For over a decade Daniel Taylor has been The Guardian’s main man in Manchester, covering both United and City.
His 2007 book This is The One: Sir Alex Ferguson – The Uncut Story of a Football Genius was published to critical acclaim yet it led to a ban from Ferguson’s press conferences that still stands today.
Last weekend Danny shared his thoughts on covering United, Ferguson and his book.
Samuel Luckhurst: You started covering United in 2000, how did that come about?
Daniel Taylor: It’s all fairly straightforward, moved up to Manchester to do some freelancing with a guy who was established up here (Ian Whittell), brazenly used his contacts among the national newspaper sportdesks and the Guardian asked if I would go full-time. I could have gone to the Mail, but the Mail back then was a strange place (imagine 12 angry men shouting at each other from behind their desks all day). Oh, and the Mirror too, but they were banned from United at the time, so I took the easy option. Plus the Guardian’s, well, the Guardian, isn’t it? Great newspaper, loyal readership, Manchester background. Suits a plastic Manc like me.
SL: Was Ferguson initially diplomatic towards you as a novice covering United?
DT: The first time I met him, he shook my hand but didn’t really say anything. Just looked me up and down. The coward in me was relatively satisfied with that (I’d been warned to prepare for anything). Then, when I’d left, he asked Peter Fitton (then of the Sun): “Who the fuck’s that? He’s not a reporter, he looks more like the bass player from Oasis.”
I’ve seen other newbies get a lot worse though. I don’t have a London accent, which helps – he’s immediately suspicious when reporters are sent up from London. One guy, married with kids, in his mid-30s, tried to introduce himself once and Fergie cut him dead. Fergie just turned to us and went: “Jesus Christ, do they get them straight from fucking school these days.”
SL: Has he mellowed as much as he suggests?
DT: He has with the players. I’ve spoken *clears throat for blatant name-drop* to Ryan Giggs about this a few times. A lot of the players don’t speak English for starters, so yelling at them isn’t going to do much good. Plus footballers these days are a sensitive lot, aren’t they? You could imagine Nani bursting into tears at . . . (OK, I’m joking; no more death threats please, Twitter crazies, thanks)
One of Fergie’s better qualities, I always think, is the way he moves with the times. He knows it’s a different breed these days. That said, he still has his moments – Crawley at home, for example – when it’s full-on rage.
As for the press, he no longer shouts at us like the (good) old days, but that’s only because he rarely gets the opportunity to shout at us. Since December 2005 he changed the format of his press conferences so that everyone is in the same room together – written journalists, radio, TV etc etc. Before, he would have ‘separates.’ Now, with television cameras present, he knows he can’t ‘Hairdryer’ anyone. It would be on News at Ten if he did. Seriously, I’ve seen it many times. Everything you’ve heard . . it’s worse, believe me. So the old bollockings are a thing of the past now. His press conferences now are tense, joyless affairs. The journalists have to abide to rules about what is accepted and what is not, and Fergie just looks like he would rather be chewing on barbed wire. It’s a bland set-up, with formulaic answers, whereas a bollocking was worthwhile every now and then behind closed doors because it was usually accompanied by something worthwhile in terms of copy.
SL: When did you latch on to the idea for 'This Is the One'?
DT: It was my own idea, a legacy of all the dinners out and trips away with other journalists and hearing all the stories about Fergie/United that had never been written about. There were so many of them I just thought it would be good to start keeping a diary of covering the club and see where it took me. Initially it was just going to be one year, but then it became two and, to be honest, I was fortunate because those two years (2005-07) were a wild graph of ups and downs. It starts in the summer when Keane walked off the training pitch in Portugal and Fergie yelling at everyone who got in his way, and it culminates two years later with him winning the title and him pouring champagne for the journalists (plastic cups, mind). In hindsight, it was the perfect time to do the book in terms of showing his many different faces, good and bad.
SL: Paddy Barclay spoke with Ferguson directly about his 'Football, Bloody Hell' biography, only to be rebuffed initially and when he went to Milan to speak to Mourinho, Ferguson messaged Mourinho to curb any loquacious help he may have been offering Barclay. Did you consciously avoid speaking to Ferguson directly about the book given his hostility towards unauthorised books about him?
DT: I wrote to him, via an email to the club’s press office, in January 2007 (the book came out in May) to say I was planning a diary-style book and received a reply from the press office saying ‘fine, good luck, plenty of material to go with!’ So full steam ahead! Unfortunately, it later transpired that the press office hadn’t actually shown him my original email. For what reason, I don’t know. I can only imagine it was because of their general reluctance to speak to him (fear, you could call it). So when the book came out, the first he saw of it was a review in the Independent. In Fergie’s mind, this made the book a deception and, to be fair, I can see his point a little. Cue ban from his press conferences etc etc. I’ve tried to explain to him since then but you know what he's like – once his mind is made up . . . It’s been four years nearly, so I doubt it will ever change. It’s not ideal but you just get on with it.
