Andy Mitten occupies a unique position. A hardcore United fan with family connections to the club, (his Uncle played for Sir Matt’s first great United side); he started his own fanzine whilst still at school and then went on to organise away match coach travel. He studied Journalism and then became a football journalist. He remains a United fan, and to many his background as a home and away match going fan gives him a greater sense of credibility. He continues to edit United We Stand, is the author of a number of books on United and is a freelance journalist, his work featuring in magazines, newspapers and websites.
We are grateful to Andy for taking the time to answer a few questions ahead of the new season.
What are your thoughts on the transition post Sir Alex and Moyes and how do you see United in 5 years time?
Very difficult and not how anyone expected it to be.
To slip from champions to seventh was a failure for which many were responsible. I couldn’t see it coming. I didn’t laugh when Ed Woodward said the squad needed little re-tooling. Then United started to lose games against teams I’d long taken it for granted they’d beat. I’d been spoiled by success.
I have some sympathy for Moyes. He made mistakes, no doubt. He looked overwhelmed at times and I don’t believe he handled the media as well as he could have done, but there were many mitigating factors. He was undermined by several players – who will say they had good reasons for undermining him. He claims he wasn’t aware that United were briefing journalists. I know that he was handed several problems with a ‘I’m sorry about that, I should have dealt with that’ from Sir Alex. And unfortunately for Moyes, his name wasn’t Sir Alex Ferguson. Woodward said to Moyes that even Sir Alex would have struggled to take over from Sir Alex and I can see where he was coming from. The club lost a lot of good people in a short space of time and struggled to recover from it. I could write 10,000 words on what happened, but since this is a Q&A I’ll limit the answer.
So, Moyes went. He maintains that if he’d known he was getting ten months rather than six years then he would have done things very differently – but maybe it was naïve of him to think that he’d be given so long. And those home defeats to City and Liverpool were horrific weren’t they? It was hard to come back from them.
Ryan Giggs was overwhelmed by the intensity too and admitted that he should have chosen his strongest team, but he can learn from that. His four games in charge were not without benefit. I’d like him to be a future United manager and think Van Gaal has been good for him.
Where do I see United in five years time? One of the best three teams in English football and winning trophies. I’m optimistic.
What are your thoughts on van Gaal and what he has and will bring to United, both on and off the field?
I like his style and his idiosyncrasies. And I like them a lot more when he’s in charge of a winning team. I asked him for his opinion on Paddy McNair’s debut and he looked me in the eye and spent five minutes talking about everything except McNair’s debut. Laughed too when he brought his file out to counter Sam Allardyce’s accusations that United were long ball merchants.
He’s an experienced winner. He’s won trophies at previous clubs and I think he’ll win trophies at Old Trafford in the final chapter of his career. He has charisma and personality; he’s good with people he works with. He was like that at Barça, even when the media were slating him. He’ll make tough decisions as we’ve seen with Robin van Persie. And he’ll get some decisions wrong. But I think United are heading in the right direction. I think that if he gets his system going exactly as he wants it then United will be a fine side, but he needs everyone to buy into it. I saw his Barça team and they were a cracking attacking side, far more entertaining than his United side last season, even in his first year in Spain. I think he had a target of a top four finish and he hit it. The aims will be higher this season.
What’s your view on the current side and how do you see it progressing? Were there any games which stood out for the right reasons and why?
A side under heavy transition. I don’t think the manager knows his best team, nor formation, though maybe we all thought he did after those spring wins against Spurs, City and Liverpool. But then the season petered out into tedium.
Maybe it will click, like Yorke and Cole at Southampton when they played together. There are some wonderful footballers at United and he’s not got the best out of all of them. Hopefully that will change. Stand out games? The ones I mentioned. Liked Southampton away for the atmosphere too. Enjoyed the trip to Deepdale and the late win at Newcastle when United really needed a late win. There were segments of matches where United impressed hugely, the first half at Spurs for example. Yet in the second half looked like a different team.
Not enough highlights last season.
Which has been your favourite United side, formation and why?
The ’94 team with the 4-4-2 or the treble winners. It’s a shame the ’94 team didn’t get to play at their full strength in Europe. Maybe they wouldn’t have been experienced enough to win the European Cup but it would have been fun watching them try, rather than get taken apart in Gothenburg and Barcelona.
The treble winners won the lot and that away game in Turin was the best performance I’ve ever seen from a football team, though the objective journalist in me is saying Barça 5 Real Madrid 0 was better.
