In March 2006, The Republik of Mancunia blog was born. Having become tired of reading dross like this and this, I felt like something had to be written to counter act the doom and gloom that surrounded Manchester United in the press.
Martin Samuel, then at The Times, compared United’s situation to that of the fall of the Roman Empire. He laughed off the notion of us being in a transitionary period and claimed that just like Liverpool before us, our domination was now over. “A team in transition or a club in decline? Brick by brick, the fall of the United empire gathers pace.”
Maybe I was naive, maybe I was blinded by loyalty or maybe I was in denial, but I just couldn’t see it being the end. We were in transition, I was sure of it, and whilst I wasn’t expecting us to win the league any time soon, thanks to the monster that was Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea FC, I thought we’d be there or there abouts.
Edwin Van der Sar, Rio Ferdinand, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Louis Saha, Gabriel Heinze, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Wes Brown and Ryan Giggs, amongst others, provided the quality experience. Then there were teenagers Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo who were only going to get better, as well as decent enough squad players like Park Ji-Sung, John O’Shea and Alan Smith. No, we weren’t going to win the Treble with that but it was hardly the awful side that the press made it out to be.
In the summer of 2006, months after the blog started (and next to nobody read it), some comments from The Mirror Chief Sports Writer, Oliver Holt, really started to grate on me. He was dismissive and disrespectful towards Sir Alex Ferguson and didn’t rate our players at all. He said we’d never be able to win the league if we sold Ruud. He reckoned that Nemanja Vidic wouldn’t get in any top 4 team and that essentially we had no chance against Chelsea. I saved these articles with the hope that one day I would be able to dig them out and wear my very smug grin.
Less than 12 months later, we were the Champions of England, having reached the FA Cup final and Champions League semi-finals. We went on to win the title for the following two years and won plenty more trophies on top, including the European Cup. All that shite that got written about us in 2005 and 2006 became utterly laughable.
To be fair to Oliver Holt, after our Champions League success in 2008, he sort of ate humble pie, in an article where he sung the praises of Sir Alex. I say “sort of” because Holt wasn’t overly keen to confess just how strongly he had written the manager off just two years earlier.
If there’s one thing Ferguson doesn’t need to worry about any more, it’s the applause. It’ll never die out. Not for him. Not now. Because on Thursday, he erased the last quibble about his greatness as a manager by winning the Champions League for a second time. There weren’t many doubts anyway.
There were plenty of doubts and Holt was one of the biggest doubters of the lot! When he joined Twiter last week I couldn’t miss the opportunity to throw quotes in his face from articles of years gone by and to be fair to the bloke, he took it on the chin and wasn’t half as cocky as I was expecting him to be.
So, having given this some context, I can now getting cracking with this Holt interview. As much as it pains me to say it, after years of slagging off what he writes on a regular basis, it turns out ol’ Ollie is a pretty decent chap.
Scott the Red: You’re a Stockport County fan right? Who did you grow up hating more – United or City?
Oliver Holt: I didn’t hate either of them. I loved both of them, which I know is anathema to most City and United fans. Stockport played their homes games on Friday nights back in the Seventies when I started going to watch them. So I watched Stockport on a Friday night and then whichever of City or United was at home on Saturday. I grew up in Alderley Edge and went to school in Macclesfield so I had lots of mates from both sides of the divide.
STR: So, being from and working in Manchester for so long, does it make you laugh when you hear City fans say that Manchester is blue?
OH: I take that with a pinch of salt, to be honest. It’s garbage. Manchester’s split down the middle as far as I can see and I have a lot of respect for both sets of fans.
STR: Very diplomatic. And untrue. So, how often did you go to Old Trafford and Maine Road as a lad?
OH: I went all the time. Like a lot of us, probably, I was a mad football watcher when I was a teenager. I went to about 80 or 90 games a season. Wrote them all down in one of my school exercise books to keep a record. I went through phases of going to one more than the other with City and United. I followed United home and away in the mid-1980s in the Atkinson years. Probably my happiest memories of being a football fan are the United cup runs of 1983 and 1985. Ray Wilkins and Norman Whiteside were my United heroes so both those Cup Finals were pretty special, particularly 1985. I went to City a lot, too, but not to as many away games. Peter Barnes was my City hero but I liked Paul Lake a lot, too. I started watching City when Joe Corrigan, Asa Hartford and Dennis Tueart were in the side and I was sitting behind the goal in the North Stand when Raddy Antic scored that famous goal that put City down. But my dad was from Stockport and he used to take me to Edgeley Park and the whole sense of community and the link with the past drew me towards them more and more.
