Sing When You're Winning: famous football fans reveal their allegiances
"I’ve become more and more friendly with Alex recently," smiles Mick Hucknall, a broad grin revealing his gold-capped tooth. "I think that’s because we have more and more in common with our day-to-day roles."
The striking similarities between the velvety-voiced crooner and the manager of the most famous football team in the world may have eluded you, but Simply Red’s frontman is insistent.
"Alex is almost like a band leader. He’s the guy who has to be the bastard because he has to give the bad news as well as the good news to his team and I can relate to that.
"It’s not always a bed of roses being in charge. Sometimes people get complacent and you have to give them a kick up the backside and that’s why people call him Boss.
"I’m not saying that my people go around calling me Boss, but they know that basically that’s what I am. I have a huge amount of respect for him. Outside of football, Alex is a remarkable person."
Hucknall has supported Manchester United since he was eight. He watched them regularly during the 1970s, his allegiance down to one man: George Best. ‘I was a Best worshipper really,’ says Hucknall, recalling the winger in his heyday.
"I think every kid worshipped Bestie at that time because he just captured the imagination. He was the first footballing pop star and I remember feeling absolutely gutted when it all went pear-shaped for him.
"We looked up to him as kids, not just for his footballing skills, but for his whole personality. He had pop star qualities as well in the hair, the fast cars, the women. He was a hero to us.
"IT LOOKED LIKE WORLD WAR ONE"
"More importantly, he was amazing to watch. There would be a buzz around the ground every time he got the ball. He had that Brazilian flair. There was no other player before him who had that sort of skill. He had incredible balance and those continental qualities.
"You just had to look at the British weather and the state of the pitches we played on at that time, they were mudbaths. It looked like World War I most of the time and the players were kicking these heavy leather balls around in steel toe-capped boots. It was all really primitive, but he just stood out with his skill and ability.
"The whole game was about belting the ball into the other half as quickly as you can,’ he continues. ‘There was no way you could kick it along the ground. The continental game was played skilfully because of the pitches they had over there.
"And Best brought that flair to the blood-and-guts football at the time. He was just an amazing individual."
The man Viz describes as ‘the flame haired minstrel of soul’ - in the magazine’s football strip ‘Billy the Fish’, Hucknall formed a strike partnership with Shakin’ Stevens for Fulchester United - is enjoying a spot of lunch with FourFourTwo at Number One Aldwych, a West End hotel at which the clientele is strictly A-list (John Cusack has already been spotted in reception).
"I USED TO SOCIALISE WITH ERIC..."
Hucknall is promoting his new album Love And The Russian Winter, and unlike certain celebrity United fans we could mention, it is clear that his passion for football is deep and longstanding.
"I love the way our football has gone, because we have absorbed the continental game and mixed it up with the physical nature of English football.
"It’s got to the stage where a lot of foreign clubs will start poaching English players. People have been claiming that our football isn’t as good because we haven’t got a lot of players overseas, but the reason for that is that the Premiership is the best league in the world right now, so why would anyone want to leave?"
Hucknall gets to enjoy a more intimate relationship with the club than your average supporter, one that includes travelling on the team bus to the occasional game – and enjoying a quiet beer with Eric Cantona. "I used to socialise with Eric when he was at United," he says.
"He was a wonderful man. He had a curious nature, he always did a lot of watching and he always asked a lot of questions. His life was almost goldfish bowl-like in that he had to live his life as a big fish in a small pond in Manchester. But he actually dealt with it really well.
"If I’m being honest, I’ll admit that I was a little bit in awe of him when I first met him because of his enigmatic nature and his playing abilities. But players often seem to be a little bit in awe of pop stars and I don’t try and put on any graces about who I am.
"It’s always a bit surreal when two famous people meet up for the first time, because they know a lot about each other, but they haven’t met before and it was like that with Eric."
On their last tour, at an open-air gig in Manchester, Simply Red delayed their entrance for quarter of an hour. In the world of pop music this was hardly exceptional. The cause of this delay, however, was. Mick Hucknall was in his dressing room watching United on the box.
"It’s not something I do very often,’ he laughs. ‘I try to get the match information as quickly as possible when I’m on tour. I forget which game I was watching that night, but I was about to play one of the open-air gigs in Manchester.
"I think it was one of the European games and no-one came to give me the call to go on stage because they were all frightened to disturb me while I was watching the match, so nobody knocked. It’s not something I do all the time."
"I'M NOT THAT GREAT WITH CROWDS"
Perhaps a little strangely for a man who performs in front of huge crowds, he finds the process of seeing his team in the flesh a bit daunting.
"I don’t go a lot these days, because I’m not that great with crowds," he sighs, looking down into his mineral water. "In general people are very nice when they talk to me, but after you’ve signed the 40th autograph on the way to your seat it can get a bit much. It can wear you down a bit.
"I love watching the game, I like the pre-match analysis and the commentary and the whole spectacle of football rather than going to the game. If I want to soak up a lot of atmosphere I can do that in front of my own audience.
"I didn’t go to the European Cup final out of superstition," he says. "Alex actually got me a really nice seat behind the dug-out but I didn’t go, because the last time I went to the Nou Camp I travelled with the team and we got absolutely stuffed by Barcelona. I thought if I go again and we lose it will be my fault. I would feel responsible, so I decided not to go.
"It was an unbelievable night. I had a party at home with a load of friends and I was worse for wear. Manchester United are a team to be hated normally, but everyone seemed to be behind them for that one night because it was great for English football.
"But this year I want us to win in more style. The next reason to win this season is to win conclusively, because I think in a lot of ways we were very lucky on that night in Barcelona. We need to prove how good we are by winning the European Cup in style."
Most of us have two career plans as teenagers. It’s either the life of fast cars and page three models of the professional footballer or the groupie fest of international pop stardom. Hucknall knew from an early age that his career was to be featured across the front pages of NME rather than the back pages of the national papers.
"As a kid I didn’t really want to be a footballer," he says firmly, as if expecting an outraged reaction from FourFourTwo. "I knew that I didn’t have what it takes to make the top level, so I was pretty realistic and didn’t have any major ambitions to play professionally or anything like that.
"THE TOP LEVEL IS MILES AHEAD"
"I still enjoyed playing and I always got involved, but I knew that I wouldn’t be a pro, especially when I saw players who could really play. It makes you realise that the top level is just miles ahead of anything else.
"I am very happy with the career I chose," he explains. "Definitely. I don’t do anywhere near the amount of work that the professional footballer does. Well, I see what they do as work. I see getting up at 8am as work. Football has become more popular these days and the players are more like movie stars now."
But what of Andy Cole’s recent efforts in the recording studio? Has the modern footballer gone too far? Hucknall laughs, aware that any answer could drop him in hot water.
"I haven’t heard it," he says, sidestepping the issue tidily. "But good luck to him, if that’s what he wants to get into. I haven’t actually written a song about United yet, it might be quite nice."
He pauses, as if pondering recent football related efforts. "As long as it wasn’t too cheesy."
More celebrity fans interviewed
From the November 1999 issue of FFT
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