But let’s not be objective. Thinking of Turin excites me. I saw Keane recently on the 16th anniversary and reminded him. He was nonplussed. A shame. But I’ve seen him on other occasions and he’s said: ‘We had some great players in that side’ and got a touch nostalgic. Just a touch.
Which do you think was the better side, both technically and tactically, 1994, 1999 or 2008?
How could I forget to mention the 2008 side? Ronaldo is probably the best player I’ve ever seen for United. I loved Eric and Keane, but they didn’t come close to being European Footballer of the Year like Ronaldo fully deserved. You’d have to say the 2008 team. They went to Kiev, Rome and Lisbon and won. They drew in Lyon and Barcelona. The ’99 team went to places like Barça and attacked them. Was that wise? Probably not, but it made for a great game. By 2008, the team were content to control the game in a ground where teams don’t control games enough to get a draw, before beating them at Old Trafford.
Who is your all time favourite United player and which player do you feel has had the most influence on the club in your time? (If you answer Eric to either please identify the second as well).
Roy Keane. Best midfielder I’ve ever seen at the club. Robson was probably more influential, but Keane had better players around him and drive that team on an on. He had better luck with injuries than Robson, too.
Eric? What a head. As much as for what he was like off the field as on it. But Keane could be fascinating off the field too, especially for a journalist. You didn’t know whether he was going to be pleasant with you or offer you out.
Prior to becoming a journalist you started as a fanzine editor. How did the established and experienced journalists of the day react to you in your early days?
I had no problems. I was a kid and the older journalists – and most of them were men in their forties or fifties– were very friendly and helpful. I wasn’t a threat to them as I wasn’t writing transfer stories on their patch, I was more for features, books and fan culture than feeding the transfer junkies.
How did Sir Alex react to you as a Fanzine editor and what did you feel his position was in relation to Fanzines?
Initially good. He wrote to us to tell us that he liked United We Stand and granted us an interview. I was 17 and went along in a United top and took a mate for good measure, because I had no idea that you couldn’t take a mate to interview someone. What a knob.
I had a few run-ins with Fergie subsequent to that. I’m fine with that. I stand by everything I’ve written and people are allowed to disagree in life. I saw him recently in San Jose, shook his hand and said hello.
If UWS started today how would it be different? Particularly in light of following United today and the influence of social media.
It would have to offer original content which you can’t find anywhere else. Which is what we try to do now. There would be no point in filling it with blog standard features because people wouldn’t buy it. And we need people to buy it because we have bills to pay.
Do journalists abroad place greater emphasis on tactical analysis?
I think tactical analysis is a niche of football journalism. Some writers specialise in it and do well, they have their followers. I’m glad it’s discussed, but the point I always have thrown at me – usually from family who’ve been paid to play football – if I write about tactics is ‘How do you know, you have no qualifications, nor experience on the subject?’ Or ‘You wouldn’t advise a heart surgeon on how to do an operation so why should a manager listen to a journalist?’ Or fan, for that matter.
And I can see that point. I have actually managed a successful team with former pro players, but it was at a low level. I’d love to see some tactical journos put in charge of a real team – I think most would struggle as they’d be good on the theory and maybe not so good on the man management. Some of the tactical aficionados are a bit geeky, they should deffo get themselves a shag, and talk of ‘false whatevers’ makes me cringe, but if tactics are properly explained they can be fascinating. I know coaches who are enthralled watching how teams set up and seeing how the first five minutes of a game starts.
There’s been a big change in tactics in the UK in ten years. Now you have people like Gary Neville not just explaining the tactics, but explaining why they are being used. I wish I wasn’t inside football stadiums watching games to hear him sometimes as from what I’ve heard he’s excellent. I do enjoy watching a game with a professional and them pointing things out to me. The reality for a journalist watching for a match report is that you can’t follow the game as closely as you’d wish as there’s a small matter of writing 800 words or so by the final whistle.
We understand you live abroad. What’s this like from a personal and professional perspective and has it altered your outlook on United in any way?
I’ve divided my time between Barcelona, where I now have a wife and kids, and Manchester, where I’m from and all my family live, since 2001. Love it. It’s not conventional and wouldn’t have been possible in the pre-internet, pre-budget airline days, but it works for me. They’re two great football cities and I’ve got a place to stay in both cities, pay tax in both cities and watch Barça and United around 25 games live each and every season. Then I’ll go to another 30 games around the world – wherever I’m sent to write about it. I’ve watched football in Iceland, Oregon, Belgrade and Brazil in recent months.
