The Anatomy of Manchester United: A History in Ten Matches review: Beyond the noise

The Anatomy of Manchester United: A History in Ten Matches Jonathan Wilson Orion Publishing ₹1,843  

I must begin this review of Jonathan Wilson’s book, The Anatomy of Manchester United: A History in Ten Matches with an admission: I have long been a fan, a fervid one at that, of Manchester United. To many readers this might seem incongruous, and, even, irrational. How can someone support a football team based more than 5,000 miles away? Should not one’s fandom have a physical, geographical link?

To them, I might well have to confess that this is indeed a product of some sort of pathology, but that fandom can be distant and intangible shouldn’t surprise us anymore. We have lived, for some time now, in a globalised world, where television brings into our drawing rooms, with vivid clarity, action from fields afar. In my own case, it’s difficult to isolate the exact moment when Manchester United might have truly captured my imagination, the one match that might have turned me into a fan. It’s more likely a product of beginning to watch them in the mid-1990s, of being enamoured by the genius — without necessarily, at the time, understanding its entire range — of Eric Cantona, and of finding escape in the stories from commentators, especially, of the romance in Manchester United, of a club marked by both tragedy and unmitigated euphoria.

A sense of history

This history of Manchester United, of a team that began as a railway works team, can be told in many different ways. But barring Jim White’s Manchester United: A Biography, there have been few efforts taken at writing the definitive historical account of the club. Wilson’s new book is admittedly not a conclusive chronicle. Its aims are very different, even if no less lofty. In his own words, the book “tries to be about football as it was played on the field. It tries to re-evaluate and reassess, to go beyond the white noise of banal player quotes and instant judgments to discover why what happened happened.”

The book is, therefore, an attempt at a “football history.” In this endeavour, there’s little doubting Wilson’s success. Through the story of 10 matches, the first a narrow 1-0 victory in the Football Association Cup final against Bristol City in April 1909 and the tenth a similarly narrow 2-1 win against Crystal Palace in the cup final in May 2016, he narrates the growth of Manchester United as an institution, the fruition of its footballing style, and the stories of its finest players: the holy trinity of George Best, Denis Law (the “King” to fans) and Bobby Charlton, and the other darlings of the Stretford End of Old Trafford.

Wilson is a football historian and journalist, who has always had an ability to distil and present for his readers the tactical, more strategic side, of the sport without compromising on its bare-bones emotive appeal. His most famous work, Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, originally published in 2008, is arguably the finest book ever written on the subject of football tactics. He brings a similar rigour in analysis to this latest work, and, as a result, it’s a book that ought to appeal not only to Manchester United’s fans, but anyone who has anything more than a passing interest in football.

The matches that Wilson has selected aren’t necessarily all cup finals or league clinching fixtures. They include for, example, an FA Cup semi-final against Oldham Athletic in April, 1990, which ended in a 3-3 draw. The game would eventually require a replay, and United would win the final, also on a replay, against Crystal Palace. But, as Wilson points out, the Oldham draw heralded a streak of phenomenal success for the club. “They had battled through a game that could easily have gone against them to force a replay,” writes Wilson, “and while that was also a tense, difficult encounter — ‘I’ve never felt such pressure,’ said Ferguson [their now legendary former manager], ‘so much strain in one game’ — United were never in as much danger as they had been in the first game.”

From Oldham in the 1990 FA Cup semi-final, Wilson takes us, in his next chapter, to Juventus and the Stadio delle Alpi, in Turin, in the second leg of the 1999 UEFA Champions League semi-final.

Thanks to Roy Keane

The tournament came to represent Manchester United’s second European Cup victory, secured through a most dramatic stoppage time winner at the Camp Nou in Barcelona against Germany’s Bayern Munich. But the semi-final win, forged through a combination of speed, skill, grit, toil and determination, an ousting of an Italian giant, marked, in Wilson’s belief, a real coming of age. United had gone down two goals, before coming back to win 3-2, thanks to a captain’s performance from Roy Keane, who had played much of the match knowing that he’d be suspended for the final, after having picked up a yellow card. “Inside I’m hurting and feeling the disappointment,” Keane said afterwards. “But Manchester United is always bigger than any individual. The most important thing now is that we go on to win the final.”

Today, United stands at the crossroads. Since Alex Ferguson left in 2013, the club hasn’t won a league title. Its present manager, Jose Mourinho, is a proven winner, but the task ahead of him, as anyone who reads Wilson’s book might attest to, is immense. Inevitably, there might be some who question Wilson’s choice of matches. Indeed, there may be plenty in the book that’s already well known to United’s fans. But, equally, Wilson’s analytical precision brings with it a nuance that makes this book a particularly compelling read.

The Anatomy of Manchester United: A History in Ten Matches; Jonathan Wilson, Orion Publishing, ₹1,843.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 15, 2021 4:32:51 PM |

Next Story