There is a strange idea of loyalty among football fans, akin to that found in the general populace during times of war. It is the loyalty of the perpetually embattled, and it manifests not only in fealty and devotion but also in a puritanical rejection of any kind of self-critical thought. Those who questions the motives or the execution of war are deemed unpatriotic; in extreme cases traitors. Unity is strength. Support our troops. Get behind the lads.
Obviously, football clubs are very rarely in existential danger, and so the analogy is imperfect. Most notably, fans are happy to turn on certain individuals — managers, players, board members — when results are disappointing. Success, in football, begets loyalty: the better you are, the more we will love you. If you can manufacture those moments of sublime joy that justify the whole sad business of being a football fan, then those fans will, in turn, defend your name against those who would traduce your reputation. All of which means that Sir Alex Ferguson, a man with more silverware than a royal wedding, should be above reproach.
Yet these are not normal times at Old Trafford: Ginger Sky In The Morning. Indeed, there are those who would argue that the Glazer regime is just the latest (if not the last) stage in a process that began many years ago: a process comprising price hikes, heavy-handed stewarding, the removal of the words “Football Club” from the badge and a thousand other tiny cuts.
All of which makes On The Road: A Journey Through A Season, both timely and controversial. Collated from Daniel Harris’s blog for ESPN Soccernet throughout the 2009/10 season, the book charts United’s progress through the eyes of a fan who, thanks to his strict observation of the LUHG boycott, has restricted himself to away fixtures only.
Such a stance, while obviously and wholly an ethical decision, has the happy consequence of serving as a neat structural conceit. By freeing the author from the tyranny of the match report, it allows the focus to switch from micro — United on the field — to macro — United in the world — at will. So, opening the book at random, United’s home and away wins over Portsmouth and Spurs come salted with a short analysis of the collapsed Adem Ljajic deal (complete with shout-out to Michael Fish), some general musing on the morality of player purchasing, a little tart sympathy for Arsene Wenger, and healthy slappings for the Irish FA and FIFA. All in the space of a week.
Whether discussing John Terry’s magnificence or the wit and wisdom of Jamie Carragher, Harris is never less than entertaining, and the premium placed on left-field intelligence allow the text to make the jump from blog to book without too much difficulty. It also allows the book to establish an appeal above and beyond Harris’s fellow Reds: this is not just a book about being a Manchester United fan; it has insights into the very nature of club support, for those willing to look. Plus, while Harris is willing (and able) to indulge his desire to mock to those who play and cheer for United’s rivals, he can be just as blistering to those on the home team bench.
So United fans beware; this ain’t no: How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count The Ways. Of the vast herd of sacred cows that graze upon the verdant fields of United fandom, nary a one isn’t driven mooing into the abattoir. (Eric and the Babes escape; that’s about it.) The Old Trafford match-going experience, United’s victory in the Luzhniki stadium, Citizen Neville … all end up more or less hamburgers*. Even St. Ryan is forced to sit just one rung below the immortals, a slight that still has me simmering with rage.
But it’s his trenchant and heartfelt criticisms of Ferguson that resonate. Harris sources them to the now-notorious encounter with a fan at Budapest airport in which a clearly disgruntled Ferguson, challenged on his support for the relatively new Glazer-regime, justifies it by referring to his friends at the club: “They come first”. When asked where the fans come, he says “I suppose they do come somewhere”, and then instructs his questioner: “If you don’t like it, go and watch Chelsea”. Writes Harris:
In one short conversation, a legacy two decades in the building, not just tarnished, but forever buried under a mountain of turds. Despite the pompous pontifications in his autobiography, to Fergie football is evidently not about more than on-pitch accomplishment; identity, community and belonging are insignificant when compared to the needs of his little fraternity, which the cynical might claim is comprised of but one person.
While iconoclasm is always its own reward, it is clear that such heresy — Fergie as Quisling — is not uttered lightly, or for the sake of provocation. It is also clear that it comes not from any failure to be a fan, but rather from having the courage to take a clear-eyed view of the club.
To those who might be tempted to castigate Harris for not getting behind the team, this book is willing to assert that not only is the club bigger than Ferguson, but that Ferguson’s actions — in supporting the Glazers, in entrenching his own position — in fact work against the team, the institution, the congregation of United. Whether you agree or not with every or anything Harris says, it’s a view that could not have come from a writer who wasn’t using his heart as much as his head.
Intelligent, lucid, funny, and above all righteous, On The Road could become a vital chronicle of a troubled club in troubling times. For now, it is an intensely readable document of the near-history, as well as a welcome reminder that to support does not mean to follow. The unexamined club is not worth loving.
* Apologies. I know being a hamburger is a relatively binary thing. But I was too deep into the metaphor to turn back**.
** Apologies again. By putting a swimming metaphor in my footnote to the slaughterhouse metaphor, I realise I’ve ended up with a less-then-palatable stylistic cocktail***.