Exclusive: Football Writer Andy Mitten Talks Barcelona, Man Utd and U.S. Soccer

Jonathan ShragerCorrespondent IMarch 19, 2012

Andy relaxing with the world's greatest baller, after Cristiano Ronaldo of course
Andy relaxing with the world's greatest baller, after Cristiano Ronaldo of course

Editor of “United We Stand," one of the most respected independent football fanzines in the UK, Andy Mitten is a man who needs little introduction to any savvy football aficionado. He requires even less to any knowledgeable Manchester United fan. Having established the fanzine back in 1989, at the tender age of 15, Andy himself has gone on to become an eminent football journalist globally, regularly featured in publications such as Four Four Two and outlets including Eurosport.

Furthermore, he has penned a number of critically-acclaimed football books and is arguably the most distinguished and prolific author of MUFC-related books. Yet, despite these professional achievements, he is perhaps most revered amongst the MUFC faithful for creating the folkloric Nicky Butt number, to the tune of "Give It Up" by K.C. and The Sunshine Band.

Andy is indeed an authentic piece of Mancunia, a lifelong red born and raised a Schmeichel throw away from the Stretford End. He has endured the barren spells, far removed from the hegemony enjoyed by the club over recent times. Though he didn’t really have much of a say in the matter. MUFC is in his blood, literally, as his great uncle, Charlie Mitten, was a star of Sir Matt Busby's first great United side of 1948.

In this exclusive interview, Andy discusses his various experiences touring the US to cover the mighty Reds and expresses, with characteristic candour, his opinions on the state of US soccer past, present and future. 

JS: Hi, Andy, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. Born and bred in Manchester, you currently spend half your time in Barcelona, and you cover both MUFC and Barca. Fair to say you’re spoiled in terms of the quality of football you’re treated to? After MUFC, are Barca now your second team?

AM: United are the team I’ve supported all my life, Barça the team I’m lucky enough to get paid to watch 20 times a season. I respect Barca as a club and admire the football they play. Messi is the best player in the world and I think United can learn from Barca in many ways as a club, but I don’t feel anything when Barca score, win or lose.

There’s no contest where my affinities lie when the pair meet. I was floored in Rome in ’09 and felt much the same at Wembley in May. The Barca fans I know were gracious after both, but it’s easy to be magnanimous in victory, isn’t it?

I felt a bit of a knob because I’d played up United’s chances of victory in the Catalan media. I did the same in 2011. I got it badly wrong. Twice.

JS: You were in the US over the summer for MUFC’s summer tour. Is this your first footballing trip to the US?  Does the US seem to be making significant footballing strides forward in terms of the quality of their league, depth of knowledge about the sport and level of their support?

AM: I’ve been to America to watch football several times and always enjoyed it. I watched the New York/New Jersey Metrostars in the inaugural MLS season in ’96, when there were around 15,000 Latinos rattling around the 80,000-capacity Giants Stadium.

The MLS gets better and better as far as I can see. It was important to build soccer-specific stadiums with more modest capacities than the super-duper bowls with car parks the size of Belgium used for NFL, and that has happened. I went back to see the New York Red Bulls in the summer and, their name aside, was really impressed by the setup and the new stadium.

JS: Your reception in the US, as an Englishman who supports MUFC, must have been pretty positive?

AM: I’ve had Homeland Security ask me if I had really flown over the Atlantic to watch a soccer team and others ask what a Manchester United is. Most Americans have heard of Manchester United before the city of Manchester itself.

I like America and have been fortunate to visit over 30 states. I’ve had next to no bad experiences apart from crashing a rental car into a moose on a motorway just after leaving Buffalo on the way to Toronto. The car was a right off, the moose definitely dead, but strictly speaking, the accident was in Canada, so I can’t even blame the US for having moose which don’t know how to cross the road.

JS: Crikey. How did you find the US media’s coverage of soccer?

AM: I like American journalism in the main, and some of my favourite writers are American. Friday Night Lights is possibly the best sports book I’ve ever read.

The soccer writing is developing. There’s a strong blog culture of unpaid writers, which the clubs have embraced because bigger newspaper don’t make soccer their priority. Grassroots upwards and all that.

I’ve worked with Sean Wheelock, who does a lot of US soccer, and he knows his stuff. And I once interviewed Samuel Eto’o at his home in Barcelona when Jack Bell from the New York Times showed up. I translated Eto’o’s weird and wonderful thoughts for Jack in front of Eto’o’s snakeskin-clad television.

JS: Do you enjoy the manner in which the Americans embrace football and incorporate certain Americana elements from their other sports, such as the food, entertainment and music?

AM: My experience of food in American stadiums is of overpriced junk food with massive buckets for soda, though I saw a sushi stall at New York Yankees in the summer. I shouldn’t laugh; we’ll have them in Europe next.

There’s a slickness about the presentation of American sports both live and on TV, but I’ve seen that more at other sports rather than soccer. You can go to baseball and be so preoccupied with everything that is going on around you that you don’t have to actually watch the game.

JS: In terms of caliber of football, do you think we will ever witness an era during which American sides will genuinely be able to compete against the top European sides?

AM: Never say never. Economics will control that. It hasn’t happened overnight, and it won’t happen in the next 10 years, but who knows after that? What if all these 25,000-capacity stadiums being built in the US get full and then expanded to 50,000? If the TV deals get bigger and bigger? Players go where the money is all over the world.

I can see US based teams getting much stronger; Russian sides too. And I can see Brazil retaining far more of their talent as their economy booms.

JS: Will the US ever be taken seriously as a footballing superpower at World Cups, or will their club prowess always depend upon the acquisition of foreign talent to supplement homegrown players? Do you believe calling the sport football as opposed to soccer may help?

