Ben Hibbs is a writer and journalist who worked for Manchester United between 2002 and 2011. Having recently left the club to do some traveling, he was good enough to have a chat with Kevin Levingston about his time at the club and his love for United.
Hi Ben, thanks for speaking to us. What are your earliest memories of the club?
I didn’t have a team when I was growing up, in a small town called Corby which is full of Scots who left Glasgow for work at the town’s since deceased Steelworks plant. It has the biggest Rangers supporters club outside Glasgow, at least that’s what they boasted. You either supported Celtic, Rangers, United or Liverpool through family tradition. My dad supported Celtic as a boy but was more a fan of the game in general. So I didn’t feel any real allegiance. My first interests in football were more about individual players: Chris Waddle, Dennis Bergkamp, Gazza, and Ryan Giggs when he first burst on the scene. I was in awe of Eric Cantona too. He was like no other player or character I’d ever seen. My two closest mates were big Reds. One used to go to games and come back telling me tales of what magic Cantona had conjured, and also this cult hero in the stands who used to stand up at matches and get everyone singing. He idolised Pete Boyle as much as Eric. I used to read his Red Issue fanzines. He also had a Cantona poster on his bedroom wall, the one that said: ‘1966 was a great year for English football… Eric Cantona was born’. I guess they’re the first things I remember about United.
What was the first game you went to watch?
United v Newcastle in the Charity Shield in 1996. My mate had a spare and so I went along. I was mesmerised by Beckham and the other young United lads, who’d made such an impact. I loved Beckham’s goal that day, lobbing the goalkeeper. I also thought there was something a bit different about United’s fans – very funny and witty with their songs and with all the banter.
Who is your favourite United player ever?
Roy Keane. I liked Beckham and Scholes technically – as a young player myself I used to try and imitate Becks’ passing style and Scholes awareness of space; you know, that little look over the shoulder he always used to do. But Keane was just something else. He went beyond what was just technical about a footballer. There was some force inside him, a ferocious, infectious, unforgiving drive that changed my view on what it took to be a top, top player. He wasn’t technically as gifted as Beckham or Scholes – though his ability to keep things relatively simple is a greater and more difficult art than it appears. But he could haul a team through a game single-handedly through the pure strength and desire of his own will. And he often did. I’ve never seen anything like it, and those qualities are to be applauded and revered as much as, say, Zidane’s grace or Messi’s skill.
What was/is your favourite United game/memory?
The Barcelona Champions League semi-final in 2008 sticks out immediately. I was so pleased for Scholesy, to have missed out in 1999 and then to take us to the final in 2008. It was a fantastic goal, and he claims he miss-kicked it. Typical Scholesy. I was writing the match report for ManUtd.com that night. In the press box you’re supposed to exude impartiality. For a situation like that? I think I can be excused for losing it a little. We were at the back of the press box so it’s less noticeable anyway. As a journalist you should try to always be professional, but it doesn’t mean you have to be a passionless drone. The final was great, but draining, too. I found myself hugging Jonny Evans and Darron Gibson when Edwin made the save to win it – they were in the crowd with all the other young lads.
Ronaldo’s (the fat one) hat-trick in 2003, when he was applauded by United fans at Old Trafford, is another moment that comes to mind. He was putting us out of Europe, and I know some fans didn’t appreciate showing that much deference to an opposition player, but it was a rare moment in football. There’s usually so much hatred among fans. It showed United supporters were willing to recognise class, in turn showing their own. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I joined in. Few clubs’ fans do that, though with a team like Liverpool, who also do it, I get the sense it’s more about coming across a certain way than being genuine.
What’s your all time United five a side team?
Jesus! …No, he wouldn’t make it. I’ll go mostly for modern players because they’re the ones I know best, but I’ll make one exception.
Schmeichel – I loved Edwin, but Schmeichel was an absolute monster of a keeper. Can’t see many getting past him in those tiny goals.
Rio – Best United defender in yonks; for me he tops Stam and Vidic. From 2007-2009 he was the best defender in the world by a million miles, but criminally was never recognised as such in terms of awards. How Terry won Uefa’s Best Defender trophy in 2008, I’ll never know.
Scholes – The players loved him in training, they said his teams never lost. Probably a reason for that, i.e. He’s mint.
