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'He’s put me on the ropes, and just as I’m about to verbally swing back… 'Anyway son, it’s great to see you'

Andy Mitten grants an insight into how Alex Ferguson operated on the latest episode of Behind the Lines.

Alex Ferguson, pictured last year.
Alex Ferguson, pictured last year.
Image: Bradley Collyer

“I’M JUST ABOUT the only one who didn’t receive money to play football”, says Andy Mitten of a family steeped in football. The most famous of them all is his great-uncle Charlie, who played under Matt Busby at Manchester United before he followed greats like Alfredo Di Stefano in moving to Colombia. 

In 1950, Charlie was approached by a Spaniard called Santiago Bernabeu, sounded out for interest in joining the team he was assembling at Real Madrid. Charlie’s wife was homesick, however, and he instead returned to England, where Busby refused to take him back as he had broken his contract to move to South America. He ultimately joined Fulham, and later managed Newcastle. 

Andy didn’t quite get the talents of his great-uncle, and instead forged a different career in the game, and is now editor-at-large for FourFourTwo and a contributor to a range of outlets including the BBC, the Athletic and the Sunday Times. 

He is perhaps best known as the founder of Manchester United fanzine, United We Stand. He set it up in 1989 as a 15-year-old student and, more than 30 years on, it is one of Britain’s best-selling fanzines. 

“I felt football fans got a raw deal. Being asked to pay four pounds to stand on a crap terrace, thinking, ‘This is wrong, we are being treated like cattle’”, says Andy of his desire to give fans a voice through United We Stand

Andy is our latest guest on Behind the Lines, our weekly sportswriting podcast exclusive to members of The42

(Behind the Lines is a weekly podcast exclusive to members of The42, in which we speak with writers about their careers and their favourite writing. Access to the 53-episode back catalogue is just one of the benefits of becoming a member of The42and to sign up, go to members.the42.ie.)

Two years after its founding, Andy scored his first interview with Alex Ferguson for United We Stand

“I wrote to him requesting an interview and he wrote straight back. ‘I don’t like fanzines, but I’ve read United We Stand and it’s a bit different. If you want to do an interview, come and introduce yourself on the pre-season tour in Norway.’ 

“I introduced myself to him, as he came out of the shower with a towel on in Lillestrom. Then I interviewed him in Trondheim. It was a terrible interview. It was one of my first interviews, and it was with Ferguson! 

“I also look back and think, ‘What an idiot.’

“It wasn’t very good. I told him after an hour I had to go and meet my mates. Why was I calling time on an interview with Ferguson? I also took a mate along, as I didn’t realise you weren’t allowed to take a mate. He was laughing at us. I recorded the thing on a tape-to-tape ghetto blaster. He was laughing and must have been thinking, ‘Who is this idiot?’ And I was an idiot. I look back now at that interview and cringe. You learn how to do follow-up questions and how to do your job properly.” 

Happily, his first interview with Ferguson was not his last. 

“I had ups and downs with him. I had times getting the hairdryer treatment: I remember reviewing his autobiography. It was a good review, but I explained why he had been critical of certain people, and he didn’t like that. At all. 

“Next time he granted an interview to me, he was a bit frosty with me, but he did grant me the interview. Then the tape went off and he’s like, Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. 

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“‘What do you know about books?’

“I thought, ‘I’m not scared of you, at all. I know about books because I write books.’

“So he’s put me on the ropes, and just as I’m about to swing back, verbally…’Anyway son, it’s great to see you.’

“That’s really clever. He’s made his point, and he gave me a good interview. I don’t think he liked the fanzines, particularly the fact we objected to the Glazer takeover of United. 

“We have to agree to disagree on that. I’d rather remember him for some of the greatest moments ever. Thanks to that man I travelled the world.” 

Did he ever figure Ferguson out? 

“I wasn’t at all the press conferences…maybe I didn’t want to be. Maybe I didn’t want to lose my love for him; maybe I didn’t want to see too much of that side to him.

“Maybe I still wanted to sing his name and celebrate when he decided to stay at United? I know there is a huge amount of goodness there, and incredible acts of kindness. We disagree on other stuff, that’s fine.

“He was autocratic, I didn’t agree with him banning some journalists for writing truth. I don’t think he would get away with that now but he was of an age and he did that to his style.

“But look, this is a man who took a team to Turin in ‘99, where I’m sitting at half time thinking, ‘I’ve never felt like this in my life.’” 

You can listen to the full interview with Andy by subscribing at members.the42.ie

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Gavin Cooney

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