Manchester United’s Seven Deadly Sins: #6 – Lust

Lust: Lust isn’t just a sin limited to the tabloid tales of Ryan Giggs, The Doc and anything vaguely linked to Dwight Yorke. It could be something better, something enjoyable (or none of those, but that is very much the aim). Looking and scrolling through various dictionary websites to numbers 4, 5, 6 and 27, it’s been decided that ‘Lust’ can indeed be kept clean (and unintentionally prudish): any examples of love for the club, yearning (trophies!), craving (money! power!), pleasure (the various successes of a great football club, duh!) and relish (mmm, relish) all apparently constitute lust. Read on Mr and Mrs Lovejoy.

Lust: Wanting Dante.

But Stam, why are you so mad? 2001

Retirement is just about the only way a high-profile footballer can leave a big club feeling happy and satisfied. In Red, the happy and satisfied Gary Neville recalls the moment he caught Jaap Stam emerging from Sir Alex Ferguson’s office in a ‘state of shock’. “I’m out of here,” Stam would tell him. “I’m flying to Rome to sign for Lazio tonight.” How did it get so bad, so quickly for the Dutchman? Stam was only a United player for three years but, Rob Smyth writes, “had the enduring impact of a one-club man.” Indeed, Ferguson has spoken openly about Stam in the past, wishing he had stayed longer.

(The Neville and Stam exchange, as written in the former’s book: “You’re under contract. You can stay.” “No, he wants me out. There’s no point staying where I’m not wanted.”).

Has Ferguson been honest about why he’d let him go? There was his age (and the money Lazio were prepared to pay in relation to that), his fitness and also Head to Head, Stam’s very own book. Nobody but the Scot is certain of the impact the autobiography had on Stam’s United career, but it can’t have helped, even as nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence. The serialisation of Stam’s book in the Daily Mirror – then edited by a gleeful Piers Morgan – caught everyone’s attention: he had alleged that Ferguson approached him at PSV without the club’s permission and that, apparently, the manager encouraged going to ground easily in order to win a penalty. David Beckham, he wrote, would never “be asked to take a turn in the black chair of Mastermind,” while the Neville brothers were known as “busy c-nts … for their endless grumbling.”

Though Gary Neville was not pleased it made the papers, he knew it was “meant affectionately.” You simply had to read on to find that out: “Gary’s desire to chatter actually turns into a benefit for the team,” Stam wrote. “Before we take to the pitch he’s always discussing how the particular game should be played … he’s impressed me so much that I’d even stick my neck out and say he’d make a good manager.” Beckham, meanwhile, is “not thick, he’s just a normal guy having to put up with a lot of shit thrown at him by people who don’t even know his true personality.” And when Simon Kuper interviewed Stam just weeks before it all went to pot, he noted that the player “worshipped Alex Ferguson.” Stam’s book was written with good intentions. And he loved United. He just had a funny way of saying it.

Neville and Blackmore 4eva, 1991

It might have been the frequent hairstyles or simply the dearth of handsome faces in the United dressing room, but, in the early Nineties, Clayton Blackmore was, in Gary Neville’s own words, the team’s “pin-up defender.” It was perhaps why his team-mates stuck a life-size picture of the Welshman that young apprentices were forced to make love to, as part of their initiation. Neville recalls: “… as Barry White music played, whichever unlucky apprentice had been chosen would have to dance around the table and pretend to get off with Wales’ right-back. I can’t tell you how excruciating that is for a 16-year-old in front of heroes like Mark Hughes and Bryan Robson.” This would happen as Blackmore watched on “pissing himself with laughter like the rest of the first-teamers.”

“Refuse to make love to Clayton properly and a second-year apprentice would smash you over the head with a ball wrapped up in a towel,” Neville continued. “God it hurt.”

