End of a running commentary on the grand soap opera

David Meek (above) today files his final match report on United after 37 years' coverage. He talks to Guy Hodgson about the men who have made the club great

Whatever the result in today's FA Cup final, one man closely intertwined with the fate of Manchester United will be suffering mixed emotions. "I might shed a quiet tear," David Meek said while adding he could also be overwhelmed with relief.

Meek is a journalistic institution. For 37 years he has reported on the goings-on at Old Trafford for the Manchester Evening News and probably knows more about that other institution, Manchester United, than any other man alive. Today, after some 2,000 match reports, he retires.

In Manchester, his last report in nightly pages will be regarded like final communication from a close friend. More than half the city's population has never known anyone else write on United for the evening paper, and you would need to be in your seventies to recall anyone other than Meek or his predecessor, Tom Jackson.

"It will be a poignant moment," he said, "but I expect it will hit home only afterwards when there isn't a match to go to. Fortunately, there's the summer to come, so no one will be reporting football. I'll be easing into retirement."

Which is not how you could describe his entrance to the job. He was a political leader writer when the Munich air crash in February 1958 shaped his career. Jackson, who had reported on United for 25 years, was among the casualties and Meek was asked to be a temporary, emergency substitute.

It was a difficult task at an emotionally charged time and his last match was supposed to be United's FA Cup final against Bolton Wanderers three months later, but a persuasive editor (and pay-rise) proved irresistible for the next year. And the next, and the next . . .

"I was going to do it for a season and then maybe two seasons, but Manchester United are the kind of club you just don't walk away from," Meek said. "There's always something novel, something exciting. I know there's a saying in newspapers that there's nothing new under the sun, but United have come close to proving that untrue."

The club's rise to the pinnacle of Europe and fall to the Second Division; the managers who have come and gone; the players who have thrilled and appalled, Meek has provided a running commentary on the biggest sporting soap opera outside the England cricket captaincy.

"Even these last few years," he said, "who could have forseen the drama that lay in that. Everything from another transfer record, pounds 7m for Andy Cole, the Eric Cantona situation, Roy Keane and the success under Alex Ferguson of back-to-back championships and the Double. I'm glad I never walked away from it because there was so much I'd have missed."

His favourite United players over the period would echo the choice of most supporters: George Best and Eric Cantona. They fill, he says, the criteria of being "a delight on the field while being notable suppliers of news".

"Best was the finest player I've ever seen. He could tackle and head the ball quite apart from his dribbling ability. Cantona is a magic man on the field, but like George there's never a dull moment when he's around. He's a character. He's different.

"That doesn't mean to say one approves of everything Eric and George have done in their careers, but it's challenging as a newspaper man to analyse it, understand it and present it."

An approach which, he says, was missing in the reporting of Cantona's assault of a fan at Selhurst Park, a most blatant example of the changing face of sports journalism in his time. The vast numbers who report on United now in comparision to the 1950s is matched, in his view, by gross exaggeration.

"I thought some of the reporting was a disgrace. `Boot him out of England' was one headline, and another paper said Cantona should never be allowed to kick a ball again. It wasn't sports people writing these things. It overflowed into the news side and they made a public spectacle out of it.

"I'm not defending Cantona, but some newspapers lost their sense of proportion and turned the whole thing into a circus. They weren't dealing with it in the serious way the situation demanded."

Cantona, for his all faults, still makes it into Meek's team of best United players over his 37 years [see panel], a choice which he agrees will not meet with universal approval. "I hope Paddy Crerand doesn't read it, for a start," he said. "If I'd played a 4-3-3 formation he'd be in, but you have to leave some great players out."

As he was talking, Wilf McGuinness, a former United manager, walked over. "David has been one of the great reporters over the last few decades," he said, before pausing for effect. "Now for my next lie . . ."

Meek caught the mood: "I've written, give or take a few thousand, six million words on Manchester United. Every one different, honed and polished." He laughed with McGuinness and then, quietening, he added: "Maybe it is time to stand aside."

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