Rooney – He’s one of the most natural footballers United have ever had. He could play just about anywhere and be good, even in goal if Schmeichel got sent off for shouting somebody’s face off.
Denis Law – If I’d been a fan in the sixties, Law would have been my idol, as he was to the Stretford End, above Charlton and Best. Uncompromisingly brilliant. And he’d know a few snide little tricks to give you an edge in the cut-throat competition of five-a-side.
How did you get into sports journalism, and how did you come to work for Manchester United?
I wanted to be a footballer. I was ok, not amazing. I broke my leg when I was 15 and that definitely put an end to any hopes I’d had. But I’d always loved writing, so sports journalism was the next best thing. I studied Journalism at Staffordshire University – Stoke is an eye-opening introduction to life as an adult! On my last day at uni I went to see my tutor to say goodbye and just as our conversation came to an end he said: ‘I’ve just had an email from Manchester United saying they want a junior reporter for their website. Why don’t you apply?’ So I did and – rejecting an offer to work on my local newspaper where I’d worked for free for a few weeks writing about line dancing in Desborough and other such stories (I’m actually extremely grateful for the experience and their offer) – I couldn’t turn down working at United.
What was the best thing about working for the club?
Being on the inside and that close to a subject millions of people are interested in and love, writing about it and having people read your work in pretty big numbers. I remember being so giddy racing back from Carrington after press conferences to write up stories at Old Trafford – and turning up to work there every day was a privilege. I guess that might make you ask why I left. Well, I felt it was time for something new. I’d wanted to travel since leaving uni and it seemed like the right time for me to do it. My next job has some living up to do.
Which aspects did you least expect; how much it would consume your life?
When your occupation is a job you love and an out-of-work interest too, it has two effects: it’s one if the best experiences from work you can hope to have – to truly enjoy your job is probably a rarity. To work for United is a dream and a privilege. I never took that lightly either, and hopefully, particularly say on twitter, I didn’t come across as being up my own arse, self-important or thinking I was superior because of my position. I’d hate that. The second effect is that it’s inescapable; your mood is affected by what’s going on the pitch and at the club. The lull between 2004-2006 preceding the takeover had some pretty low points. But it’s offset by some amazing memories.
How much contact did you have with the squad and manager?
A fair amount. I interviewed pretty much all the players who’ve been around in the last eight years or so. The highlights were interviews with Ruud van Nistelrooy (forthright, loved United), interviewing Rio, Vidic and Wes all at the same time, Keane was my favourite player interview, and the boss. He was the best interviewee; absurdly knowledgeable, welcoming, passionate with his answers on just about any subject – all this whilst being an exceptionally busy man. I still never lost the pre-interview butterflies with him. Players I was fine with. The boss, different story. Apart from interviews and being at Carrington, though, there’s an inner circle at United that few are allowed into. People are very protective of it. I guess it’s about knowledge and trust, but mainly about leaving the players to get on with their jobs. Generally that family feel that players always talk about is pretty self-evident when you see the inner-workings at Carrington. That said, I never tried to befriend players. I did my job: to get good quotes and copy (hopefully), which means getting on with them. If we got on and had a chat before or after, fine. However, plenty of people who come into contact with footballers try to be their best mates. I never understood that or subscribed to it.
How was the gaffer’s demeanour with the in-house web team, compared to how we’ve seen him with other journalists?
He’s a lot more relaxed around people he knows and trusts. You see a different side to him away from press conferences. I genuinely think he’s just grown tired of journalists and modern journalism. It’s kind of a no-win situation. Ban journalists whose papers publish shit, then they write more shit. But why should he pander to them? He clearly doesn’t need to. The next manager, who perhaps needs the press a bit more, will probably go on a charm offensive, much to the delight of journalists. I guess Sir Alex is just resolved to the fact that he doesn’t particularly need the media. He’s far more willing doing in-house stuff, but I guess some people view it with suspicion. I’m of the mind that at United, although we were looking for positives a lot of time (trying to be balanced as well) a lot of the press were no different to us – tabloids are just the opposite end of the spectrum, perhaps more severely so: they’re looking for scandal, crisis and negatives.
Who was the best player to interview during your time at United?