Best’s greatest game, 1966

Matt Busby’s reputation is as a coach who had won things, rather than a coach who had done things. History would argue that he was no tactician; instead, like many others at the time, he was handy at man-management, a true motivator who helped inspire the most symbolic European Cup win in the game’s history. For us, his response to a straightforward question — “How do we play, Boss?” — sums him up best: “We play football.” There are apparently many variations to this exchange with full-back Noel Cantwell; indeed, it may never have even happened. But, crucially, it sounds as if it could be true. None of this is supposed to reflect badly on Busby; his true genius can be found in the big results he managed and the big crowds they drew in. And even Busby must have known that to simply ‘play’ was not always so wise: the opposition would not always be a Leicester City, or a Northampton Town.

The one team United certainly could not afford to ‘play’ against — that is, hope the quality of their players alone could overwhelm the opposition — was a side with similar aspirations, one they would jostle with two years later for the boast of being Europe’s best. Benfica did not have George Best, Denis Law or Bobby Charlton, but a fan of the Portuguese outfit might have pointed out that Manchester United did not have Eusebio, Jose Torres or Antonio Simoes. These players, writes Joe Lovejoy in his biography of George Best, formed a “trinity of their own [just] as revered”. With a 3-2 aggregate lead over Benfica coming into the second-leg, Busby ordered his players to keep it tight. “It was one England’s champions seemed destined to fail,” Lovejoy said. “A fragile one-goal lead was unlikely to be enough in one of the great cathedrals of the game, where Benfica had never lost a European tie.” To play it safe was the logical thing to do.

Manchester United, as underdogs, went on to win 5-1. Busby would not have expected such a margin of victory, but could still feel slightly vindicated: it was clear that his philosophy — an expressive playing style all the best sides possessed — was all his players were really familiar with. “We didn’t know how to keep a game tight,” George Best would later say. “We just knew how to batter teams, which is what we did.” If Busby, by default, had some responsibility for the win, then the rest would go to Best. It was said to be his finest hour in a red shirt, where he ignored the instructions of his manager because he envisaged so much more than everyone else. This lust was typical of Best (as well as many other kinds): good players are naturally confident, but Best took it further. He would recall the game in his autobiography Blessed, stating that he could barely remember half-time, perhaps “because I was so wrapped up in my performance.” He had scored twice early on, stunning the hosts into inaction. Lovejoy wrote that “Benfica were nonplussed. Briefed to expect opponents in backs-to-the-wall defensive mode, they were still trying to adjust when their tormentor-in-chief laid on the third, for John Connelly.”

“I told them to play it tight for a while, for 20 minutes or so until we got their measure, but George just went out and destroyed them,” said Busby, proudly. “[Benfica] were also prepared to play it tight for a while – that is what always happens in European games. Then out comes this kid, as if he’s never heard of tradition, and starts running at them, turning them inside out. I ought to have shouted at him for not following instructions, but what could you say? He was a law unto himself. He always was.” Technically, there was no sin. Not yet, anyway. Best lusted after glory, and got it. Nobody could resent him for that.

The Portuguese paper A Bola declared the next day: ‘A Beatle called Best smashes Benfica’. Bobby Charlton thought it was “probably George’s best game”. Denis Law, too, saying it was “the start of all the hype.” Best started to believe that hype, according to Lovejoy. “The morning after found the man of the moment feted like John, Paul, George and Ringo rolled into one. Playing up to the El Beatle image, Best went out and bought the biggest sombrero he could find. He was still wearing it when he got back to Manchester, a heaven-sent picture for the phalanx of photographers awaiting him on his return. A star was born.

“It was post-Benfica that George Best’s popularity mushroomed to pop star heights, unprecedented for a footballer.” The sinning would soon start.

Sir, I want some more, 2002

Sir Alex Ferguson first announced his retirement in 2001 and eventually walked away in 2013. He had done it all in 1999 and actually thought as much: until he realised he could probably do more. So he decided to stay put in 2002. The Glazer family took full control of the club in 2005 and Ferguson won more, and was happy to back them in face of protest from fans because they allowed Manchester United to win more. He desired a second European Cup and got that in 2008. He wanted to knock Liverpool off their perch and did that officially in 2009. And he won some more trophies after that. He would do things out-of-character in order to win, even if didn’t always work out that way; he was happy to break up a midfield four of Beckham, Scholes, Keane and Giggs when he signed Juan Sebastian Veron, hoping to bring his side in line with others on the continent. It didn’t work and £28.1m Veron left in 2003. But he tried. When United lost 6-1 to Manchester City in 2012, Ferguson described the performance as “suicidal”. United, a man short, kept going forward. “We should have just said: ‘We’ve had our day’.” Later that season, with United closing in on the league, they surrendered a 4-2 lead against Everton. They lusted after a bigger margin but instead went on to concede two late goals.

