Manchester United. A team steeped in tradition. To be more specific, a team steeped with a winning tradition, right? Under Sir Alex Ferguson, Reds born in the nineties – myself included – were spoiled. 13 Premier League trophies, five FA Cups, four League Cups, and twice Champions of Europe. Consequently, the shortcomings of United post-Ferguson are a shock to the system for some.
For others, not so much. Many of you reading this will be familiar with the struggles of Manchester United through the seventies; a tempestuous time for the club. In the aftermath of Sir Matt Busby’s finest hour at Wembley in ‘68, both Wilf McGuinness and Irishman Frank O’Farrell could not build on the glory achieved by Busby. Along came ‘The Doc’ in ‘72, to try and rejuvenate a team that United legend Willie Morgan recently described to me as ‘old’. However, United were relegated to the Second Division in 1974. Of course, he led United back to the First Division at the first time of asking.
The work of best-selling author Wayne Barton tells the story of Manchester United’s fall from grace in 1974. His new book ‘Too Good to go down’, features exclusive interviews with people such as Lou Macari, Willie Morgan, Alex Stepney, as well as former United boss Tommy Docherty. Recently, I caught up with Wayne to discuss his new book, the sacking of Jose Mourinho, the appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, as well as a new book in the pipeline.
Hi Wayne. How much pride do you take in the success of your new book ‘Too good to go down’?
Hi Jimmy. I am very proud. I am proud of every book I write, but I’m very surprised by how popular the book has proven to be. When my biography of Jimmy Murphy became a number one bestseller earlier this year, I was able to understand it more easily because it had the weight of a bigger publisher behind it, added to the fact that it was part of a newspaper group.
I know this book has had the movie, which has obviously been the driving force, but still for a book with an independent publisher to have achieved this with no further advertising (other than me going on about it on Twitter) has been bewildering. I’m so thankful to everyone who has bought a copy or even just retweeted something. It has made, and is still continuing to make, a big difference. If you’re reading this then you probably helped, so, thank you!
How long had you been compiling your thoughts for the book?
A while. It was originally going to be a book on the 26 year wait for United’s league title after 1967. At just around the time it was becoming obvious that one book wouldn’t be enough, I was contacted by Tom Boswell, a director who has made some incredible films for BT Sport. He was reading my book ’74/75’, on United’s promotion from the Second Division, and he was interested in the story of how it could be that an institution like United got relegated. We talked about the idea and the book I was planning so I effectively revised it to discuss the post-Busby transition, the relegation and the rebirth. It was a fantastic experience to make the film and I can’t speak highly enough of the job Tom did.
How enjoyable has it been to work in such close proximity with former United players and Tommy Docherty?
I’ve met and worked with many of them before, including Tommy, who helped me with that book on United’s year in Division Two. He also provided forewords for Brian Greenhoff’s and Gordon Hill’s autobiographies. I know Tommy is a controversial character, and I have never shied away from that, but I do think he is long overdue some proper credit for the good work he did do as manager.
Working with United legends in any capacity is a treat, what bigger honour can there be as a fan of the club than to discuss football with legends like Denis Law and Sir Alex Ferguson? To suggest theories about the club’s identity to someone like Sir Alex, who then agrees with you? You feel like you’re on cloud nine.
What did you make of the Mourinho sacking? Was it the correct call?
Yes, it was, and I say that as someone who a) thought he was the right man for the job and b) has cut him more slack than most fans. But almost all the valid arguments to defend him had stronger counter arguments and when it comes to that point, you have to make the change. The football was dire. We expected that but so long as it came with success it could have been tolerable. The success was relative – two trophies in one year, let’s not dismiss that. But it wasn’t worth putting up with, when everyone could see we were regressing. And really, for us to put up with the football being dire, we needed a lot of success. Now we just need entertaining.
He had a point about the under-investment and most people seem to put it all on ‘one defender’ but they forget Mourinho wanted five players. We were at least a right-winger, defender and striker short on top of the defender, which everyone can see that we need. Mourinho could have made those grievances in private, he could have even made them in public, without the need to make such bizarre team selections. Herrera and McTominay at centre-half? We were being made weaker deliberately to expose a problem that didn’t need any help exposing. That was on the manager. If Willian and Alex Sandro looked like reasonable buys in the summer, then the form of Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial this season at least puts that proposal on dodgy ground. Sandro may be better than Shaw but worth a £60m gamble and the loss of Shaw’s potential? And of course, Martial is having a better campaign than Willian.
Added to this was the consequential point of the manager not knowing his best team or shape two years into the job. That is almost a sackable offence by itself.
Lastly, if he had a valid point about certain players, Paul Pogba, for example, then it was undermined by the instances like the public beratings and calling him a ‘virus’ in front of other players. Again, arguably a sackable offence by itself. He had lost the dressing room, the players didn’t want to play for him, in the end you couldn’t blame them, and in those circumstances, the manager has to go.
What has gone wrong with Jose since he left Madrid?
He’s always succeeded by taking a team of players who weren’t generally considered individual stars; players who were renowned for being part of a collective. Look at his successes at Porto, Chelsea and Inter, and observe how he had difficulty with many of the dominant names in some other dressing rooms later in his career.
I don’t agree that he is a tactical dinosaur. He achieved tactical wins over all of the best managers in the league last season, some of them fairly simple, too. The biggest disappointment I will take from his tenure is that there was the potential this summer to kick on, I truly believe that. Instead, he and Woodward got involved in a public power struggle and it seemed easier for Mourinho to prove his point by United losing than to prove his worth by helping them achieve the best he could. Whilst it can fairly be argued that board, manager and players were all culpable, in football the easiest thing to do is to replace the manager. I think he could be a success elsewhere but there will be a general level of suspicion now towards him from players, whereas before I think many wanted to play for him.
Are you excited by the appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer?
Of course. But slightly nervous about the potential of his perfect career getting a dour end if things don’t work out. Early signs are positive, but we are dealing with a relatively unknown quantity.
Should United manage to claw back the deficit and get top 4, how difficult would it be to not give him the job on a full-time basis?
I think it would be a great case for Solskjaer to get the job if that happens, especially if we get a trophy in the bag too. If we have hired him with a view to him only being a stop-gap then, if everything goes well and we still replace him, I wonder if that will cause its own problems.
How important is the presence of Mike Phelan at Manchester United to support Ole?
Very. Not to be too much of a ‘plug merchant’ but I’m just finishing a book which will be published in the summer. It’s about United’s post-Ferguson transition. Part of my theory for why it was difficult for David Moyes was the decision to let go of many of the staff. Under Sir Alex, United were an autocracy but coaches like Phelan and Meulensteen were students and servants of his; everything ran like clockwork the way he wanted, and they were masters of passing that message on.
I’m not saying that if Moyes had kept them he would have enjoyed similar success to Fergie, and by the way, I also think it was a mistake that could be described as an understandable one. He was going in to a big club, the biggest, he needed people he could trust around him. But, it was a mistake, as hindsight as shown us.
These are mostly different players to the ones Phelan was coaching, with a few exceptions. Of those, only David De Gea has a long-term future at the club, so it’s a fairly new environment. Theoretically, going by the principles of the club and the standards we expect, it’s an excellent move — just as it is to get Mark Dempsey back. You’re still trusting in a group of players to invest in their methods and ideas, and the jury is out there, as we have seen with the last two managers.
What is your expectation for the remainder of the season?
No expectations to be honest. I just hope to watch exciting football again. It’s been five years, so without sounding spoiled, I don’t think it’s too much to ask!