Daniel Harris has taken time out to answer some questions about RoM. After reading his excellent book, On the Road: A Journey Through a Season, we thought we’d get to know a little bit more about the author.
Scott the Red: What are your earliest memories of following United?
Daniel Harris: Though there are pictures of two-months old me in red and white babygro on the day of the 79 Cup Final, my first proper memory is of being presented with a rosette from the 83 replay, that my parents sneaked off to without telling me. My dad did this again for the game prior to the 85 Final – a 5-1 hiding at Watford – and when I was still displeased after being informed, he knew that it was time to take me, which he did soon after – a 2-0 home win over West Ham at the start of the following season, sitting on a bench towards the back of the Stretty. The football authorities and television companies were in dispute at the time, so there are only a few shaky bits of footage of it and the rest of the ten-game winning run, but I remember the action fairly well – goals from Strachan and Hughes, and Olsen ruining brilliant approach work with a typically lame finish – and also the itchy red polar neck my mum insisted I wear in case I got cold.
STR: Ah yes, the ‘layers’ you had to wear as a kid and then spend the match clammy with the mobility of the Michelin man. From the early days until now, who is the best player you’ve ever seen wear our shirt?
DH: I’d love to say Eric, and in some respects he was, tying the team together like Lebowski’s rug. His presence certainly made the most difference, in that we won when he played and didn’t when he didn’t; the only player comparable in that sense is Bryan Robson, my childhood hero and also worthy of a mention. As a kid, I informed my parents I wanted to change my name to Bryan, and had a hamster named in his honour.
On the other hand, if you’re trying to be objective in deciding on the actual best, rather than favourite, and separating the redness so utterly personified by Eric from how good he was, then it’s a toss up between Schmeichel – the best goalkeeper there’s ever been by a mile – and Ronaldo, a freak and a force of nature. But the answer’s still Eric.
STR: Good man. Ronaldo was responsible for a couple of seasons of brilliant success, no doubt, and you can’t look past 42 goals in 47 games. But Eric started a revolution at our club and inspired a generation of success. We can only speculate what would have happened to the careers of Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, Nevilles, Butt etc. had Hansen’s prediction come true and they won nothing in ’96, but thanks to Cantona, they won the Double, and had all the confidence in their ability that they needed to dominate English football for the next 10 years! Anyway, rant over, let’s safely say I agree. So, you’re not from Manchester but your family is. United is strongly associated with glory supporters but do you think it matters where you’re from or whether you have a connection to the club as long as you stick by them? Or do you think people should support their local team and the team that is passed down to them?
DH: It’s not for me to prescribe anyone’s right to support United, and United have always been proud of the club’s universal appeal. That said, Manc attitude is central to the club’s identity, so when an out-of-towner chooses to support United, or has United bestowed upon him as I did, that’s something they’re absolutely buying into. I was lucky in that though I grew up in London, I’ve always had plenty of reasons to spend plenty of time in the city, and grew up in a house with plenty of books on the subject too, so that outlook has always been a part of me.
More generally, people can, of course, support whoever they want, and it’s easy to see why those without imperative pick United. And as to whether you should support the team you’re given, the issue is really how arsed your dad is – if the answer’s anywhere north of a bit, then you won’t have a choice.
STR: Again, I completely agree. I’m lucky enough to have United as my local team but who I am to tell someone whose local team is a load of shit that they shouldn’t support my team? Who would I support if my local side were Tamworth or Kettering Town, would I support them? Who knows? Something all United fans should be united in, wherever they’re from Manchester or not, is securing a better future for our club. What do you think our realistic aim be for the future ownership of the club?
DH: Our aim should always be the very best possible outcome, regardless of whether it seems likely, and that’s a supporter-owned, one-man, one-vote system. And the thing is, with the right, co-ordinated plan of action, it’s actually not unachievable. How to force the Glazers out is now obvious to everyone – if people don’t go, they’ll be gone speedily within our days. Given that, in theory at least, there are United fans ready to buy the club with the intention of gradually transferring ownership into the hands of supporters, that ideal outcome that should not be in any way unrealistic.
