The Round Ball on the Square Box: 

Part Five: Manchester

A lot of Manchester United supporters get upset when the link between their club’s support and the TV/Armchair is pointed out.  However aside from a brief period of success in the early 1900s, their glory years are almost entirely within the Post-TV era.  An example of Man United’s position in the scheme of things before the Second World War is seen by the fact that when finishing rock bottom of the old First Division in 1930/31, their average attendance had been just 11,685.  A year later, just 3,507 spectators turned out for a second tier home fixture against Southampton.  Man United had the great fortune that their rise to prominence in the early 1950s also coincided with the rise of Television.

Many people attribute the growth of their non-Manchester fan base to the Munich Air Disaster, it did however slightly pre-date this.  Before Munich, Man United did feature live on television on several occasions, with the second half of their Charity Shield game with Newcastle United in September 1952 shown live on the BBC.  Also, in 1957 ITV showed live the second half of Man United’s second leg European Cup Semi Final tie with Real Madrid (with regular highlights of that European Cup run also featuring on TV). The FA Cup Final was the only fixture that was guaranteed to be shown live in full and in 1957, United reached that year’s FA Cup Final, losing 1-2 to Aston Villa.  In late October 1957, the second half of their FA Charity Shield game with Aston Villa (a rematch of the FA Cup Final) was shown on the BBC with Man United running out 4-0 winners.

The Munich Air Disaster followed just over three months later, with the BBC News announcement of the crash with Kenneth Kendall and interview with England manager Walter Winterbottom shown below.  The story of the Busby Babes would be dramatized in a 2011 BBC film made for TV called ‘United’, which starred former Dr Who David Tennant, as well as former ‘Auf Wiedersehen Pet’ star Tim Healy and ‘Playing the Field’ star Melanie Hill as Bobby Charlton’s mother Cissie. 

In 1965, the Man United team starred in an hour long film called ‘Cup Fever’.  The story centres on fictional side Barton United who reach a Cup Final, but their ground was closed to make way for a car park.  Arrangements were made to train with Manchester United at Old Trafford for an afternoon, where they get to meet United manager Matt Busby, as well as George Best and Denis Law among others.  The film also stars Susan George and Bernard Cribbins.  There was also a guest appearance from Man City FA Cup Final hero Bert Trautmann, who presents the Cup to the winning side.

Despite the notoriety of their Red neighbours, Man City could lay claim to being Manchester’s biggest fish pre-war, with attendances as high as 84,569 for an FA Cup tie with Stoke City in March 1934 or 79,491 against Arsenal the following year.  The first time the two sides rose to prominence at the same however would be around the late 1960s.  Man United were riding high in the national consciousness for several years, winning the League in 1965 and 1967, as well as the European Cup in 1968.  City – with Joe Mercer as boss and Malcolm Allison as coach – got promoted back to the top flight after a spell in the second tier.  In late 1967, while City were challenging United for the title, Maine Road got a visit from the most watched TV programme of the day.

Set in Manchester, Coronation Street had been topped the ratings since it first aired in 1960.  In November 1967, an episode centred on Rovers Return publican Annie Walker visiting Maine Road to watch a football match for the first time, accompanied by her husband Jack, Stan Ogden and Len Fairclough.  Footage is shown in a YouTube video below, along with a few other clips shot on location at Maine Road over the years.  

By 1969, a Jack Rosenthal written sitcom by Granada called ‘The Dustbinmen’ centred on a group of bin men, one such character had been Man City obsessive Winston Platt who viewed Colin Bell as a god.  The show lasted for three series and twenty episodes were made between September 1969 and August 1970.  Another Manchester based football drama made by Granada and written by Jack Rosenthal would be ‘Another Sunday and Sweet F.A.’ from January 1972.  The storyline is based around a Sunday League referee and stars Anne Kirkbride who found greater fame as Deirdre Barlow in Coronation Street. 

Rosenthal also penned a comedy series for Granada which ran from 1970-71 called ‘The Lovers’, which starred Paula Wilcox from ‘The Dustbinmen’ alongside Richard Beckinsale (father of actress Kate and later star of ‘Porridge’ and ‘Rising Damp’) in his first starring role. The opening scene of the show was filmed outside of Man United star George Best’s boutique, which can be seen below, alongside another scene from the show filmed at the Old Trafford Football and Cricket Grounds.         

