Last summer I was lucky enough to score a stray ticket to the pre-season friendly between Barcelona and Manchester United at FedEx Field in Maryland. The two European heavyweights had just clashed in London for the Champions League crown and there was a palpable buzz slicing through the syrupy summer air in anticipation of their meeting again so soon afterwards. I entered the stadium a full-throated Barca partisan but something extremely surprising happened as the Red Devils started striding onto the pitch: I got goosebumps. Such is the weight of the tradition, legacy and aura surrounding Manchester United when you come in direct contact with it.
Sam Pilger, a lifelong United fan, journalist and former deputy editor of Manchester United magazine, is uniquely positioned to chronicle United's vast, decorated history because he possesses an uncanny ability to evoke fandom's entire spectrum of sweet and sour shades and the endless nuances of Saturdays gone by. Pilger has the ability to couple that sensitivity with the seasoned eyes and ears of journalist who has cultivated relationships with numerous United players and brass through the years, interviewing everyone from Sir Bobby Charlton to David Beckham along the way.
In Best XI Manchester United (part of a Best XI series) Pilger skillfully links all of United's major postwar eras together with his team selection as the book reconstructs the glorious lineage begun by the "Busby Babes" through the freewheeling "Holy Trinity" in the Sixties all the way to Eric Cantona's tempestuous, title-laden run at Old Trafford and, finally, the historic Treble winning side of 1999.
The ballad of the "Busby Babes" is told poignantly through the chapters on Roger Byrne, the captain and 'original' Babe, and Duncan Edwards as readers are given a glance through the keyhole into the dressing- room dynamics of the venerated side that was ravaged by the tragic Munich air disaster in 1958. Many people interviewed by Pilger, including Sir Bobby Charlton, contend that England could have won World Cups in 1958 and/or 1962 and that United would have challenged Real Madrid's late 50's continental dominance had Munich not claimed the lives of these precocious, prodigiously talented young men. The reminiscences of Edwards, though heart-wrenching, serve a particularly crucial historical function as so little film remains of him patrolling the pitch.
The "Holy Trinity" of Charlton, George Best and Denis Law are all celebrated and you are given a sense that their often effortless cohesion on the pitch was matched only by how fundamentally different each man approached life away from the roar of the Stretford End. Pilger's sketch of George Best sitting alone in a London pub calling himself the best player ever packs an emotional punch that goes far beyond the simple recounting of beautiful goals and championship medals. Charlton's admission that lifting the European Cup in 1968 was more satisfying than his World Cup victory in 1966 is a cathartic testament to the omnipresent and unfulfilled legacy of his fallen teammates and the burden it placed on the survivors.
The Premier League era is represented by stalwarts such as Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane and Peter Schmeichel and their sections often contain interesting insights from Pilger who by that time was writing for the club's magazine. His take on the beloved, controversial Keane is particularly fascinating, providing a glimpse into the psychology of the treble-winning captain.
Best XI Manchester United is an excellent entry point into United's rich, proud history for younger fans and a warm, well-written stroll down memory lane for diehards.