Tuesday, September 19, 2017

In conversation with... Daniel Harris

Journalist, Manchester United supporter and post-Glazer Old Trafford boycotter Daniel Harris charted a season following the Club in his book On the Road: A Journey Through a Season. Here he discusses about his debut paperback and pressing issues concerning United...

Samuel Luckhurst: In regards to the book, was it solely down to John Brewin that you wrote it or did you nudge him in the direction of the project?

Daniel Harris: It wasn’t actually intended as a book - I knew John via RedIssue’s message board and I messaged him halfway through the previous season informing him if he had any shifts going I’d be keen for them, and suggested some pieces I was interested in writing. And then I told him a few things that I’d done for RedIssue and newspapers, so he commissioned me to for those pieces and a few shifts. Also around that time, ESPN picked up Setanta’s rights and were ramping up their coverage, so he asked me to write a weekly blog. He knew I followed United around and asked me to write about that, and that was the brief, but it was always in my mind from the beginning that it might make a book.

SL: Regarding the writing style, was anybody opposed to the free rein you showcase in the book at all?

DH: Not really. I thanked John in the acknowledgments and aside from giving me the opportunity to write, and some thoughtful editing, that’s what I’m thanking him for. Other than things we had occasional discussions about, I was pretty much able to say whatever I fancied. There are a few things that are in the book that weren’t in the blog for reasons - not of decency exactly, as I wouldn’t consider swearing to be indecent - but ESPN aren’t going to allow you to use the word ‘c***’. I felt it necessary to do so it on a few occasions but thought I limited myself quite well in the book.

But in general I can’t have any complaints at all, quite the reverse. It was just nice to be able to write, and because it was a blog as opposed to match reports, there was no need to write to much about the match, which is what everyone else was doing, and I was filing on Fridays anyway. So if I’m writing about the previous week’s games there’s really not that much to be said that hasn’t been said already unless you can contextualise it slightly differently. And anyway, in a way, what’s happening on the pitch is the least important thing about football, and certainly not what I was trying to do.

SL: Did you tweak the book much from your blog posts?

DH: I certainly didn’t change any of my opinions, and if I had have done I might have taken a couple of the things out I said about Obertan! One of my mates recently said to me, having read the book, that just before Rooney started scoring headers, I chastised him for doing so often enough, convinced I’d added it in, but I hadn’t, which I proved via my praise for Obertan (who I maintain has some talent, but is just a complete pussy). But part of the point of the blog and the book was that everything was contemporary, written as it happened and immediately afterwards, and I didn’t want to change that.

SL: Is there anything, in retrospect, you wish that you’d have addressed more in the book?

DH: I’ll be watching football sometimes and think of a perspective that I’d like to have written about. And there were other things I wanted to say at the time, but just couldn’t make them relevant, though I’ve recorded them somewhere and hopefully will get to them someday.

SL: Do you find boycotting Old Trafford as much a wrench as you expected it to be?

DH: I suppose so. In the first few weeks and months after the takeover it probably stung more than it does now as it’s become a part of life that when United aren’t at home, I don’t go, when they’re away, I generally do go. It’s something that will occur to me every time United play at home that you’re more or less annoyed depending on who the game is against. But I’ve been to Old Trafford on a few times just on freebies and it’s also fair to say there are elements of it that were annoying in 2005 that are a lot more annoying now. I would say that the people who have left, for one reason or another – not just because of the Glazers – haven’t been replaced by people who are suitable successors, aware of how you should behave in a football ground, and it’s nowhere near as great as it once was.

People have been telling each other to sit down at football matches for longer than we’ve been alive, but it’s not just standing up. There was a time that when United were playing a team and giving them a hiding then they’d be singing ‘who the f****** hell are you?’ and not ‘who are ya?’. It’s people who have just watched a lot of Soccer AM on Sky, and you also have it when Darron Gibson gets the ball and everyone shouts ‘shoot’. United have the most phenomenal repertoire of terrace songs and chants that absolutely spanks anything that any other team has available to them and it’s just a shame when you hear generic Nationwide nonsense.

SL: Do you get much stick for boycotting?

DH: No, not at all. When I did it in 2005 it was just seen as a personal choice but the only real animosity that I’ve seen was straight after the takeover when there were some anti-FC United songs that were aired – in particular, I remember a game at Highbury where that was the case.

Fergie’s animosity towards FC has been especially disappointing. To insult and demean a club that are so many leagues below his, and to feign ignorance as to why supporters oppose the Glazers and opt not to go, is just needlessly mean-spirited. He’s not the first champagne socialist, but his attitude in the latter part of his career is totally irreconcilable with the Govan toolmaker who’s proud of who he is. David Gill, on the other hand, was never one of us - he’s just a t***.