People used to think I was obsessed with Manchester – (Ian Hawkey, then of The Sunday Times) a journalist once told me: ‘I’ve never met anyone as proud as where they’re from’ but truth is I got bored of Manchester in my mid 20s – the clubs, the bars, the envy, the cynicism. But being away makes me appreciate that it’s a decent city with crap weather. And I’m back so often that I never miss it.People in Barcelona complain that I’m always in Manchester and vice versa.
I also travel a lot aside from in England. Visited my 100th country in May. I’ve got a map where I put pins into the places I’ve been to. Not without reason, my wife thinks I loved that map more than her.
The travel is tiring and I miss my family when I’m away, but how can I complain? I’m being paid to fly around the world writing about football, meet interesting people and see often fascinating places. I caught wanderlust at 13 and I’ve not managed to shake it off. I blame my dad for rarely taking us on days out as a kid because he played football on a Saturday and wanted to rest on a Sunday. I’d hear of kids going to Alton Towers and think ‘why can’t we go to places like that?’
How do you see the future of the football journalist?
There was a lot of pessimism around a few years ago. I remember talking to a couple of the lads who covered United in Bilbao for that Athletic away game in 2012. Wages weren’t going up, people were losing their jobs. One national journalist told me he was considering teaching. Yet I’m writing this on the plane during the US tour. In 2010, I was the only person doing articles from the American tour for the Manchester Evening News. They didn’t send one of their staff reporters. They’ve got two on this tour, so there’s been a resurgence. There’s a huge demand for content, the demands just come from different places – websites rather than radio stations, for example. And there’s too much click bait crap out there which is depressing. But people like it and they get the media they demand.
I’m pretty optimistic though and respect football journalists who do their job properly by putting the hours in, travelling to games, building contacts and speaking to people in football. That takes time to build up.
What are your future plans within football journalism?
To carry on as I am. I try and find interesting and original stories about football, then put time into developing the contacts which lead to getting a story right. Two examples. I saw that Iceland were shooting up the world rankings and wanted to know why. I also saw that it was the only country in the world outside the UK where there seemed to be lots of British players making a living as professional footballers. So I looked into both factors and began to research them. Made contacts with some of the players – one, Sam Hewson, had been United’s reserve captain. And the key figures, the leading agents, Eidur Gudjohnson. And they put me in touch with the national team players. Then I went there for five days to write the story for FourFourTwo magazine. It was fascinating, this rise of a country with the population the size of Preston. And because nobody writes about them, they all wanted to speak.
Another example was the Belgrade derby, which I covered in April for ESPN FC. Madness. Absolute madness. But I didn’t just want to go there and patronise them and write through my western European eyes about what was right and wrong. So I made contacts with lots of people. Hooligans, players, journalists, diplomats, former players. They were all very helpful – a former Red Star player and Serbian international offered to pick me up at the airport, which I declined. But I saw him several times that weekend and we’ve kept in touch. He’s now in charge of Red Star’s youth system. I gathered all the information up and wrote a 4,000 worder. I adore doing that type of journalism, meeting people who love and live for football. It doesn’t bother me who they support, I grew out of all that nonsense long ago; if they’re properly into football that’s enough, if they like going to games or travelling away rather than watching football through a screen.
It was nothing to do with United but United are so big you can’t avoid them. There were adverts for United visa cards in the main square in Belgrade, I stayed in the hotel where the Babes had stayed. And I flew back from Macedonia. I sometimes say on Twitter where I am and where I’m going. United fans always get in touch. In Tehran, in Kosovo, in Macedonia. I met two Macedonian Reds. Bright young students who told me about their country. They were bang into United and said they’d love to go to Old Trafford one day, but they had little chance of a visa. It was the same in Tehran. There’s no danger of taking United for granted when you meet people like that.
As for the rest. Well, I’m my own boss; I’ve got a varied spread of work for decent outlets with people I enjoy working with.
I’d like to do more books, but Amazon have shredded the book market by screwing publishers. I’d get a smaller advance for a book now than a decade ago. Piracy doesn’t help either. You spend 800 hours writing a book and a lot more travelling to speak to people as part of it, then some anonymous div online asks for a free link on a forum. But journalism isn’t free. Those flights cost money, food costs money, time costs money.
We appreciate you taking the time to answer out questions, thanks a lot.