The old Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times,’ can never have seemed truer for Michael Crick, the Channel Four News political correspondent. Since the referendum on EU membership in 2016 he has seldom had a day off our screens.
But unfortunately, explaining to viewers what is going on in Brussels, Westminster and all points in between prevents him from seeing enough of his beloved Manchester United, Albion’s opponents at Old Trafford on Saturday.
“Football is a great break from politics,” he says. “But my attendance record this season is the worst for many years partly because of all the Brexit stuff and not being able to get away in midweek as a result. And goodness knows how long that is going to continue, even if we don’t have another referendum or General Election.”
Unlike some figures in the political world who have difficulty remembering which team they are supposed to ‘support,’ Michael has been a home and away fan since he was 12 and has written several books on United when the day job at Channel Four or the BBC has permitted.
“In February 1967 when I was eight my family moved from Northampton to Hazel Grove, three miles from Stockport,” he said. “One day in the school playground someone called Andrew Crate asked me what football team I supported. I said I didn’t support any team and he said, ‘Okay, you support Manchester United then.’ I said: ‘Right, I will.’
“I started following their results in the paper and then in October 1970 I went, on my own, to see a home game against Crystal Palace, which we lost to a Bobby Tambling header. And after that I was hooked and I went to virtually every home game for the rest of that season and a few away.
“My first away game was the semi-final of the League Cup against Aston Villa, in front of 63,000. I was on the open terrace opposite the Holte End. Again I went on my own, only 12, two days before Christmas, and we lost 2-1 to third division Aston Villa!”
He has kept on through thick and thin. Yes, for those who believe football began in 1992, there were relatively thin times, even for United. “The first six or seven years of watching United weren’t very successful or strewn with glory, but I’m an addictive person.
“I only missed two games in 1971-72, and went to every game, home and away, in 72-73, when we nearly got relegated, and in 73-74, when we did. If I had my time again, thinking about it rationally, I would probably support Northampton Town or Stockport County, and that would be real masochism!
“I hitch-hiked or went on the train until I couldn’t afford it any longer. The season in the second division I missed Portsmouth and Millwall away because they were night games and I couldn’t get the time off school, but that was a great season under Tommy Docherty. We lost a few but I went to all these new grounds and you didn’t need to buy tickets [in advance], you just got there and queued. But it was very violent, and I hated that.
“From 1976 I was at university and I was too wrapped up in student life at weekends, so I only went in the holidays but once I was in full-time employment in London I could afford to go up on the train every week and got a season ticket.
“Nowadays I go to about two-thirds of the games. European away trips are a bit of a struggle. But I think the away games are the best. All United fans do. They stick in the memory more and there’s more of an atmosphere.”
The away matches included visits to Sussex, although he missed both Albion’s Premier League victories over United. “My first trip to Brighton was a goalless draw at the Goldstone in March 1980, the worst game I think I’ve ever seen. We’d lost 6-0 at Ipswich a fortnight before and then drawn at home to Everton 0-0, so we were on a streak of nils. We won at Brighton the following season 2-1 and the next season we won 1-0 on April 24 1982 and Norman Whiteside made his debut at 16.
“Apart from the 1983 Cup Final – I went to both games – there was the League Cup game where David Beckham made his debut. But I’ve not been to your new ground, because the first game in May was the day after the local elections and I had to report on the aftermath, and the second one this season we’d already arranged our holidays before the fixtures came out. So I’m desperately hoping you don’t get relegated because I do need to visit your ground and under my rules I can’t do it until United play there.”
As you might expect from anyone whose main activity is probing the nooks and crannies of the grubby political world, Michael is not an uncritical supporter of his club. “I set up a shareholders’ organisation at the time of the proposed Sky takeover and took time off television to run it. I’d never done anything like that before, but we took it to the Monopolies’ Commission and in the end we won.
“That was in the Treble-winning season, so for us it was a Quadruple-winning season. On the other hand, I would prefer Sky to the Glazers as owners, so in a way I wish we’d lost!
The Glazers suck so much out of the club while our rivals are pumping money in. It is a huge handicap in the long term, although I don’t suppose we are going to get much sympathy from Brighton fans!”
He has also written two books that shone a light into some dark corners. “I’ve written United trivia books as well as my political biographies but I also co-wrote United: Betrayal of a Legend [about the post-Matt Busby years], which was one of the first books to look into the politics and finance of a club. It was novel for its time to do proper journalism about football.
“The bigger book was The Boss: the many sides of Alex Ferguson. Some people say it’s disloyal to write these books but I think overall fans appreciated them. Ferguson hates the book as far as I can gather, although I’ve never spoken to him about it.
“It’s ‘warts and all.’ I’m an overall admirer but there are aspects of his character where he plays pretty fast and loose with the rules and where the board should have cracked down on him, particularly over the role of his son Jason.
“He was, at times, an appalling bully and not a role model in that respect although in so many other ways he was a brilliant manager. Maybe one day I’ll write some more books about them, but I find it hard to be a television reporter too.”
Might one possible title might be Betrayal of a Legend II about the club’s attempts to replace Ferguson? “There are remarkable parallels,” he agrees. “I did say that after he had gone, there would be five years when there would be a lot of different managers, which has proved true, although it may be ten years, or 15! We may never find anyone else who does another 25-year stint.
“I’d like to get back into football journalism, to delve into everything that has gone on at Old Trafford in the last five years, and maybe some areas of the club’s history. The trouble is that getting access is a lot harder than it was even when I did the Ferguson book. The other challenge is that there is comparatively little documentation, whereas in politics there are documents everywhere, some secret and some not-so-secret.
“There are problems being a day-to-day football journalist, having to maintain relationships with the clubs. The journalists who followed United were far too soft on Ferguson and turned a blind eye on some of the things that were going on and didn’t ask the questions they should have.
“But they would say they couldn’t afford to because they would be banned from matches and press conferences. It is where political journalism was 30 years ago - far too deferential to people in power, although I can see their point of view.”
Like many United fans, he was happy to see the back of Jose Mourinho, although initially he was not as sceptical as some. “People did warn me, including a few Chelsea fans who are friends. But the style of football under Van Gaal was so appalling, and Mourinho was a manager who produced such quick results, that you overlooked the miserable character and the joyless football.
“What was remarkable was how long United fans tolerated him. I suppose the initial success helped, winning a couple of trophies, and there was a feeling that certain players simply weren’t playing for him. It wasn’t entirely his fault and that there were players with attitude problems – [Paul] Pogba, [Alexis] Sanchez and [Romelu] Lukaku.”
He cautiously welcomes the appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjær as caretaker-manager. “If by the end of the season we have had a good Cup run, or beaten Paris Saint-Germain or managed to get into the top four, then maybe we should give him more of a chance. He is much more in the United style, and that includes the emphasis on youth, which again was an aspect of Mourinho that most of us found disappointing.
“Pogba seems to be revived, although we need to see a bit more from Lukaku, and Sanchez has barely played. My worry is whether he [Solskjær] is ruthless enough to get a grip on wealthy footballer when things aren’t going well. Is he too nice?
“The next few games should be testing, like Arsenal in the Cup. Maybe the Brighton game too. To say anything else would be silly. Mourinho was actually quite good at pulling off good results against top-six sides but those were the games against teams further down the table where we dropped points. As we saw last year!”