George Best was Manchester’s undisputed pin-up of the 1960s.  Having made his debut the first season after the abolition of the ‘retain and transfer’ system, unshackling the earning potential of footballers, Best became the first footballer to receive ‘pop star’ adulation.  George became part of numerous advertising campaigns during the era, one of the most famous of which had been ‘E for B and Georgie Best’ (E for B standing for an egg for breakfast), as well as Cookstown Sausages.

George also had a reputation as a Ladies man, as shown here from his advert for Fore aftershave.  George also appeared on an unaired pilot of a show called ‘Mainly for Men’, where he – along with Manfred Mann’s Paul Jones and photographer David Bailey - describes his ideal woman.  It never saw the light of day as it was deemed too sexist to air.

If ‘Mainly for Men’ wasn’t embarrassing enough, George Best had a bit part appearance in a British Sex Comedy film in 1971 called ‘Percy’, based around the recipient of the world’s first penis transplant.  Along with Bestie, the film included a soundtrack from the Kinks and also included appearances from the recently departed Hywel Bennett from ‘Shelly’, Britt Ekland and Denholm Elliott.  Incredibly, it turned out to be the 8th most popular film at the British box office in 1971. 

There would be further embarrassment for George, walking out on Man United in 1974 and becoming something of a footballing nomad while battling the effects of alcoholism.  In 1979, the Jackie Collins penned film ‘Yesterday’s Hero’ was loosely based on George’s 1970s plight (as well as Elton John’s involvement with Watford).  The story is based around an alcoholic ex-footballer attempting a comeback with a third division side who are owned by a wealthy pop star, which manages to get to a Cup Final.  In the starring role was Ian McShane (who later starred in Lovejoy and more recently Deadwood and Game of Thrones), whose father Harry McShane played for Man United under Matt Busby in the early 1950s and was the Stadium’s announcer over the Old Trafford PA during the 1960s. 

Back in the late 1960s, George’s equivalent on the coaching staff was undoubtedly Manchester City’s Malcolm Allison, who had cultivated from himself something of a playboy image from which a 2010 online article from The Gooner fanzine on his passing goes into greater detail, as well as a salacious advert for the Sunday People seen below.  Allison’s fame was built on the back of being a part of ITV’s ground breaking Mexico ’70 World Cup panel.  Allison was often controversially outspoken and frequently rubbed people up the wrong way.  Below is the moment Spurs and England’s Alan Mullery came face to face with his greatest critic on LWT’s ‘The Big Match’ with Jimmy Hill as referee.

Allison finally ousted Mercer from the hot seat, but was far from a success at Maine Road.  After a period in charge at Crystal Palace, where he was sacked for appearing nude in the team bath with soft porn star Fiona Richmond, Allison returned to Man City at the close of the decade as boss.  By 1980, his demise in the Maine Road hot seat would be captured by the Granada documentary ‘City!’, during which Allison was sacked and replaced by his old West Ham team mate John Bond.  Allison returned to Crystal Palace, but the documentary ends with his old side City demolishing his Palace side 5-0 in a Cup game.

Meanwhile, over at Old Trafford, aside from George Best other Man United heroes of the late sixties included Bobby Charlton.  In the Ken Loach directed ‘Kes’ (based on the novel ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’).  One famed scene from the film is the over-enthusiastic PE teacher played by Brian Glover, who decked out in Man United kit is pretending to be Bobby Charlton playing for Man United against Spurs.


The film is centred on the relationship between a boy called Billy and his pet Kestrel (hilariously sent up by Leigh Francis’s impersonation of Craig David in ‘Bo Selecta’ over thirty years later).  The Kestrel is later killed by his brother in revenge for Billy stealing £10 from him.  The film also stars Lynne Perrie who went on to star as Ivy Tilesly in Coronation Street.  The Man United side also included England World Cup hero Nobby Stiles, who as seen from the YouTube clip below from an episode of ‘The Sweeney’ had his admirers.

Throughout the 1980s Manchester lost cultural influence to Merseyside on the football front after City were relegated and Man United spend big sums of money, but lived in the shadow of Everton and Liverpool.  Supporting Man City became synonymous with unreconstructed Northern comedians such as Eddie Large and Bernard Manning, who in many ways came to be mirrored in Steve Coogan’s comic creation of Man City supporting Paul Calf.

Man United however returned to prominence at the start of the 1990s as Football’s post-Italia ’90 resurgence in popularity and the birth of the Premiership.  It’s a well-known fact that this swelled even further the already large number of Man United fans with Cockney accents, such as this fictional one below depicted by Footballer turned actor Vinnie Jones in the film ‘Eurotrip’.

