A Season in Red: Managing Man Utd in the Shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson, Jamie Jackson, Aurum Press Ltd, London 2015

Jamie Jackson is the Manchester football correspondent for the Guardian and Observer newspapers; as such his working life involves covering the trials and tribulations of United on a day-by-day, week-by-week, match-by-match basis. His access, perhaps not as full as a fan might imagine, still gives him a close up view of many events as they unfold and so, potentially, a greater insight. It should certainly give him greater access to information upon which to base his opinions and analysis.  Freed from the day-to-day, writing this book provides Jackson with an opportunity to look back with a wider perspective and re-review events with hindsight, identifying themes, a direction of travel and a re-appraisal of the significance of happenings. That is what we would look for in a book of this type, an overview examining the subject area with informed insight and perspective. Do we get that?

Yes we do, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, but a number of questions remain.

These questions revolve around what the book thinks it is, or more to the point what Jamie thinks it is. The most obvious question relates to the title, “A Season in Red” because the book covers two seasons, one for David Moyes and one for Louis van Gaal, not a single season as the title suggests. The sub-title, “Managing Man Utd after Sir Alex Ferguson” sort of saves the day, but those extra seven words feel like a bit of an afterthought.  At a recent reading and Q&A at the Manchester Football Writing Festival, Jamie revealed that originally the idea was to produce a book about Van Gaal, charting his first year at the club which goes someway to explaining things.

The Scene Setters - Book 1

The Scene Setters – Book 1

At the reading Jamie also identified the four main characters in this story: David Moyes and Louis van Gaal of course, but in addition Sir Alex Ferguson and Edward Woodward. Woodward is significant in Jamie’s view primarily because of his role rather than as a person (although Jamie acknowledges that Woodward the personality and the role he fulfils are inextricably linked). He is the man charged by the Glazer family with responsibility for driving the commercial juggernaut that is Manchester United in the 21st century and as such he helps to set the context, defines the on-going landscape within which two of the protagonists must operate. Sir Alex is significant as the hard act to be followed.  He sets the other key aspect of that context.

This sets up the book’s structure. Jamie described this as almost novelistic, split into three, a scene-setting first book with a chapter on each of the scene setters, one on Sir Alex and a chapter on Woodward, (and that commercialism) followed by two longer books, one on David Moyes and one on Louis van Gaal. Compare and contrast.

David Moyes - Book 2

David Moyes – Book 2

The structure of the book appears significant to Jamie and it is something he spent some time explaining at the reading. He described the on-going Manchester United story as almost like a soap opera, a continuous burlesque and in many ways it is. As well as his description of the novelistic structure he also made several filmic references when talking. So is it a film, is it a book, is it a TV series? Inevitably as a specialist in one field of writing, stepping into another format one is faced with the need to reappraise and amend one’s approach; Jamie is aware of this, as his focus on the books structure confirms. So what do we have here, a panorama of United management in the post Sir Alex era; or an appraisal of a certain tendency of United management in an age of commercialism; or a box set, episodes I-V of the Manchester United show, post Sir Alex?

Returning to the central themes raises another question. Is any of this new? United fans of an older generation might tell us that we have been here before. Was Sir Matt Busby any harder an act to follow at the time? In the context of the age were the pressures upon a United manager any more significant in the late 60’s early 70’s? Maybe, maybe not; pressures are almost certainly more immediate and public in the age of short attention spans, impatience and social media but are they that different? The book doesn’t focus on the club’s previous experiences with these issues in any detail or examine how different managers or different characters have responded to these pressures in the past. That is a pity because there is a clear pattern here. More of that pattern anon.

Louis van Gaal - Book 3

Louis van Gaal – Book 3

Returning to the soap opera analogy raises other questions. When a journalist writes a book it is almost akin to a producer taking a soap opera or a TV series to the big screen. A film needs a start, a middle and an end, the narrative needs closure, whilst a soap opera has an episodic structure and doesn’t. Within a soap opera there are story lines, and Jamie identified one or two when talking (the Falcao interlude for example) and a book can explore these but in a novel they generally contribute in some way to the closure of the narrative. To be fair to Jamie this story is on-going, there is no closure yet, which begs the question why write this book now?

I don’t agree with all Jamie’s interpretations of events or the inherent conclusions therein, but that doesn’t matter, this is still a highly enjoyable read. Keen United fans will be familiar with most of the events and issues described, but Jamie brings his own interpretation and illuminates many of the issues. It is a thought provoking read. Taken at face value the book does exactly as the dust jacket describes, it “charts the disastrous ten-month reign of David ‘The Chosen One’ Moyes and the club’s first season with the Iron Tulip, Louis van Gaal”. But that undersells it.

Returning to those central themes and that clear pattern, if I look back at all United managers who have managed the club over my lifetime they can be sub-divided into two clear groups. There are those who were big strong characters, not necessarily nice people but bold decisive, charismatic, ruthless when necessary and critically they were all successful, they all won trophies. They are Sir Matt, Tommy Docherty, Ron Atkinson and Sir Alex. Then there are the others, good coaches, good managers, nice men, but perhaps too timid or perhaps too cautious, perhaps too indecisive to lead a club the size of United. They are Wilf McGuiness, Frank O’Farrell, Dave Sexton and David Moyes.

To close the narrative we need to know in which category Louis van Gaal will reside. Jamie’s view is that the jury is still out on Van Gaal, and many fans will agree. A trophy is the only real way to close the narrative definitively.

As the man himself says, “it is like that.  We will have to wait and see”.  Role on the sequel.

A Season in Red: Managing Man Utd in the Shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson, by Jamie Jackson, available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Season-Red-Managing-shadow-Ferguson/dp/1781315124