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Fall From Grace

By Richard Marshall.

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On the Road: A Journey Through A Season, Daniel Harris, Speakeasy Books 2010

This is a great book. It’s about supporting Manchester United. It is great because it sticks to being about that. It isn’t a disguised bildungsroman nor state of the nation sidewise glance. It sticks to its narrow designated brief, which is to report every away game of the 2009-10 season, and its tenacity and control gives the book its peculiar momentum and strength. It doesn’t puff itself up with literary flourishes but rather adopts the voice of a clever, disgruntled and straightforwardly underwhelmed fan. Written initially as a blog, week by week and game by game, it has a dark narrative arc that collects its fragments into a genuine picaresque whole. Cumulatively, its affect is of a darkly comic rumination with no ‘pontificating crescendo’.

Daniel Harris writes without frills. Everything that involves the football club is discussed including the fraught finances and the issue of the Glazer take-over. He knows all the scores. He gives you the team sheets. Can offer inside jobs on tactics, rumours and advice. He’s rough and straightforward and likes to skewer his ideas and thoughts in a gruff and sharp style. He’s smart so his book is smart. He is a writer who knows his writers as well as his football, so he can make the right call to literary allusions when required. But he does nothing for the sake of merely showing off. He just likes to get a better perspective on things.

The great white whale of the piece is Fergie, the Utd manager. The Glazer’s are repositioned in this narrative as being a product of Fergie’s crimes, rather than being evil in their own right. And Fergie’s power is his ability to equivocate, to deceive, to misdirect. He is a doubling character, at once the boss who matched up the achievements on the field with the club’s pre-existing mythos but also Harris’ great betraying hero, the character whose great triumphs are equally matched by a fall from Grace that cannot be forgiven. Harris’ seething anger trembles through the book and gives a consistent atmosphere of discontent and foreboding. Unlike other great writings on sport, notably Mailer‘s account of the Ali/Foreman fight and Foster Wallace on Roger Federer, the focus is not on the great sportsmen and their techniques so much as this belligerent, brilliant but flawed masterpiece of a man and manager. It is the contrast with the Utd of sporting heroic beauty that gives Fergie his overwhelming and dark presence throughout.

He writes of Fergie in terms of misdirection. He says, “In Glen David Gold‘s fictional biography of legendary magician Carter the Great, our hero quickly learns that the crucial skill a conjuror must master is that of misdirection. Nowadays, there is no finer exponent of the art than Sir Alex Ferguson.” And throughout the book Harris plays with this comparison, slowly giving us a picture of a man capable of disappearing into a self-made image whilst storing something much less palatable in the background. In so doing, Harris suggests that the great beauty of Utd is tarnished, and that such things are more important than mere results and triumphs.

Football support is all about morals, about right and wrong. This runs through the whole book, be it about the financing of the game or the refereeing of matches, the attitude of the boss for the supporters or the players to the club itself. And the real theme of this book is pain. Harris makes this plain right from the start when he writes: “Pain,” wrote Naomi Wolf, “is real when you get other people to believe in it. If no one believes in it but you, your pain is madness or hysteria.” To the non-Manchester United fan, indeed, to anyone not interested in being a football fan of any club, this may seem ludicrous, perhaps even insulting. But fandom is a case of idol worship, of getting your kicks from the achievements of others. And Manchester Utd are a curious case.

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It’s a gigantic club, probably the most famous in the world, but its reputation is not based on success. To grasp the peculiar power of the team for its fans, it is useful to remind yourself that it is only in the last twenty years that the club have been able to achieve the overwhelming success on the pitch that now seems natural. Before that they were a team of superstars who were loved for their flamboyance, flair and rage to entertain coupled with a haunting tragic interlude in Munich that gave the team its everlasting spooky existentialist verve. The team, in short, stands for a peculiar type of beauty. Foster Wallace is right when he suggests that although beauty is not the object of sport it is something that high level sport can provide. Ali managed it, Federer still can and for Utd fans George Best is probably the figure who prototypically encapsulates the beauty a Utd team has to be about. No other team’s meaning is premised on beauty as its objective, so Utd is a unique team, and being its fan requires a different set of expectations and demands than those of other teams. Foster Wallace wrote about this kind of beauty when he wrote in 2005 that, “The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.” Utd take this to an extreme by having the deaths of the Munich air disaster integrated with the apotheosis of physical skill and prowess. Utd’s beauty is about those limits of death and life that transcend and become almost religious.

Harris is angry and disappointed. Disappointment is an inevitable feature of a fan’s life, as it is of anyone who puts their faith in the achievements of others or things beyond their control. Harris writes of rational choice and morality as being fundamentally the same. In this his approach is Kantian. Kant thought that universalising lying is a self-contradiction. This is because he thought that internal checks prevent equivocation. The philosopher Michael Dummett agrees that this internal transparency is essential for the epistemology of language. He writes, “It is an undeniable feature of the notion of meaning – obscure as that notion is – that meaning is transparent in the sense that, if someone attaches a meaning to each of two words, he must know whether these meanings are the same.”