STR: The green and gold campaign certainly raised a lot of awareness to the ownership issues. Has that now died a death?
DH: Sadly, pretty much – it now stands for very little other than itself. We had a huge supporter movement ready to be mobilised into proper action – or at least containing some members who were ready and willing to act as ordered – but the order never came, and we blew it. Now, it seems like it’s a matter of waiting it out, whether until 2017, or until other economic pressures force a sale before then.
STR: In protest, you don’t go to the home games but you go to the aways. As a fan who tirelessly applies but rarely gets anywhere, I speak on behalf of a lot of frustrated fans when I ask how you get your hands on away tickets?
DH: Mates with spares, mainly. I discuss in the book that following the takeover, it took me a while before I made my peace with going away, and I missed the first few games of 05/06 before I decided that could justify that as a legitimate means of getting my fix.
STR: Where’s the furthest you’ve travelled to watch United?
DH: Moscow or Istanbul, whichever’s further; will take missing Rio and Tokyo to my grave.
STR: Which is your favourite away ground to go to?
DH: The best ground I’ve been to, and by a way, is the Bernabeu. In England, Filbert Street was great for keeping the noise in, and Goodison is probably the best of the rest in the Premier League, though it’s shite to be down the side.
STR: Speaking on Goodison Park, what do you think of Wayne Rooney now?
DH: Same as before, really. Good player, who may or may not develop into a great player, not a great bloke, and never a Red, though he appeared to get it more that some others. But whatever his motives, and though doing it in public was distasteful, he did us all a favour in highlighting the under-investment in the squad for everyone to see.
STR: Whilst I believe it was totally unnecessary to the press with what he said and entirely for his own benefit, not the club’s, it’s hard to argue that we won’t see the benefits of his ‘ambition’ statement. Who do you think we will sign and who do you want us to sign?
DH: Hard to predict whom we might sign, as it’s dependent almost as much on whom we can shift as it is on who we need. I’d like an attacking midfielder most of all, and there are plenty of decent ones around – Pastore looking the best – though if Rooney could improve his passing, he could play in that position, behind Berbatov and Hernandez, but I know this will never happen.
We could also use a box-to-box midfielder, and I imagine Henderson is the most likely signing. I’ve been impressed with him when I’ve seen him, though am reliably informed he’s not ready yet.
Unfortunately, the purchase of either will probably result in the binning of Anderson – a shame as he’s clearly a talent, but as a consequence of being messed around and messing around, seems unlikely to realise his potential at United.
The squad’s other obvious need is for a left-winger or midfielder. Bale is the seasonal choice, and an excellent player, but I’d be amazed if the money were there, and also unsure he’d be worth the opportunity cost. Whichever positions we strengthen in, I’d rather the money was spent on one or two almost-definites, rather than three of four maybes – we’ve got enough good youngsters who may as well be given a proper go, and the first eleven needs kinetic, not potential.
STR: Of those youngsters, which youngster are you most excited about seeing develop?
DH: If Morrison can stay out of trouble, then he’s a one-off, and from what I’ve seen, easily the most talented young player at the club. I’m also looking forward to seeing Cleverley – the problem for him is that we need a player of his type immediately, so if he isn’t ready and we buy, it may be tricky to fit him in.
STR: Looking at what we’ve currently got and could potentially land in January, what do you expect us to achieve this season?
DH: With sensible defending and team selection, there’s no reason why we can’t win the league, though we’ll probably finish just short. In Europe, on a good day we can beat almost anyone, though I don’t think we match up well with Barca. However if someone else beats them, it’s possible we could win the competition, though unlikely.
STR: You share my admiration for Berbatov and like me, are smug whenever he does well (and shrink when he fucks up). Do you think he’s going to win most people round this season?
DH: I hope so – a player who can do not just the incredible, but the unexpected, is exactly the sort United should always have. For that reason, I also loved Veron, another player Fergie bought with, by his own admission, little idea of how best to use him. Back to the Berb, though, he’d be more appreciated by all, me included, if, immediately after the ridiculous control of a goal-kick segueing into sublime pass routine, he could leg it into the box to stick away the return.
