Category Archives: Books

Tip-Toe Through The Tulip

Louis Van Gaal

Louis Van Gaal doesn’t need much of an introduction – he’s been a well known football face since he rose to international prominence as coach of the all-conquering Ajax side of the early 90’s. Outspoken and never far from controversy or shy of confrontation, he’s dominated the back pages of Spain, Germany and his native Holland for the best part of 3 decades. Now newly installed as United boss, one anticipates that a repeat scenario over here is completely inevitable.

Coinciding with his arrival at Old Trafford is the release of Louis Van Gaal – The Biography by Maarten Meijer (Ebury Press, £16.99). Meijer is a Dutch football commentator and academic who has previously published books on Guus Hiddink and Dick Advocaat. This latest effort offers a welcome crash course in the life and times of the man christened the ‘Iron Tulip’ by the German press.

The book is a comprehensive run through Van Gaal’s career to date and an attempt to dig beneath the public perception of him as nothing more than a bullying, dogmatic control freak. Sound familiar? Oh yes, it’s pretty striking how many parallels there are between Van Gaal and Sir Alex Ferguson. Unspectacular playing career? Check. Incredible work ethic? Check. Belief in youth? Check. Love of rotation and constant tinkering? Ch… you get the idea.

Unlike Ferguson, Van Gaal has never managed to stay in one place beyond a few years, however. The author details the reasons why tenures at Ajax, Barca and Bayern all ultimately unravelled, mainly due to his autocratic style being at odds with the political structures in place at each of these European giants. That said, Meijer also describes a man capable of embracing change who’s refined his football vision over the years. Meijer suggests LVG’s first spell at Ajax imploded as the demands of his ‘total football’ philosophy took a physical toll on his group of players. Van Gaal went on to revise this singular approach in later years, with his title winning team at AZ Alkmaar instead characterised by an ultra-direct, counter-attacking style of play.

After detailing a career built on principles of “discipline, structure and organisation”, Mejier reaches a conclusion of sorts by proposing that LVG has shown signs of mellowing in recent times and the ‘Van Gaal 2.0’ arriving in England is a more “relaxed and diplomatic” creature. The squad of players he’s inherited (not to mention the Manchester press pack) will certainly be hoping so.

During his first season at Munich (when Van Gaal took on an underachieving side and led them to the brink of the treble) Karl-Heinz Rummenigge expressed delight with the new appointment, “he’s the right man at the right club at the right time.” Whether that’s the case now remains to be seen – although based on the evidence presented here, it’s going to be a whole lot of fun finding out.

Strap yourselves in, people.

Copyright Red News – August 2014

Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)

fergie book

After a start to the season that proved every bit as testing as the fixture list suggested it would be, United have lurched into what might tentatively be described as ‘a run of form’. The Stoke game demonstrated the extent to which peoples’ expectations have been tempered over the last couple of months – you only had to witness Hernandez’s winner being celebrated like we’d won the European Cup.

The general consensus appears to suggest that Moyes has had a terrible start to his United career, but in reality the team isn’t playing any worse than we did for much of last season. The difference is that last year – through a combination of strength of will and extreme good fortune – we were getting away with it week after week. This season however, we’re being picked off and punished. It’s a simplistic appraisal, I know – but that’s the reality.

United haven’t suddenly become a worse side and only an idiot would claim that our present predicament is down to the change of management. In brutal terms, the limitations of the squad are now common knowledge and teams have sussed we are beatable. It’s not the end of the world, it’s just going to take a while to sort out.

Fortunately for Moyes, most people at OT seem reasonably sanguine about the prospect of a fallow period whilst he gets himself acquainted with the job. Rightly so, too. If a certain amount of goodwill still exists for a pair of clowns like Nani and Anderson after 6 seasons of consistent underperformance, then surely the manager deserves at least a couple of years grace before people start to get on his back?

Nani of course, was the recipient of some grief from the OT crowd following his stinker of a performance and substitution in the aforementioned Stoke game. A few have suggested the reaction in the stands was indicative of the changing make-up of United’s support – the inference being that wigged up muppets have no patience and such wilful insubordination would never have happened in the good old days… which is total bollocks, of course.

Although incidents of individuals being booed aren’t common, they’re not exactly without precedent either. Forlan, Richardson, O’Shea, Fletcher and Carrick (off the top of my head) have all been singled out in recent years – the treatment of Nani has just proven more newsworthy as it’s occurred in a period where the spotlight has intensified due to Moyes coming in and the team looking decidedly out-of-sorts. If Nani wants to guard against similar abuse in future, he simply has to stop playing like he’s missing a brain (tricky, I know) and if substituted, understand that sauntering off pitch in a Neil Webb-style strop is completely unacceptable.