Some philosophers deny that introspection can guarantee transparency. They argue that you may well think what you mean by Manchester Utd is flair, entertainment, a flamboyance in the face of encroaching eternal night, but if Utd change, unbeknown to you, then that ignorance opens the door to equivocation and skepticism about our own rationalisms.

Internalists like Paul Boghossian deny this. He thinks transparency allows us to make a distinction between incoherence and ignorance. Ignorance isn’t about introspection. Harris agrees. Utd will always mean beauty, no matter what the Glazers and Ferguson do, no matter what has happened to the game as a whole. If everything is left in ruins, if everything is rotten and beauty just a thing of the past, Utd will still mean beauty, of its own peculiar sort, a beauty belied by present reality, betrayed by it but not replaced.

Internalists are therefore unconvinced by externalist claims that the world changing can change meanings. Harris knows that Utd have changed but the meaning of Utd remains steady. His disappointment measures the gap between the meaning of Utd and the realisation of its despoliation. For Harris Utd is not an indexical term. Harris need not universalise a claim that indexicals aren’t possible, or even that they are not frequently found. He just takes the line that the meaning of Utd isn’t indexical.

His choice of Utd as his team of choice is premised on this. What makes Utd special is the sporting beauty the name encapsulates. The beauty of Utd is contrasted with the team’s great rivals, Liverpool. Harris quips: “For United, it’s essential to win with style, whereas for Liverpool it’s essential only to win. Our European Cup triumph over Chelsea, for example, is forever tainted by the penalty shoot-out that earned it, whereas their victories in Rome and Istanbul are central pillars of their mythology.”

It’s this whole attitude towards Utd that has to be understood as the book begins its great riffing flights. It takes us through each week of the season with this perspective always in mind, honing the thoughts and asides, and you get the sense that the writer is trying to describe or perhaps trying to find, the beauty that defines the club, that defines his own passion. It is through sheer contrasts that he hopes to transcribe this, as if like Aquinas it is to be described and identified in terms of what it isn’t. Hence the central place of Fergie who both managed to bring forth teams of great beauty, power and victories – more victories than any other Utd teams – but at the expense of ugliness too. Harris writes about the very name of the club as having an almost metaphysical existence. And this is not just an idiosyncratic belief of Harris’ but seems rather to be held by many Utd fans.

So the disgust at the takeover of the club by the Glazers has lead to a creative and unique response that reflects this. A new breakaway club has been formed to protest against the Glazers. But the name of the breakaway club remains ‘Manchester United Football Club’ but the words are not in that order and no longer scan. As Harris explains, “‘… Football Club United of Manchester. Conceived in early 2005 as an option in the event of a takeover, the idea was supported by many intending to boycott but unwilling to be deprived of their Utd fix. A few months later, the club was born, with the aim – despite perceptions to the contrary – of running alongside, rather than in opposition to its bigger brother.” He gives the words themselves the real significance. He writes: “Ok, the name’s a bit of a mouthful, but what can you do? The words ‘Manchester’ and ‘United’ needed to be there, so did ‘Football’ and ‘Club,’ their removal from the crest of Big United symbolic of its manipulation from fellowship into bread. But don’t hate on the name, feel the acronym.”

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Harris thinks the Glazers taking over the club “… was only a tipping point, serving to highlight the other liberties – early kick-offs, heavy handed stewarding and ridiculous pricing – that had been largely ignored through the previous decade because their encroachment was incremental and the football was good.” Harris has many complaints as the representation of the game changes and obscures what actually a game requires. If you only ever watch games on TV, or in the new stadia rather than old grounds, then the experience sheers away from what the games actually entail, the sheer physical presence of the players, their size and speed, the sheer bloody drama and brilliance of a Utd team playing as they should play. I saw George Best in a game at Bramall Lane against Sheffield Utd back in the 70s and still marvel at how little time he had to make the moves he did whilst maintaining control of the ball. And how small he seemed compared to the thugs trying to maim him.

If the Glazer take-over is a theme that runs through his story, the manager is the great beast. The relationship between the writer and the boss is one of love-hate, and again entails disappointment at a fallen hero. Nevertheless there are moments of delicious bite and wit combined with piles of incisive insider knowledge. There’s a great section that actually defends Fergie.

The manager is banned from the touchline for two games and fined for denigrating an official. However, it isn’t clear that his claims were false, which leads Harris to conclude that the punishment was for just making the accusations, regardless of whether they were true or not. Harris is a former lawyer, and what he says is sharp. “People are entitled to speak their mind openly, all the more so when they operate in the public arena, and if they’re right, then it’s the subject of the complaint who should face sanctions.” Quite so.

