Comment: Stirring up the ghosts of seasons past

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The Independent Online
COSMIC OR otherwise, no happening of the week left a bigger trail of tumult than the publication of Sir Alex Ferguson's autobiography Managing My Life. Because of the advance serialisation of extracts in the Times and the Sun, some of the more controversial bits had been rebounding around the headlines for a couple of weeks before the book thudded on to the bookshelves on Tuesday.

It was inevitable that the nature of some of the items would create the impression that this was a work intent on sensation. This is the danger of early cherry-picking; a commercial necessity always likely to do a disservice to the work as a whole. Fortunately the publicity is sure to make it a best-seller and many will be in the position to judge for themselves what a remarkable book it is.

Ferguson has been accused of using the privileged heights of his recent exaltation to put the boot into those who upset him along the way. That carries no more water than the allegation that he was juicying it up to justify the reported pounds 1m advance he received. Most of the 160,000 words had been written before Manchester United's great treble achievement took shape as a possibility. That, plus the national acclaim and the knighthood, ensured an immense appetite for every word he'd written.

That many of them should involve some harshly frank opinions about past and present colleague indicates nothing more sinister than that here we have a compulsion for honesty and straight-talking. These qualities are not so prevalent in either football or our national life that they should be discouraged. Rather should we revel in the insight we're given into the pressures, the torments and the back-stage battling of our principal game.

If Old Trafford was the Cabinet you'd have to wait 30 years for disclosures like this. Unless, of course, politicians get around to dispensing a few home truths in their memoirs. It was ironic that while the flak was exploding around Ferguson's head it was revealed that John Major was intending to give Margaret Thatcher a shellacking in his forthcoming book.

Another criticism of Ferguson's life story concerns his collaborator in the writing of it, Hugh McIlvanney. It has been heavily hinted that the most vividly expressive and commanding sports writer of our time has made full use of his dramatic powers to enliven the tale. I am happy to plunge in here on two counts. First, as a long-time member of the ghost- writers fraternity, which McIlvanney has sensibly steered clear of hitherto, let me welcome him to our much-maligned ranks whose works are not usually judged as literary masterpieces.

Due to the anoraksia of many sporting readers, these books have a heavy duty to the record; to dates, to scores, to scorers, to venues... the artistry of story-telling is never harder than when you've chores to attend to in almost every sentence. This part of the job is expertly done. As for him setting the tone, it is extremely difficult to tell someone else's story without leaving some traces of your style of writing.

The important thing is that while you may recognise the carpentry and joinery you never hear the voice. Besides, there would have been no need for McIlvanney to imagine or embellish what Ferguson had been thinking at any stage of his life because the manager wrote 250,000 words in long- hand covering his every experience. He realised that McIlvanney would need to distil, rearrange and paraphrase what he had written in order to maintain the shape and pace of the narrative. Unlike most ghost-writers, the author would not have required the thumbscrews to get at his subject's innermost thoughts.

The strength of this book is that there is nothing in the latter parts of the story, no demonstration of Ferguson's characteristics, that should come as a surprise if you've been paying attention. Every trait that Ferguson displays has its origins explained. They may not appeal to you but you are aware of how he came by them, so vividly at times that you sense his reaction to a situation in advance.

The higher they have climbed the more Manchester United have generated powerful emotions; love, envy, hatred. Regardless of your view of them, they are the power in the land and the story of the man who put them there is irresistible. It carries the added advantage of equipping you with everything you need to know to get full benefit of watching the sequel unfold.

IN A LAVISH display of a complete lack of faith in continental postal services, England's written bid for the 2006 World Cup was handed in to Fifa headquarters in Zurich last week by a large and impressive deputation. With due solemnity the 2006 bids of South Africa, Morocco, Brazil and Germany were also delivered personally. The Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, must have been sick and tired of answering the door. But, of course, Blatter was well aware they were coming. He was waiting amid the television cameras, like an eastern potentate receiving homage, as each set of supplicants smoothed their way through the allotted 30 minutes of bowing and scraping time.

The South Africans were accompanied by a "praise singer" decked out in traditional tribal costume. The English party, who included Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Geoff Hurst and Liverpool star Michael Owen, were dressed more formally and mumbled a few words of support for their bid which was concisely couched in 35,000 words contained in two bulky volumes, one red and one blue.

How much more bullshit is this tournament, which is still seven years away, capable of creating? Plenty, is the short answer. It is not England's fault they have to fall in with these grotesque formalities but I must continue to question whether the prize is worth the palaver. It has already cost pounds 10m, plus the absence of Manchester United from this season's FA Cup, while there are far more immediate problems to be attended in the development levels of the game.

If only Fifa, and that vastly more bloated concern, the International Olympic Committee, had the wisdom to match their power and enter the new millennium with a list of venues they consider most suitable for the next 25 years, issue the criteria they expect to be met and adopt a strict supervisory role.

It would save the billions of pounds now wasted by candidates and end the preposterous play- acting we saw in Zurich last week.

NORMALLY, ACTS of God or nature (unless directly influencing the result of a sporting fixture) are well outside the province of this column. However, it is difficult to suppress the view that had the eclipse been covered by the sports pages it would have received a right caning as a flop; as undramatic as any of the cases of unintentional obstruction visible in football yesterday.

We are often accused of hyping up events to the extent that anti-climax is inevitable but the most fervent rabble-rousing tabloid sportswriter would have been hard pushed to crank up as much crazed and goggle-eyed enthusiasm as did our colleagues in what are often referred to as the more serious pages.

I can't speak for Cornwall and the rest of the totality zone but I live where a 97 per cent blot-out was promised and we stood around like lemons. It did get a touch nippier and slightly dimmer but I was still waiting for it to happen when I was told it was all over. For this I locked my cat in the wardrobe? But the massed media didn't blink and continued to be convinced we had witnessed a miracle. "Awesome" said one headline. I prefer the reaction of our racing desk where it was generally agreed to be the worst Eclipse since Environment Friend won it in 1991.

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