler's pre-Cambridge holiday to Mitteleuropa. How, one wonders, can a man this broad-minded, who is able to find serene happiness in Viennese cafes only 20 years after the Holocaust, pursue a feud against a football club? Perhaps he isn't quite sure; and perhaps this explains the unsatisfactory nature of his book, whose title provokes the response "Did they really?" Indeed, the impression it leaves is of an author refusing to admit he is too intelligent for his subject.