Moyes’ ongoing travails have been a mere sideshow this month, as the real story has been the anything but low key release of his predecessor’s book, the timing of which caused Barney Ronay in The Guardian to amusingly describe Fergie as “the managerial equivalent of the father-in-law from hell”, undermining Moyes with “his continued and undiluted power to fascinate and control.” Moyes of course, would no doubt dismiss such a notion out of hand and launch into an impassioned defence of his mentor. What else could he say? He’s hardly going to admit, “yeah, could do without all this at present.”

It didn’t occur to me to join the scramble for Fergie’s first solo gig at The Lowry but I ended up going down as a good mate of mine was quick on the draw for tickets and managed to grab a pair. I’m fully aware that paying £40 to listen to a bloke being interviewed is fairly unhinged – but once I was offered the chance to go, I didn’t feel I could turn it down. In my defence, it appeared some lunatics were paying £300 a pair on eBay – so despite being a bit of a crank, at least I wasn’t as big a crank as them.


Any thoughts the event would attract a crowd of thesps and pseuds were immediately banished upon entering the bar – it was packed with so many faces from the match, it was more reminiscent of a United away than a night at the theatre. Denis Law and Albert Kitman were mooching about in the foyer and getting mithered for photos, whilst plenty of CES Security goons were on hand – the fact (gasp!) football fans were in attendance presented an increased security risk, one has to assume.

As well as Albert and Denis, numerous other United luminaries turned out. Moyes himself, Sir Bobby, Capable Hands, Martin Buchan, Mike Phelan… no Woodward strangely – rumours he got confused and spent the night wandering round the Lowry Hotel knocking on random doors are as yet unconfirmed.

In my head I tried to convince myself this might be a proper Q&A, taking the Question Time format where everyone gets to submit a question and a few are selected with a view to stimulating debate and perhaps tease out some new material from the Ferguson archives. Dan Walker even hinted that we might expect rich pickings during his introductory spiel, this was to be Sir Alex ‘up close and personal’ – no cameras, no mics, no press in attendance. Not a chance, sadly.

Instead, to no one’s great surprise, we got an hour of Fergie giving the kind of on-rails interview we’ve seen him do a 100 times before. It was okay and there were a few little bits and pieces to be gleaned, it’s just a shame there was no way he was ever going to deviate from the well-worn script. He wasn’t facing a baying mob of anti-Glazer protestors ready to trip him up or drive him out of his comfort zone, he was sat with a crowd of respectful MUFC loyalists – the very people who’ve hung on his every word for the last quarter century.

As it was, we got a quick run through his career in football with only a few little nuggets that could be considered anything like ‘new’. His favourite non-United player was always Zola; in 27 years he only fell out with 6 players (pardon?!); Liverpool’s record is the yardstick United will always be measured against; and he came up with a great little line that neatly encapsulates the magic of King Eric, “Cantona always made a simple pass look great.” He certainly did.

After an hour, to the strains of The Stone Roses’ ‘Waterfall’ and an inevitable standing ovation, Fergie nearly provided a spectacular end to proceedings by almost walking into a wall attempting a stage left exit. We all received a signed copy of the book to go with the sense of anticlimax whilst the star of the show, presumably, was straight onto a tour bus heading north for the next night’s hometown gig up in Glasgow.

The book itself is anticlimactic too. Anyone hoping it complements the excellent Hugh McIlvanney-penned volume published in the aftermath of the treble season is in for a disappointment. In comparison, Paul Hayward’s effort appears rush-released and thrown together. Whilst it’s all very readable and of interest to any United fan, I found myself flicking back on numerous occasions to check I hadn’t missed a page out due to chapters suddenly veering off-topic or the appearance of an entirely unconnected anecdote. It’s almost stream of consciousness at times – as if Hayward has transcribed the interviews they’ve done and then copy and pasted the most interesting passages. The number of factual errors is also quite unbelievable for such a high-profile work.

Nevertheless, if you haven’t read it yourself yet, it’s almost certain you’ll be getting a copy off Father Christmas in a few weeks’ time. It’s sold thousands upon thousands already and will no doubt continue to do so. Ker-ching! Truth is, it wasn’t even the best autobiography by a legendary, cantankerous dictator released last month. That award, if you weren’t already aware, went to Morrissey.

Copyright Red News – November 2013

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants


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