Harris is disturbed by the comments made by the QC deciding the ban and fine. “Every member of the commission recognized Sir Alex Ferguson’s achievements and stature within the game. Having said that, it was made clear to Sir Alex that with such stature comes increased responsibilities.” Harris is brilliant and devastating in his retort to this nonsense.

“Yes, you read that right: according to Peter Griffths QC, not only is there no equality before the law, but it applies most strictly to those who have achieved most. Utterly, utterly astonishing – unless, of course, there’s something we don’t know, and Fergie is actually Peter Parker in disguise.”

Harris’ relationship with Fergie is fascinating. He begins the chapter on the FA Cup match against Leeds Utd (Utd lost for the first time in a third round tie) with a funny, apt and intense declaration of lifetime intent: “When Morrissey declared that he had forgiven Jesus, he was criticised by someone for daring to suggest that could possibly be necessary. In similar vein, there’ll doubtless be plenty who’ll criticise me when I say that I haven’t, and will never, forgive Fergie.” This madness is understandable when you realise the level of mutual loathing that exists between Leeds and Utd.

If the intensity in this is missed, or considered merely an affectation, Harris links his relationship to religious feelings, the Shalshelet, a word used only five times in the whole Torah and meaning ‘sin against the soul.’ Fergie is the fallen hero, the centre of Harris’ turmoil and disappointment. He is self-aware enough to pick up the cliché running through all this, that of the ‘fallen hero’ but is also quick enough to give the detail of this specific case. As he says of his former hero, “…you’d have thought that Fergie had racked up sufficient credit to remain one forever.” But he hadn’t. How could he have? Choosing to follow Utd is an existential choice that signals belief in certain inviolate values. To throw away those values, to pervert them, is to violate the very spirit motivating that choice. It was Liverpool boss Bill Shankley who said something like, “People think football is as important as life and death. They’re wrong. It’s more important than that.” You get the point.

The causes of the manager’s fall from grace are well told and the foreword by Michael Crick, one of the key players in investigating and revealing the deals that sullied the manager’s reputation for Harris, indicates the weight of the politics inscribing the dramas of the book. It may be a book fierce about football but there are scenes he records after which he says, “In one short conversation, a legacy two decades in the building, not just tarnished, but forever buried under a mountain of turds.”

Fergie’s crime is that for him “… 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.” The idea of identity, community and belonging then are woven into the fabric of being a fan and it is against these values that success is judged throughout. Being part of Utd is a special calling and requires special attributes and understanding. Man. U. is more than football and stands for a cluster of values that an ethical life demands.

Harris extends his ethical approach to his judgments about the players. Take his comments about Nani, as an example. His summary of Nani’s development whilst discussing an away game at Arsenal captures what Harris takes to be essentials for a Utd player. He writes, “… his performances hampered by selfish, brainless indulgence on the ball and a demeanour of indignant entitlement off it. Now … he looks like he might develop into ‘a United player’, which it’s nice to see he realises is more than being picked to wear a United shirt. If he could just sort out his cheating and his hair, who knows – maybe one day he’ll be a Red.” That great phrase “a demeanour of indignant entitlement” captures what initially is wrong with Nani. He doesn’t understand what it means to be a Utd player, doesn’t grasp the significance that transcends mere footballing prowess.

This goes back to what I said at the beginning of the review, Harris’ essentialist approach to the name United, its non-indexicality that resists the influence of ignorance of the world because it doesn’t depend on the world for its fixed meaning. His misery, of course, is compounded by the overall failure to win anything that season but is not about not winning as such. It is the manner of the failure. His comments at the end of a nil-nil draw at Blackburn Rovers near the end of the season, just after being knocked out of the European Champions League by Bayern Munich and beaten by Chelsea straight afterwards, summarise this: ” … At least we’re almost out of our misery, though the lameness with which the title has been surrendered will annoy for evermore.” And the blame is placed firmly at the feet of the boss.

“So it was that by late Sunday afternoon, the club’s official website bore the headline: ‘Boss rues poor decisions’ …but it turned out that Fergie was criticising his players, rather than admitting culpability for the errors that have made such a mess of everything. The earth may be at the centre of our universe, but for Fergie there’ll only ever be one thing at the centre of his.”

The book is more than just a collected blog. The writing is incisive, funny and its mordant humor and anguish motivates every passage. The writing is tough and the author knows how to get across complicated details of financial shenanigans and dodgy deals with panache. Harris can write and has a great story to tell. It is a book written about the away games of Manchester United a season ago. That it has a limited scope no more limits its ambitions than a book about a man walking around Dublin in a single day. Its genre is that of sports writing, and being so is no more limiting in the hands of this skilled writer than any other kind of writing. Daniel Harris is the real thing. Groovy.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall
is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 3rd, 2011.