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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An exclusive Q&A with United author Tim Webber author of United Nations

Tim Webber is the author of the excellent and enjoyable United Nations: Around the Manchester United World in 80 Games.

Travelling around the world with his girlfriend Clare, he not only follows United games from afar across 11 time-zones, but in the process creates a unique travelogue around his experiences in each country as he witnesses United's global appeal and how the people around it interact with MUFC. Challenging, comical, at times heartfelt; trying to watch United wherever you are in the world can be a challenging experience.

Here Tim gives an exclusive Q&A

So Tim, you travelled the world, and watched United on your way, how did you cope?!

It certainly wasn't a normal season, and obviously missing the games live wasn't great - but it's hard to complain about seven months travelling without sounding a bit ungrateful to say the least! No, the trip was great, the football watching was different but certainly enlightening from a fan perspective, allowing me to see first hand how much is real and how much spin the club likes to put on the situation. Obviously most of what we see co-incides with the tours when it's not surprising that rafts of people turn out to see these 'global stars', it was interesting to see what it was like without the media machine in full swing. Although, ultimately it only served to put Clare (my girlfriend who I travelled with) off football even more than she had been already. So perhaps that question's more for her!

What gave you the inspiration to write the book?

I'd been doing a few United-specific freelance pieces for a couple of Asian websites, and their readers would send questions in and the answers were published the following week. Every single time I was basically answering the same questions, "How's Park doing?", "Why didn't Park play against so and so?", "Is Park leaving because he's not always in the starting XI?" I knew that there was an element of this perspective in the Asian fanbase particularly, but didn't expect it to be some all consuming. I just felt it was such a weird take to have on the team, and while it may have created some of the support in the first place it was just strange that it remained their only preoccupation. I thought it'd be a great spin on the raft of football books that see a given person go to Eastern Europe or Africa and compare their local football with ours, to actually go and see how these thousands of fans, that we're told exist, interact with United, compared to how we do at home. It's definitely a book that from a Premier League perspective could only be written about United. Plus, on top of that, it meant I had an excuse to go and watch United games no matter where we were or what time it was without Clare complaining too much (it worked to a degree!)

How hard was it missing the actual games and how did then watching them from afar feel?

It was harder to start with because each time I felt that I was missing out, plus the fact that it was often pretty difficult to find places to watch the games. Especially while we were in Asia, the time-difference etc just made the whole thing pretty knackering. I think that made it seem worse to an extent, the fact that it was never really all that simple. We moved through 14 countries in total in just seven months so there were only a few times where we were in one place for more than a match, all meaning that every match day we not only had to go and watch a 2.45am kick-off or such like, but had to find a new bar in a new place to watch the thing. Which for the book was great because in a lot of cases this made the journey all the more interesting, because it took us to places we wouldn't normally have considered, and met people that we wouldn't have met in normal circumstances and learnt a lot more about the countries we were in. But, there were plenty of times when I just thought "Fuck, I wish I was at home and could just go to ground." In terms of actually missing out on the games there was just a constant fear that I was going to miss something amazing, so that sense of missing out was much bigger ahead of the bigger matches. Even though I only missed out on seven months, I already felt there was a sense of detachment, because you can't live and breath the club as you normally would, you just don't absorb the level of information that you normally do without noticing. The games did provide my most frequent contact home though as that's when I'd be texting my brother (who I sit next to at OT) all the time, although obviously sending text messages at the ground is never the easiest thing to do!

What would you say was the most bizarre location you saw a game at?

There were a few 'interesting ones'. Watching the semi-final second leg of the league cup against Derby on a TV outside in pitch black on a Kenyan campsite on my own with the bone-shattering noises of hippos yawning in the background was pretty unsettling. I kept a tight grip on my torch although I'm not sure what I thought it would do. But I think the one that illustrated the country we were in the best was when we watching the Manc derby in an Indian family home (in the south of India) and were shown ridiculous hospitality by everyone there. We'd asked this guy who was running the place we were staying where was best to watch the football, as we were in this tiny place with no bars or anything, and he'd tried to sort us a TV but couldn't get one so just invited us to his house. We expected it'd just be us and him, but he had his whole extended family there, and they'd all been sitting around watching something else but just changed their whole evening to accommodate us, and then threw their support behind United to match. Watching a whole family of kids dive into a huddle when Rooney scored was pretty funny. But it just gave such a sense of their family life, people coming and going constantly, it's something that we wouldn't have ever got near if we'd just been there as normal tourists.

United's global appeal, marketing myth or reality?

Well it's a myth I think to the educated eye, there's not huge crowds gathering to watch their every game, there's not a noticeable swell of support across Asia as they'd have you believe. But what I think there is, is a belief that it's reality. There's a cynicism in the UK (as there should be) about the club's press releases, but abroad people seem to swallow them, that's why there's not a great opposition to the ownership, because the club say the finances are fine. So, it's a bit smoke and mirrors but there are signs that it's working financially for the club but only because they seem to have shifted tactics. I don't think they're there to scoop up the man off the street and make him a United fan. They are there to create a level of hysteria, and then use that positive publicity to generate commercial deals. There's evidence of that in places like Thailand, where the club's deal with Smirnoff sees huge billboards with Rooney and Ferdinand advertising vodka, there are ads for the United credit card. It's this sense of the familiar and a sense of presence that they are trying to create and that's why they've got to the point where they can sign the £10 mill deal with Airtel in Saudi Arabia just for the use of player images - there's enough recognition of the 'United brand' that it's not merely about the football for the club in Asia. The sponsorship deals with Budweiser for instance are being used by Bud rather than United in places like Vietnam to create football tournaments with the winners coming to OT, so it's about using the club's name in a mutually backslapping way. But the significance is that it's all in Asia, in East Africa there's huge interest in Premier League football in general (and probably more Arsenal than United to be honest), there are more club shirts than in England, there are small bars in every village with adverts for the next Premier League game. Even a Masai tribe, by the Masai Mara game park had a post office-cum-bar that showed English football. It's there that United and the rest of the league (the big clubs at least) have appeal but of course there's no real money out there compared to the emerging economies, so that's why Asia is the battle ground.

Which country do you most fondly recall now you are back?

Probably Japan I think from purely a travelling perspective - from a United one it was the worst timezone. We were only there for a short time and because we were travelling rather than on holiday we just didn't have enough money to make it really accessible. But Tokyo would be top of the places that I'd like to go back to. The people are so unbelievably friendly as well, it was just brilliant.

And what United related memory from the travels do you remember the best?

There were a few. Watching the derby as mentioned above (in India) was one. Meeting up with a large group for the away game against Inter in Cape Town was enjoyable and gave me a new spin on the social angle of watching the games - it was a much more familiar English style environment - and perhaps that was part of it too. Watching us hammer Chelsea in Delhi was also a good one, it was like watching a football match with the crowd from Gladiators, and as such I'd been expecting to hate it, and was in a bit of a mood 'cos I was missing the game for real, but actually really enjoyed it and the atmosphere. I think the main thing it allowed was putting us in contact with locals that we wouldn't have interacted with otherwise, for instance we watched the World Club Cup final with a United fan who'd narrowly avoided being shot in the Mumbai terror attacks the previous month and it was so interesting to speak to him and have him take us up the road past one of the attack sites, and him pointing out where the attackers had come from and where he'd run to - that sort of thing just wouldn't have happened without us having a mutual appreciation of United.

thanks to Tim for his time. Red News recommends this unique book.