Any mention of ‘intellectual football writing’ brings to mind the worst excesses of publications like When Saturday Comes and The Blizzard. Mags that promise a deeper, sophisticated level of analysis beyond the understanding of mere mortals – although in practice deliver content that appeals only to confirmed oddballs and masochists. I’m sure that 10,000 word thesis on the political background to the proposed re-structuring of the Bulgarian league was fun to write, it’s just that most people couldn’t really care less.
With this in mind, it’s fair to say that ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants – A Cultural Analysis of Manchester United’ by Søren Frank (Bloomsbury, £20) is a book that has the potential to irritate anyone with an aversion to overly academic sports writing. The author, a United fan since he was exposed to English football on TV as a child in the late 70’s, is an Associate Professor in Comparative Literature at the University of Southern Denmark whose previous published works include heavyweight studies of the likes of Günter Grass and Salman Rushdie.
Frank is a very clever bloke then, and as you might imagine coming from a classical scholar, at times the book is not exactly what could be described as ‘an easy read’. In terms of cerebral United analysis, we’re as far from MUTV phone-in territory as you can possibly get, indeed there are several passages in the text that might prompt Lou Macari’s brain to collapse.
The opening chapter sets the tone for what lies ahead – alongside mentions of Danny Welbeck, Gary Neville and Nobby Stiles, you also have references to Albert Camus, James Joyce and Marcel Proust. Frank’s prose takes some getting used to, but if you can get past the weighty introduction that attempts to explain the book’s form and composition, this is a truly original piece of work that’s unique in comparison to other written accounts of United history.
The author recounts the United story by basing individual chapters around key dates in the club’s timeline. Highlights include excellent accounts of the formation of Newton Heath FC, Sir Matt’s arrival at OT and the disingenuous manner in which Louis Edwards hoovered up shares to gain sole control of the club during the 60’s. George Best is compared to Jackson Pollock and the ‘sad happiness’ of the 5-3 home defeat to West Brom in 1978 is re-appraised as a cultural touchstone comparable with Joy Division playing the Russell Club.
What’s especially impressive is how well researched the book is, with other key United texts (‘Strange Kind of Glory’, ‘Betrayal of a Legend’ etc) referenced throughout. Frank is clearly a serious, time-served United fan who knows his football and this isn’t the case of an academic lowering himself in an attempt to muscle in on the mainstream sports book market. It’s unashamedly highbrow stuff at times – and won’t appeal to everyone – but there’s lots to be enjoyed here.
Copyright Red News – August 2013