STR: Agreed. But you can pick up on his improving appreciation judging by how much more regularly we heard his song now. What’s your favourite chant?
DH: Specifically with regard to chants, it’s the staccato, we mean business, don’t fuck with us ones – United!, Red Army! and MUFC OK!. Songwise, Come To See United is short, sharp, insulting and true, exactly what a football song should be, and I also have a childhood attachment to the 85 Cup Final single, which I absolutely rinsed – We All Follow Man United, They’re The Best and Glory Glory.
As far as slightly longer ones go, Pride of all Europe is a favourite, and I’ve always loved the Calypso. I remember as very young kid, my dad had recorded a BBC programme – it may have been 101 Great Sporting Moments – telling the story of the 1957 Cup Final, and the build-up featured shots of the Babes with the song playing over the top. On which point, though it’s not a chant, The Flowers of Manchester is, I think, the first song I can remember being touched by.
And both last and least, there’s the Anderson song (yes, yes, I know). Written by two of my mates, and drunkenly shouted a lot in Lyon by way of introduction, it’s our little group’s contribution to the canon. Though it’s no classic, and though it’s subject has almost uniformly disappointed ever since, it gave us all an inordinate amount of joy.
STR: Well played. As much joy as you get from supporting the club, you don’t view it through rose tinted specs. Do you get much stick for this?
DH: A bit, though most folk have been humblingly helpful and generous. It’s inevitable really – if you’re writing pieces giving opinions, there’ll always be those who disagree. If I’d taken the opposing belief of every single one I’ve ever voiced and written that instead, there’d just be a whole different set of people disputing them. It’s absolutely not the aim, though, and I have no agenda – all I can do is look at the evidence and say what I think and feel. In terms of the book, there have only been a couple of points that’ve been really contentious, and plenty more emotive stuff about the things we unanimously love and hate.
In terms of my criticism of the club and the individuals employed by it, the first thing to say is that it comes from a place of love, and the book is, to a large degree, about love. But at the same time, that same love, along with huge amounts of emotion, hope, time and money, has been invested in United, and on that basis, I don’t see that it’s unreasonable to criticise when necessary. No one is beyond criticism unless they’re beyond reproach, and regardless of what they’ve done for us, no one gives blind love to anyone, nor would anyone suggest that the family and friends who’ve done most for them aren’t ultimately answerable to them for their actions.
The opinion for which I’ve taken particular stick for explaining is with regard to Fergie. I would never dispute the fact that he’s an incredible man who’s given an incredible amount to the club, but who’s to say his contribution is more significant than that of the supporters, and accordingly, why should he be immune from our disapproval if it’s merited? Or put another way, if someone other than Fergie had been given the job in 1986, United would still be United and we’d love it just as much as we do now, but if you took us away, the club would no longer exist.
At United, suitably high standards of behaviour United have been set by the likes of James Gibson, Louis Rocca, Jimmy Murphy and Sir Matt Busby, and it’s impossible to argue that Fergie has lived up to those. Thus whilst I’m thankful for everything he’s done, in my opinion, there are serious charges against him not redeemed by the success which, as I’ve said, plays a very small role in defining what United means to me.
I take absolutely no joy in saying any of this whatsoever. In the book, I compare criticising Fergie to what in biblical parlance is called a sin against the soul, and so it is, but there are too many things that he’s said and done since 2005 that are too fundamental not to alter my conception of him.
STR: And finally, what’s your favourite United story or memory?
DH: Hard to choose, there’ve been so many – the first league in my lifetime was very special and I doubt there’ll ever be another happiness like it, my personal highlight being Robbo’s goal in the final game. But looking back, the single memory that means most to me is Eric at Selhurst Park. Though it undoubtedly cost us a title, and who knows, maybe three consecutive doubles, it also captured perfectly the spirit of rebellion, glory and togetherness that’s such an essential part of what United means – to me, and as I’ve said, far more important than any on-pitch success. And witnessing that moment as a 16 year-old trying to work out who I was, the lesson to be true to yourself whatever the circumstances, was an important one.
STR: Thanks a lot for your time. Great book!
The book is available to buy on Amazon and we’ll be giving away a copy in a competition this week.