And so because City had won the title, Ferguson bought the country’s top scorer, Robin van Persie, despite already having a number of attacking players at his disposal. Van Persie was not cheap and, at 29, was considerably older than the other players United usually look at. Still, it worked a treat — Ferguson soon had another trophy. He left the job as football’s greatest winner, even taking delight at having surprised so many with another promise of retirement, this time for real.

Billy Meredith wants player power, 1907-9

Two Germans once envisaged a workers’ revolution in the West that would shape the 20th century. Neither envisaged it not happening, nor the diluted form that favoured reform that took its place. But, hey, one of them hasn’t got a frighteningly large sculpture of his head for no reason. A consciousness was developed and it spread to all the places where the worker felt alienated: even football.

This was the early 1900s, and football was slightly different then. There was a maximum wage of £4 (“why don’t soldiers and nurses earn that sort of money?”) and the Manchester clubs did not hate each others’ guts quite as much, united by shared experiences and their hatred of the southern-based Football Association. If there’s one thing that’s stayed the same through time, and not just in football, it’s the widely-held contempt for those in charge. Billy Meredith, who played for both City and United, was one of the first to challenge the FA.

Meredith was quite the footballer: those who spoke about football spoke of Meredith. In 1935, Sir Frederick Wall wrote vividly of the “football prince … Meredith the magnificent” in his book 50 Years of Football. “Of the back-heel pass he was a ready exponent and he remains the only man I have ever seen chewing a quill toothpick while playing in the hardest of matches.” Meredith sounds like an early-day Eric Cantona (whose toothpick was his open collar); the best and most expressive player on the field who liked to do things on his own terms, regardless of who it upset.

Meredith’s transfer to United came only after the destruction of his all-conquering City side — in which he played a large part. In a tell-all, he admitted to bribery charges but claimed he was not alone in the act, and put the success of a working-class club like City (which the FA were apparently so perplexed by they went to investigate) down to the fact that players were mostly paid above the maximum wage. In breach of the rules, many were ordered to leave City at once. “The team delivered the goods, the club paid for the goods delivered and both sides were satisfied,” Meredith said, describing what must have seemed like a football-utopia. And not just to him: the FA, as we know, would only kill the maximum wage in 1961. Meredith didn’t know.

The desire for player power consumed Meredith. He told a popular union paper in 1909 that working-class professionals have, for too long, “put up with indifferences and injustices of many kinds”, it is only now that they have realised the extent of it. The biggest injustice — “the rank injustice” — was the £4 maximum wage. The Players’ Union, set up by Meredith and team-mate Charlie Roberts, sought to end put an end to it.

The FA initially played along to the union before deciding, in 1909, to have nothing to do with it. The wage ceiling would stay forever, and failure to resign from the union would put careers at risk. How lovely. Inevitably, many left (only Manchester United refused to back down, and were suspended, though temporarily). Meredith saw class traitors: “The unfortunate thing is that so many players … do just what they are told … instead of thinking and acting for himself and his class.” While he continued to dazzle on the field, and find great success from it, Meredith could never quite put this behind him. He would later tell a Players’ Union secretary to “always remind your members that caps and medals didn’t look after me in my old age.”


References/further reading: John Simkin’s biography of Meredith on Spartacus Educational; Ian King on the maximum wage and Gavin Saxton on the fall of Manchester City, both on; Ian McMillan’s report on ‘Outcast FC’ in the Guardian. With thanks to Paul and Greg Johnson for their help and Miguel Delaney for providing George Best material.


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