Roy Keane, as I mentioned. I might get shit for this, also, but I loved Darren Fletcher. As a player and as an interviewee. He was really honest and intelligent, always asked, ‘Have you got everything you need?’ at the end of the interview. Evra as well is funny and has an unusual turn of phrase which makes for good copy. Oh, and I nearly forgot Cantona. Asking fans questions in my only interview with him, one question was: Where’s your favourite place in the world? After a typically thoughtful pause, replied: “In bed with a beautiful woman. Have you ever been?”
What’s your favourite memory from your time at the club?
My first day. I felt proud and excited to work at United. Besides, moving to Manchester has been the best decision of my life, and I met my girlfriend at United too – that’s either worth an ‘ahh’ or a *vomit*, you choose.
What advice would you give to aspiring journalists or bloggers hoping to break into the business or work for a football club?
Well, it’s a tough business for a start, so hard work is a must. Write as much as you can, take constructive feedback from people who know what they’re talking about. The more you write the more you develop what writers call your ‘voice’ – basically, the style and tone of your writing. Read lots – books, magazines (not just about your chosen subject) and think about the writing and it’s style and structure. Try different styles yourself. Be creative, but don’t babble on. And the secret ingredient? The one I’ve probably failed at myself here: be concise. If you can make the same point in 10 words rather than 20, without losing any meaning or colour, do it.
Moving on to this season, what do you see as the biggest challenge for the club this year in terms of what we hope to achieve?
I think we’ve got an excellent squad, lots of quality in depth. People complain about the centre of midfield but I think we’ll be ok league-wise in that department. To overthrow Barcelona? I don’t think in midfield we’re quite ready, but we’ve got some outstanding young central midfielders who could rule for years to come – and now they have breathing space to develop. I’m not being arrogant, but I think we’ll win the league and get to the semis or the final again in Europe.
How do you rate the chances of our rivals? Particularly City and Liverpool?
Liverpool have much more structure than they’ve had in recent years so I think they’ll do ok, but they won’t challenge for the title. It probably means our games against them will be watch-through-your-fingers affairs. As for City, they’re challengers now, get used to it. But the more they buy star players, the better. That’s not building a club or a team, it’s just a garage full of flash motors.
What have you made of the new signings so far?
Ashley Young, I like. I think he’ll have a really good debut season. Jones, I’ve not seen that much of really. I’ll reserve a prediction except to say most people seem to think he’s a future England and United captain. I’d take that. De Gea, I fear, might be in for an up-and-down season. That’s because United is pressure like almost nowhere else. But I think he’s got the talent and temperament to prove to be a good signing in the mid- to long-term.
How do you rate the young lads coming through? Pogba, Morrison, Tunnicliffe, Cleverley etc?
Pogba’s the best youth player I’ve seen at United, he’s a player. No doubt. Morrison is absurdly naturally gifted and just needs to knuckle down – fans will take to him as a working class hero if he comes good. I like Tunnicliffe, I just hope he has enough ability to get the opportunities in a very competitive and unforgiving position. Cleverley, I think, will have a really good season for us. But be patient. There are loads of other players coming through, too: King, Keane, Cofie, Fryers, McGinty, Barmby and many more besides. The future, as they say, is bright.
Which United players do you tip to have a big year?
Nani – wider recognition of player of the year awards await. I said last year I thought he’d be our player of the year. I think he’ll step it up a notch this season. I hope Chicharito doesn’t succumb to second season syndrome either because he showed lots of promise last year.
Who will be the top four at the end of the season, and in what order?
4. Could be just about anyone, but I think it’s a fight between Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool. I might shock you and say Liverpool.
If you had to choose: title number twenty or Champions League number four?
Title. I think we’ll win the Champions League the year after.
And finally, what does the future hold for you now that you have left United?
At the moment I’ve not given a great deal of thought to what I’ll do next. I’m enjoying travelling around Asia and seeing some pretty amazing things. I’m not back in the UK until January 2012. When I do return, I guess I’d be happy staying in football, and covering United, but then equally I’d be open to giving something new a try. I got some great experience at United so I think that should stand me in good stead. I think I’ll always write about the team, whatever I do, even if it’s just a blog here and there. It’s a passion I won’t be able to let go of.
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