SL: You say in This Is the One that United will be a 'much more boring football club to cover' in the wake of Keane's exit, has that proven to be the case?
DT: I was covering the Republic of Ireland in 2002 so Keane, for me, will always be THE story. After he left OT the papers had certainly lost someone who could clear the back pages for you, but . . . did I actually say that? I can’t remember that. I hope you’re not misquoting me (my job, remember).
SL: You did indeed. Page 88. Did this season's Rooney saga trump Keane's monthly incidents in 2005?
Certainly the biggest story for a while. It’s a rare form of excitement for a journalist when something like that is breaking. It came out on the Sunday and wasn’t publicly confirmed until the Tuesday afternoon, remember, so there were a lot of people jumping up and down at the start to insist it couldn’t be true (lots of ‘but, but, but . . there’s no quotes’). Then, when Fergie went public, the following two/three days, the PR war that erupted between the two factions and the second of Fergie’s press conferences (the cow analogy etc), that was Manchester United’s manager at his very best. He was playing the media, acting to a quality De Niro would be proud of, all of it . . but he was fucking brilliant.
SL: Has a United player ever chastised you a la Gary Neville grilling David McDonnell in Budapest?
DT: No. But Phil Neville stuck two fingers up at me once when I was late for a press conference and had started sounding my horn because he was blocking the lane to Carrington signing autographs. Does that count? Roy Keane road-raged me once too, which was an interesting experience. He went fucking nuts.
SL: What's the most memorable United game you've covered?
DT: It’s difficult to say. It’s different when you’re working. You enjoy it, but it’s not the same. For example, John Terry misses his penalty and seriously the whole pressbox in Moscow is thinking the same thing (expletives removed): ‘We are miles past deadline already and why is the wireless not working?’ I support Forest and can remember all sorts of games from growing up, but my memory doesn’t work in the same way for games involving other clubs. Plus I wasn’t in Barcelona in 1999, which I suppose would be the obvious stand-out match (though I doubt many of the journalists who had just filed their match reports at 1-0 would agree it was the best two minutes in the history of football).
SL: Are you looking forward to Ferguson retiring if it makes life easier for you and the other journalists?
DT: I don’t really think that way. For starters, we’ve been talking about Fergie retiring for nearly a decade now and he’s still here, going strong. Yes, the next manager might be nicer to the press but he might also be the blandest man in the world. I quite enjoy it as it is (even if there are times when I’d like to drop a flowerpot on his head). A change of manager would be really interesting – strange almost – but it’s difficult to imagine it, even though we all know it’s approaching (soonish). Maybe.
SL: Someone like Neil Custis appears to have a patent loathing for United and what they stand for whereas through your reporting, there seems to be a soft spot despite harsh treatment towards you. Has that been the case since you started covering United?
DT: I’m sure Neil would disagree with that but, for me, what is there to complain about? Yes, you get disillusioned sometimes. Yeah, I wish Fergie was a bit more media-friendly, that there was more access to the players, not such a hostile them-and-us attitude and all the rest of it. There’s plenty I don’t like about United: the owners, the deceit, the way they think it appropriate to sue one of their own supporters, the way they have turned supporters into ‘customers.’ But there’s plenty to admire too. When you cover a club, meet the people (of which there are many good uns) and travel the world watching them, you inevitably get a softish spot for them. It was the same when I started out in journalism (covering Derby and Leicester, as a Forest fan, and making friends from both clubs). I’ve been to 40 different countries with United and you end up feeling a small *tiny* part of the club (like a tick on the back of a dog, you could say) and I’d much rather cover a club that sell out all away matches (ie make every match feel like an occasion), have a strong supporter network, good fanzines etc. That said, it doesn’t go any further than that – when I’m watching United in the pressbox I am generally thinking about a) the score at the City Ground and b) the usual panic/stress of writing and filing my match report BEFORE the game ends. It really doesn’t matter to me who wins. On a similar theme, I generally wish City well too because I’m a journalist first and foremost and I want to cover successful clubs, the big stories, Champions League nights etc. So I’ve enjoyed City suddenly challenging at the top, too. If @steve_mcfc is reading this (he will be) . . I mean that, big man xx
SL: And finally… Bébé: more Muhammad Ali or Ali Dia?
DT: I have to be careful with this one because Fergie – clever bloke that he is – rebounded it on to me last time by saying it was “vicious” reporting (to report that he hadn’t been considered ready enough for the reserves). So I will simply quote you a (middle-ranking) staff member at OT: “It’s like watching a competition winner.’