STR: I’m sure a lot of United fans will be shocked to hear you spent so much time following our team up and down the country, given some of the things you’ve written. For example, in the summer before United won the title in 2007, you claimed Ferguson’s judgment was waning faster than everybody thought when he sold Ruud van Nistelrooy and didn’t replace him. You were wrong then but what do you think about Ferguson’s judgement these days?
OH: Okay, so this is mea culpa time. We all get things wrong and I got plenty of things about Fergie spectacularly wrong. There was a time a few years back when he got sucked into that row about Rock of Gibraltar and he bought Djemba Djemba, Liam Miller, Bellion and the rest when I thought he was losing it. I really thought his time was up and that his presence was damaging the club. I even wrote a book about it, so that turned out well. Funnily enough, it wasn’t a best-seller. Back then, I think you could make a case that after more than 15 years at one of the biggest clubs in the world, one European Cup wasn’t that much of a return. You can’t make that case any more. Moscow and another hatful of league titles changed that.
As for his current judgment, I find it hard to criticise him. Maybe it’s because I don’t want to get my fingers burned again. I don’t think the current United side is a great side but it’s as good as anything there is in the division. There was a long time when I thought Fletcher wasn’t going to make it but Fergie persisted with him and I think he’s matured into a fine player. As you pointed out on Twitter recently, I also slagged off Evra and Vidic soon after they arrived and they have proved to be brilliant acquisitions. I haven’t seen enough of Gibson to make a judgment but Hernandez looks like he’s a terrific buy.
STR: A few months after questioning his judgment, you said “whatever United go on to achieve this season or in seasons to come, nothing changes the fact that Ferguson should have quit in 2002 when he said he was going to quit.” He went on to win three league titles, the European Cup, the World Club Cup and two League Cups. I can assume you no longer believe he should have quit when he said he was going to, but when do you think he should retire now?
OH: You’re right. I no longer believe he should have quit in 2002. That was wrong, wrong, wrong. And all credit to you for digging it out and bringing it to a wider audience. I’m really delighted you did that. I was hoping those words were lying at the bottom of a deep, dark well. As for when he should retire now, that’s really difficult. The worst thing would be for him to go on too long but I’m sure Ferguson has the example of somebody like Shankly in his mind because Shankly retired too soon and found life incredibly hard without football. United are top of the league and in the last eight of the Champions League so there’s not really any pressure on him to quit. If he’s enjoying it, he could have another couple of years left. If he wins the Champions League again, though, I think he should go out at the top.
STR: Where do you think Ferguson ranks amongst the greatest all time managers?
OH: I think he’s close to the top at the moment. If he wins one more Champions League and equals Bob Paisley’s record of three European Cups, I think the argument would be over. He would be out on his own. He’s already above people like Brian Clough and Ottmar Hitzfeld and Carlo Ancelotti in my mind because of the longevity and the depth of what he has achieved, the way he has built the club and overseen every aspect of its development. I’d take him above Mourinho any day, too. I know Mourinho has a great talent but he’s a shock jockey who comes in for a few years and then gets the hell out of there. I’m not sure if he could ever do what Fergie has done and I don’t think he’d be my choice to replace Fergie when the time finally comes. I think they need someone a bit more level. Someone more like Ancelotti.
STR: Mourinho would certainly give you journos something to talk about in Fergie’s absence though. What’s been your favourite encounter with Ferguson?
OH: A few years ago, when United were on the brink of getting knocked out of the Champions League in the group stages – I think it was 2003 – I went to Lisbon for the last group game against Benfica. Fergie had a press conference the day before the game at a big conference centre and so because I was about 20 rows back and there were lots of other journalists there and there was a door that provided an escape route about ten yards away, I got brave and asked him an impertinent question. I got the microphone and asked him if his own position would be under threat if United didn’t qualify for the knock out stages of the competition. He looked at me with total scorn and said: “I’m not answering that question.” So I asked him why not and he just waved the question away. Then he turned to Carlos Queiroz, who was sitting next to him on the dais, and said: “We’ve got some right fucking pricks in here today.” We didn’t hear it at the time but some of the TV monitors picked it up and the TV boys told us about it. Very funny.