SL: Given United’s away support is beginning to take quite a lot of flak, would you say that’s on the downward spiral?

DH: I gave it a bit of stick myself, and given where the tickets are ending up now, it’s inevitable that there’ll be certain atmospheres which are just rubbish. But when it’s good, it’s still really good and better than everybody else’s. How much it now costs to go doesn’t help, though that’s not to say that someone who can afford to go is any more of a Red than someone who can’t. When you go to a football match you want it to be as rowdy as possible, and of course it’s become less rowdy, which is a bad thing - yet when it is rowdy at times it makes you cringe, and I definitely cringe more often than I used to.

SL: Why are you so certain that if Ferguson spoke out against the Glazers in the first place the takeover wouldn’t have happened?

DH: What’s crucial is whether the banks would have lent the money. It’s a lot of money and the banks needed to be sure they’d get it back. Had the Glazers had to go and hire a new manager, then lending the money would have represented a far greater risk – one they simply couldn’t countenance. Whether or not Fergie could have stopped it - I think that he could, and also that he knew that he could as well - he certainly knew the implications of a takeover, and that if he spoke out it might never happen.

SL: Do you think he didn’t because his job was at risk?

DH: I don’t think his job was at risk because ultimately, they (Glazers) are business people but they’re not going to sack Ferguson if they think it would be better not to. Their need to pay the interest would have overtaken any kind of vindictiveness.

But what I would also say is that Fergie’s position at that point was not as fortified as it once was, because of the whole Coolmore affair, the financial dodginess, and the miserable performance of the team during 03/04 and 04/05. They’d been knocked out of the European Cup in the group stages a few months after the Glazers arrived and there was never a point in the season where they were seriously challenging for the title. So his position was under threat for the first time in a long while, but when the Glazers came in, suddenly his position was more fortified than it had been previously – they needed him more than he needed them. He had certainly said he was against the takeover and that he would do something about it - until it came to the moment when he something actually had to be done. And there’s no argument about that – it’s not my opinion because we can see the evidence, so at best it’s duplicitous, but you might also say it’s traitorous.

It also stings each time he speaks out now, when what’s going on is so obvious and in black and white – and we can see it in the bond documents. It’s not an opinion that the Glazers have taken lots of money out of United, it’s a fact. United have paid hundreds of millions of pound for the privilege of having the Glazers own the club. It’s not an arguable ‘it might be like this, it might be like that’, and the things both Fergie and Gill have said they’ve said. They’re on the record, everyone heard them and everyone saw them. Actualy, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gill wanted shot of this job, on the basis that he’s just had to talk so much s*** and take so much shit for so long. I’m sure if he could have had the FA job he would have jumped at that.

SL: Would you say that you’ve come to truly despise Ferguson post-Glazer?

DH: ‘Despise’ is too strong a word. I despise what he did and is doing, but I don’t despise him. If you attempt any level of objectivity, it’s hard to conclude that he’s a good bloke, but I have a subjective relationship with him! There are still moments when you love him, and momentarily forget some of the things he has done, but the tragedy is that it needn’t have been this way.

SL: Had Rooney’s contract row not been so much about his avarice, do you think he could have generated something beyond the Green & Gold campaign?

DH: Evra, Solskjaer and Cantona have all spoken out to varying degrees against the Glazers before which is refreshing since one of the things which is most annoying is when players will talk bullsh*t and pretend everything’s okay or just say nothing at all. With Rooney, it’s impossible to know where the right is in those discussions because everyone was right in some way or another and everyone was wrong too, acting out of self-interest and almost definitely not a pleasant person. Rooney was right with what he said but to go about it the way he did was wrong - but on the other hand you’re thinking ‘thank f*** someone said it’ because it has to be said. Because if I were Rooney looking around the dressing room, I also would have been concerned – I’m concerned looking at a squad list.

We know Rooney’s not one of us - he left Everton as soon as he could, so we knew what we were getting when we signed him. As to whether he helped with the green and gold, the bottom line is the opportunity was there to get rid of the Glazers in 2005, and again last summer, but wasn’t taken. If Rooney had gone, perhaps people would have done the necessary, but more likely, enough would have believed whatever spin was put on it, or decided they simply couldn’t stop going, to allow the Glazers to remain.

The only way they seem likely to go now is if they can’t afford the interest, receive an astronomical offer, or if there’s significant and sustained on-pitch failure – the only thing that might persuade sufficient numbers of season ticket holders not to renew.

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