Manchester: a football city on many different levels

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I’m spending the week on the road interviewing footballers for my next book on Manchester United in the 70s. They’re all being offered the same fee and every player asked for an in-depth interview so far has said yes, so I’m working through 11 interviews for the 11 chapters.

I stayed with Gordon Hill last summer to do his interview and I’ve met up with Jimmy Nicholl, Gerry Daly, Jimmy Greenhoff, Lou Macari and former captain Martin Buchan this week. Next up is Joe Jordan in that London. Tommy Docherty and Sammy McIlroy have also agreed to be a part of the book and I’ve yet to contact two other players that I have in mind.

They’re all completely different personalities and their lives have taken very different paths, but without exception, they have all been utterly fascinating. Part of the attraction is that I get about three hours with each, time for a proper conversation about their lives. That and they love talking about some of the happiest times in those lives.

Some are close friends, others haven’t spoken for decades, but they all have their stories to tell about the roller coaster that is life. I’ve gone through a range of emotions, from laughing out loud at stories of ridiculous pranks to holding back the tears hearing how some former players lost their kids.

None of them were born in Manchester, yet many settled in the city. Some couldn’t return home because of the political climate of the time, others had settled here with the kids in school when their careers finished.

Manchester is a football city on many levels. Not only do players live and stay in the city, but many ancillary services are based there: agents, footballer friendly restaurants and car dealers. A significant number of tourists who come to the city do so for football.

Glasgow can be similar – a taxi driver from Ibrox a few months ago was explaining how vital football tourists from across the water were to his livelihood. Someone involved in boxing was saying that one reason Manchester gets so many bouts is because they know they can sell high end tickets to wealthy young footballers.

And it’s not just United and City players who live in Manchester, but players from Bolton, Blackburn, Wigan, Burnley, Liverpool and Everton. They buy big houses or fancy apartments, put their kids in the top schools and use the local services…though I’ve yet to see Wayne Rooney on a bus.

An agent mate visited for the first time this week from Spain and commented that you can talk about football with every cabbie. He was bringing the former Anderlecht midfielder Mark De Mann on trial to a Championship club close to Manchester.

I met Mark for a brew and he was asking about living in the north west, when perhaps he should have been more concerned about potential confusion at set pieces if players shout his full name. He was a good lad, a former Belgian international, who speaks decent English and was keen to highlight the tourist attractions of his country when all I wanted to speak about was the second battle of Ypres and the Battle of the Bulge.

At least I could talk to him in Manchester. If I ever get round to doing a United in the 2010’s book, I doubt that most of the players will still be living in the city, boxing bouts and car dealerships or not.