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A fantastic read, but not one for the neutrals
on 10 December 2008
Manchester United: The Biography is a finely written book, but not without its flaws. Principal among these is its bias. White may be a journalist, but he is also a die-hard United fan, and he writes like one. While this brings a certain authenticity to the work, it also renders it nigh-on unreadable for anyone who isn't of a United persuasion. I'm a United fan myself, but even I found myself cringing at some of White's assertions. There is a particularly distasteful passage in which White compares the 1958 Munich air disaster to the tragedies at Hillsborough, Heysel and Valley Parade and concludes that Munich had "a much more intense symbolism". United are praised for recovering more quickly from the disaster than Italian side Torino did when their team was wiped out in a similar accident in 1949, but the whole business of comparing tragedies leaves a sour taste and would probably better have been avoided.
In White's defence, though, he's not afraid to criticise, and key figures such as Roy Keane, Bryan Robson, Cristiano Ronaldo, former chairman Martin Edwards and even Alex Ferguson himself are all castigated for their perceived failings.
There are also, as Pat Stenson notes, multiple factual errors. That they appear in the book is probably a testament to White's confidence in his own memory of the events he witnessed first-hand, but even a cursory glance at YouTube will reveal that Brian Kidd was not wearing a "blazer" when he leapt on the pitch to celebrate the crucial 2-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday in 1992-1993, while a cursory glance at Wikipedia will tell you that Jaap Stam was indeed bought from PSV Eindhoven rather than Ajax.
One of the most obvious errors occurs on the very last page, where White refers to United youngster Danny Welbeck as "Daniel Welback". When White was writing the book Welbeck was still very much an unknown, but he has since made his Premier League debut (scoring a superb goal against Stoke in the process), and the fact the mistake is in the very last paragraph means it colours your final assessment of the book's accuracy.
Likewise, White sometimes shows a fondness for anecdotal evidence that is impossible to verify. The story about a player submerging himself in a bath of freezing cold water for half an hour to escape one of Ferguson's trademark rants certainly raises a smile, but it's almost definitely untrue.
But in spite of all that, the book is a tremendous achievement, and White's wide-ranging account of United's history is informed by the enormous role the club has evidently played in his own life. He is at his best when writing about the Tommy Docherty era of the late 1970s, when United emerged from the old Second Division to become once again one of the most entertaining sides in the land, and it is clear that it was during this period that White was first blooded on the raucous Old Trafford terraces. Now a journalist, his account of the Ferguson era is accompanied by intriguing chunks of insider information, lending a freshness to a period in the club's history that has been extremely well-documented already thanks to the huge growth of media interest in the game over the last 15 years or so.
This book is an insightful, warm-hearted and at times beautifully written love letter to White's favourite club and fellow fanatics will find much to savour in it. Neutrals and United fans not blinded by their love of the club, on the other hand, may find it a little harder to swallow.