The central figure behind Man United’s renaissance was Eric Cantona, who joined the club in November 1992, just six months before United won their first League title for twenty six years.  Cantona played for United for four and a half years, during which time the club won four Premiership titles (the only time the club failed to win during his time, Cantona had been suspended for attacking a fan who racially abused him at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park).


On leaving Old Trafford, Cantona retired and took up acting.  In 2009, the Frenchman starred in the Ken Loach directed ‘Looking for Eric’, where Cantona plays the imaginary life coach of a middle aged postman going through a crisis involving a notorious gangster.  Acclaimed American film critic Roger Ebert said of the film that:  ‘(lead character) Steve Evets uses a Manchester accent so thick that many of the English themselves might not be able to understand it. Ironically Eric Cantona, who is French, is easier to understand’.

As well as Cantona, United’s longevity at the summit of the Premiership had been built on a productive youth system.  Man United won the FA Youth Cup in 1992, with several players who went on to become first team regulars by the mid-1990s, such as Nicky Butt, the Neville Brothers, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham – who became the subject of the documentary film ‘Class of ‘92’.  Following on from this was a TV series called ‘Class of ’92: Out of Their League’ in which five of the aforementioned six (minus David Beckham) took over the running of local side Salford FC.  

The only one of the Class of ’92 however who came close to replicating the pop star adulation of George Best in his heyday was David Beckham, who married Victoria Adams of the Spice Girls and in the collective consciousness became ‘Posh and Becks’, though since the demise of the Spice Girls around the turn of the millennium, its Becks’s footballing skills and marketability which has kept the ‘Posh and Becks’ brand within the public’s consciousness.  In 2014, Becks appeared in a Sport Relief special ‘Only Fools and Horses’, alongside David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst and which was titled ‘Beckham in Peckham’.

‘Beckham in Peckham’ is a rare modern day example of a Professional Footballer appearing on a fictional TV Show.  In 2011, Coronation Street featured a storyline where a famous footballer appeared in the Rovers Return.  The show’s producers however chose to go with a fictional Footballer called Tommy Orpington, rather than a real life player.

Man United’s rise to prominence in the mid-1990s coincided with Man City crashing down the divisions.  On the eve of City’s fall to the third tier in 1998, on an evening’s programming dedicated solely to football ahead of the France ’98 World Cup, a fever pitch-esque docu-drama called ‘Manchester United Ruined My Life’, based on the book by City fan Colin Schindler and narrated by Schindler too.


It featured celebrity non-Manchester fans of United, such as Zoe Ball and Eamon Holmes, while the bloke who played Curly Watts in Coronation Street projecting City’s representation of humility, kinship and unity with other fans by merely singing ‘Stand up if you hate Man Utd', as well as broadcaster John Stapleton’s hugely sanctimonious and with hindsight, hugely ironic rant aimed at United fans, that supporting City was: ‘about sticking through your team through thick and thin, it’s about your past, it’s about tradition, it’s about your family, it’s about what you really, really believe in – and not about following some team who happens to win a few pots because they’ve got lots and lots of dosh’.

There were however examples of players turning down Man United in favour of Man City, if only in the fictional world – in the film ‘There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble’ released in 2000, which starred both Ray Winston and Robert Carlyle.  By the end of that decade, City would rise back to prominence on the back of the introduction of Shiekh Mansoor and his petrodollars.  This saw a huge identity change for City and City fans, as covered by this Online Gooner article on Man City and Oasis from late 2011.  Colin Shindler - author of 'Manchester United Ruined My Life' - had now followed this up with a second book called 'Manchester City Ruined My Life', explaining his inability to deal with Man City's change of identity.  In 2010, a sports documentary film called ‘Blue Moon Rising’ was made while on the cusp of Man City's rise to prominence.

Despite losing pole position in Manchester to City however, Man United are still hugely sought after in terms of corporate partnerships, with as many as sixty five official partners which is estimated to bring in around £130million a year into the club coffers.  As seen from this article here, such sponsorship deals have the potential to cause a financial imbalance between clubs like Man United and smaller clubs within the Premiership (which more than likely would have included Man City had the Shiekh not invested in the club).  You would have thought that one area deemed too insensitive for the Man United brand to cash in on though would be an Official Airline, given the club’s most tragic moment in 1958.  Not so however, as Man United – and Munich survivor Bobby Charlton – would appear in an ad for Turkish airways back in 2011. 

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*Published 7th August 2017