AM: Unlike some in England, I’m not offended by the term soccer. It was a widely used term in the 1950s in England and Manchester United legend Duncan Edwards did a book called Tackle Soccer This Way.

Will the US be taken seriously? It already is. They've qualified for more World Cups than England in the last 20 years.

JS: In terms of support, do you think soccer will ever reach the levels of popularity enjoyed by their traditional sports such as basketball, baseball and American football?

AM: Again, never say never. Baseball and boxing, two sports which have enjoyed far more popularity in the US than soccer, are in gradual decline, while more kids are playing more soccer than ever. That has to bode well for the future, though I accept that more people play than watch football live.

JS: How did the atmosphere at footy games compare to that at baseball?

AM: Depends where you watch football and baseball. Baseball in Camden Yards, Baltimore is a great experience, less so at the Chicago White Sox, when the ballpark is a third full.

Baseball teams play 88 home games a season or something, about three times as many home games as a soccer team. That’s a lot of seats which need to be filled. Soccer can concentrate on making the games special and build up to them.

I’ve been impressed by the nascent US fan groups, and I’ve met the well-organized groups in Philadelphia and Houston who are as passionate about soccer as anyone. They seemed to have that sense of community, which all the best fan groups enjoy.

And one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen in my life featured a US fan. I was watching US v Argentina in the 2007 Copa America in Maracaibo, Venezuela. The locals didn’t like the US national team, which was comprised of young, inexperienced players. Argentina had everyone—Messi, Veron, an A-list of football’s top stars. The 50,000 crowd all wanted Argentina to win. They were already overwhelming favourites, more so with the crowd behind them, who all sang their national anthem.

They booed the Star Spangled Banner, but I saw a lone US fan stand up in the main stand, wrap himself in the stars and stripes and sing his national anthem. It was an incredible sight. He cared not for what those around him thought. I was like: ‘Go on, lad, you be proud of where you are from.’ The Venezuelans around him actually applauded him. 

I interviewed Lionel Messi six months later, and he remembered the incident—all the Argentina players did because they were facing the main stand. If you are reading this lone American fan, I salute you, you mad f***er.

JS: What do you make of Eric Cantona’s current role at the NY Cosmos?

AM: That Eric likes the idea of spending more time in Manhattan than the philosophy of the Cosmos. At the moment, it’s style over substance, with Eric popping up now and then to growl at camera and give a great interview. That may change if Cosmos become the 20th MLS team. I’m not convinced that will happen, but I wish them well.

JS: Is Eric priming himself for a future role at OT?

AM: I don’t think Eric will ever be involved on the football side at Old Trafford, save for shaking hands with players in one off training sessions. He would need to earn his coaching stripes first, and he’s not done that.

JS: Did you get the chance to attend a US MUFC Supporters’ Club rendezvous?

AM: I had a few beers with the Dallas Reds on their home turf. They’re in a pub singing about Manchester United at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning as they watch games.

JS: Given our popularity over in the US, do you feel we will continue to tour the US for the foreseeable future?

AM: Yes, and it’s not just because of United’s popularity. Several of United’s key sponsors are in the US and the club are keen to court other US companies.

The players like the US tours—well, not the ones which last three weeks like this year, but the shorter ones. The training facilities are excellent and a lot of the players like US culture. They also like the anonymity they can enjoy in cities like New York; that’s why Sir Alex Ferguson keeps an apartment there and goes twice a year to Manhattan. That’s why Paul Scholes asked the team bus to stop on Fifth Avenue. He wanted to enjoy walking down a street without being recognized every five seconds. I’m sure Jennifer Lopez does the same when she visits Manchester.

JS: What do US Reds generally seem to feel about the Glazers?

AM: Depends who you ask. Most who I’ve spoken to are indifferent and don’t care who owns the club. Others keep their views to themselves because they have links with Old Trafford. And others loathe the Glazers and all that they stand for.

JS: What did you make of Don Garber’s assertions about the Glazer ownership?

AM: I asked him that question actually in Houston last year. It was halftime, and he was holding court and smiling away to around 20-30 journalists.

I was intrigued to hear an announcement in the press box just before halftime saying that the MLS commissioner would be fielding questions at halftime, so I went to see what the fuss was about. He was right in front of me, so I asked him his opinion of the Glazers. His reply was news.

JS: Why should US Reds subscribe to UWS online, and to the fanzine?

AM: The website is £10 a year, which is about 15 of those dollar things that Americans use.

We have original and informed articles, video diaries from every United Champions League away games; that, and we have insider bits of Manchester United information on the message board.

As for the printed publication, we already have quite a few subscribers in the US, a mixture of expats and Americans who like Manchester United. We produce a decent magazine once a month during the football season with original content and high quality writers, most of whom watch Manchester United home and away.

JS: Would US Reds enjoy your MUFC-related books?

AM: If they are interested in Manchester United’s history, then yes. I try and get good life stories from former players that aren’t just about football. I put the miles in and get the stories face to face. Too many journalists don’t leave their computer.

I drove from Philadelphia to Dallas to speak to one former star, Gordon Hill, who now lives in Texas. I could have flown, but Manchester United were playing in Kansas City and I wanted to see a few places I’d not been to before like Pittsburgh, Dayton, Indianapolis and St Louis.

If you want to see a sample chapter from a past book, try this, or this.

The player featured now lives in San Diego.

My best selling books in the US have not actually been United ones, but Mad For It on derby matches around the world and The Rough Guide to Cult Football, which I edited in 2010.

And one of my inspirations was a book called The Boys of Summer about the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team.

For informed football news and opinion, follow Andy on Twitter @AndyMitten

Follow me on Twitter @jonathanshrager


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.