STR: Who do you think has been the best United player in the Ferguson era?
OH: Roy Keane. His performance in the Stadio Delle Alpi against Juventus in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final in 1999 is still the best individual display I’ve ever seen.
STR: Looking at our current squad, there’s no Roy Keane, but we certainly have some very effective players. When you consider Gareth Bale (7 league goals + 1 assist) and Samir Nasri (9 league goals +1 assist) have received lots of praise this season and have been tipped for the Player of the Year awards, I do wonder why Nani (9 league goals + 16 assists) hasn’t received half the plaudits. Why do you think this is? Would you consider using your FWA Award vote on him?
OH: I think it’s because neutral fans don’t like his attitude and his style. They don’t like the way he goes down too easily. He is far from alone in this but because he plays for United, his profile is higher. Would I vote for him for Footballer of the Year? No chance. It’s not an anti-United thing and I accept he’s had a very good season. But I would never vote for him. I wouldn’t vote for Didier Drogba for exactly the same reason. In the United matches I have seen this season, Giggs and Vidic have been United’s best players but that might not be representative of the season as a whole.
STR: You recently criticised Nani for not accepting Carragher’s apology, claiming he should learn from Holden who was very gracious in response to Evans after learning he would be out for six months. Like you, Holden and Coyle said, Evans didn’t mean to deliberately hurt his opponent, but both players went in for a 50-50 challenge, both in the air, both with studs raised, but Evans actually made contact with the ball. That surely can’t be compared with Carragher sliding in at knee height when Nani was stood still, going nowhere near the ball, then standing over Nani, with Gerrard and co. screaming at Nani to get up, can it?
OH: Carragher’s tackle was worse than Evans’, yes, although the consequences of Evans’ challenge were a lot more serious. You’re right, though, and you’re right about the reaction. But I think everyone is so used to Nani’s theatrics and his play-acting that sympathy was, initially, in short supply.
STR: Fair play. On to another of our best players, Wayne Rooney. He almost joined City this season. Did this come as a surprise to you and do you think he will leave in the summer?
OH: It did come as a surprise to me. I had kind of bought into the idea that Rooney was a bit different to the breed of footballers who come and go. I got a lot of rather bitter messages from Everton fans when I wrote that, which was fair enough. I suppose he had form. I still think he’s a fantastic player, the best English player there is, and I still think he can be one of the best in the world. I don’t think he’ll go at the end of the season and I hope he stays at Old Trafford.
STR: He duped us all and the fact he had done it to Everton and had been ignored by most made it all the more embarrassing! Anyway, on to our future and Tom Cleverley. You spoke highly of Cleverley when you interviewed him at the beginning of the season. You fancy him to make it at United?
OH: I do. Apart from the way he plays, I was impressed with him off the pitch, too. He’s got that bearing that a lot of United players have. Calm, authoritative, well-schooled by the club, confident. Decent lad, generally. I think it says a lot about him that he has come through a difficult time at Wigan with a team that is fighting for its life at the bottom and is now excelling. I think he could start breaking into the United first team next season and then we’ll find out a bit more about him.
STR: Great stuff. And finally, being realistic, who would you like to see win the league this season?
OH: I’d like to see the best team win it and that will probably be United. Maybe this is an answer to a different question but the team I’ve enjoyed watching most this season is Arsenal. I’ve enjoyed seeing Wilshere come through and Nasri and Fabregas have been good to watch. And if United could buy one player to transform them next season, I’d go for Luka Modric. With Modric in the side, I’d back United for the title next season.
STR: I’d love to see Modric at United. Fingers crossed. Anyway, it has to be said, just like for Michael Owen, Twitter has done wonders for you! Turns out you’re not a cunt after all! I appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions.
OH: Thanks, Scott. Don’t mind if you go on about what a twat I am. If you give it out, you have to take it.
(After the interview, Oliver told me my question on Nani had prompted him to write something for the paper. “You might not like it very much. But then you’ll probably have read worse.” Here’s his article on why Nani shouldn’t be named Player of the Year)
Follow Ollie Holt on Twitter
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