WHEN I asked Pete Boyle, the Manchester United king of chants, to tell me the most interesting thing about himself, the last thing I expected was to be told that he was a red by pure chance.
The flip of a coin nonetheless.
When his Dad was just a kid, a childish game in which he was designated a team to follow, was decided when his comrades flipped a coin. From that moment Pete, who says he would only ever have followed whatever side his Dad did, was destined to become a Man Utd supporter and for over four decades there’s been none more devoted than he.
Visitors to The Bishop Blaize on match day will be familiar with the way he orchestrates the crowd and sets the tone for the day, with chant after chant. The atmosphere is always electric, the buzz is palpable and the camaraderie unbeatable – because he makes it so.
Club players and managers, past and present, know him by name and he counts our dear friend, Cantona, as one of his closest contacts. With a Match Day talk show, a CD collection that would make The Happy Mondays blush and an unofficial role as club ambassador, he has carved out a career of sorts from his upmost passion.
And still, it would seem, he is an unsung hero – which is ironic really.
When I caught up with him I wanted to know everything. I had been in his presence many times, I’d read his blog, I’d sung his chants at the top of my lungs from the Sir Alex Ferguson stand – but I had no real idea who he was. And this is what I found out. He’s the real deal. A quick-witted, straight talker who is red to the core.
Tell me, I said, why you’re chanting about United. How did it all start?
“My dad took me to my first game, aged 4, in November 1974. It was United v Aston Villa in a Division 2 game. If my dad supported anybody else I would have done also, because he was such a big influence on me. He was an orphan and was brought up by nuns. It was united by the toss of a coin. As a kid he was playing football and when picking teams they said “heads city, tails united” and that’s how it all started.”
The day before the 1979 FA cup final Pete led a group of his school mates around the playground at lunchtime singing united songs and at just nine years old, the writing was already on the wall.
“I was always fascinated by the songs and scarves and my dad often told me to turn around and watch the game. I learnt most songs of the day and sung them all the time.”
So what was the first chant that you remember?
“Pride of all Europe probably is, and will always be, my favourite song. It’s our original and if sung slowly is the only anthem we need. We don’t need the gimmick of a pop song with no relevance to our club or history.”
So how does a four-year-old go from hearing their first chant to ending up creating and releasing albums of them?
“My first chant was probably a simple ‘all this way for nothing,’ to away fans who’d travelled a long way after we took the lead at Old Trafford. All football releases had been cheesy releases so I decided to record my first album of basically uncensored songs and chants to prove it could be done. It proved a real critical success and although I realised it was never going to make me rich, I could see that it could help me attend the games so I’ve created the niche and have done it ever since.”
Sometimes the atmosphere at Old Trafford comes under criticism and for a man who creates such frenzy among the fans before the game it must be tough to hear this criticism during the match, I mused. What’s tough, it would seem though, is the biased coverage of what is perceived to be a lack of atmosphere and the unbalanced accounts from different games.
“Last season with the team struggling our support was amazing and my abiding memory was after our hated rivals, Liverpool went three nil up at old Trafford,” he said. “The media/Liverpool fans and ABU nation all expected most of the ground to empty and rest in silence. What they got, however, was non-stop singing and total support for Manchester United – until the final whistle. The press didn’t focus and hardly mentioned this, though. Compare that to just recently, after Real Madrid went three up at Anfield – you could hear a pin drop and only Gary Neville mentioned this. When Liverpool fans sung at the end of game the clichés of great support were launched from every media outlet.”
So what about his famous mates? There is a well-known photo of Pete, drinking with the one and only Eric Cantona; and rumour has it, it wasn’t a one off. So how does one happen to befriend one of the biggest footballing legends of all time?
“I’ve been lucky enough to socialise with Eric on numerous occasions. I was like a schoolboy on a first date – so nervous – when he spoke to me first,” he laughs. “The first time I met him was in 1994. I was upstairs in Peveril of the Peak pub, rehearsing some songs for my album Songs from the Bathtub, when the landlady of the pub came over to me and said that there was someone I may like to meet downstairs. I decided to go down and see who it was and couldn’t believe it when I saw Eric, playing table football with a couple of his mates. He was injured at the time and the landlady walked over and introduced me. She told him that I had a couple of songs about him so I sang a few of them and he seemed to really enjoy them. We sat and had a drink and, to this day, I still have the privilege of meeting up with him occasionally when he visits the UK.”
It’s clear from chatting about Cantona how highly Pete rates him as a person and a player. There is no doubt that he would be in his all-time greatest Man Utd team, but who else would be there I asked? There is a slight pause while he figures out his final 11 but then names the following with great conviction.
“Schmeichel, Gary Neville, Stam, Buchan, Irwin, Ronaldo, Robson, Scholes, Giggs, Cantona and Whiteside.”
To put him on the spot even further I ask him to name his ultimate five-a-side team, which can only consist of ex-players who he has been involved with for functions and supporters events. There is a wry smile, which tells me he may upset one or two people, but he pronounces.
“Ah, I would have to go with Van Der Sar, Gary Neville, May, Robson – and Eric of course.”
Thinking about those names brings back memories of success and celebrations, some really great nights at Old Trafford and we chat and laugh for a bit. However memories of last season bring us both back to reality and I wonder what is his take on David Moyes’ reign? Was he given enough time or did he just lack the experience of managing a huge club?
“He was and is an honest man, who took the fall for an aging team that needed a big clear out. In hindsight, the job was probably too big for him. LVG has had to and will have to clear out so many more players. But it’s next season before I think we can genuinely challenge for the title and after that we can dream of another European Cup.”
Indeed, I agree, there is renewed hope among Man Utd fans that LVG can deliver again and he will be afforded the time to build his team. In the meantime, however, it will fall to the fans to keep the spirits high but like the official squad they need an animated leader – Pete Boyle is just that.
So can we dare to hope that the bar will take his weight on a match day for another four decades? And has he someone to carry on the legacy, like he did for his old man?
“I have kids who I take to some of the games but I’d rather they went the conventional route of Uni and a good job and went to football as a hobby, not an obsession like me!”
Well, an obsession it may be but it’s a healthy – enough – one, which has benefited millions of Utd fans down the years and will continue to do so.
Now, the next time you hear a chant at a game and you’re singing along, hammering the stands or wiping away a sneaky tear – remember that it isn’t by chance you are doing it. The likelihood is, that whatever the words, this man will either have endorsed or created them, because as luck would have it, that coin landed the right side up for all of us.
Click here if you would like to buy any of Pete’s albums.
Click here to view Pete in action before Chelsea game on 27/10/2014 singing Eric the King.
Click here to view Red Square Live.
Follow @clearcutview and @PeteBoyle70