“Blimey,” a British football pundit might exclaim as a player scores a goal from halfway down the pitch, “what are the chances of that?” And blimey, what are the chances of Manchester’s and Britain’s two most famous — and famously irascible — icons publishing memoirs within days of each other? Manchester-born Morrissey, the Smiths’ front man turned solo artist, released Autobiography in the U.K. on Oct. 17. Sir Alex Ferguson’s more expansively titled My Autobiography, published in Britain today, focuses on his near 27-year reign as manager of one of soccer’s most-storied teams, Manchester United.
The similarities extend well beyond title and location. Mozza and Fergie are poster boys for the misunderstood (Morrissey is the bard of teenaged angst; Ferguson’s Glaswegian accent often defeats his interlocutors). Regularly featured in polls of greatest Mancunians and greatest Britons, they rose to their particular forms of greatness after tough childhoods. “The motto of the Ferguson clan in Scotland is Dulcius ex apseris or ‘sweeter after difficulties,'” writes Sir Alex of his hardscrabble Glasgow roots. Morrissey opens his life story with a five-page rant against his birthplace: “More brittle and less courteous than anywhere else on earth, Manchester is the old fire wheezing its last, where we all worry ourselves soulless, forbidden to be romantic.” Yes, the Pope of Mope, the lyricist who framed the lines “I was looking for a job, and then I found a job/ And heaven knows I’m miserable now” has written a misery memoir. But soon young Morrissey experiences a transcendental moment of joy in the very heart of Manchester, as United fields its most legendary player:
My father takes me to see George Best play at Old Trafford, and as I see the apocalyptic disturber of the peace swirl across the pitch, I faint. I am eight years old. Squinting in the sun, it is all too much for me, and I remember my father’s rasp as he dragged my twisted body through the crowd and out onto the street, causing him to miss the rest of the match. Another form of church, football was all that stood between earth and God.
Fergie, a high priest of that church who was knighted for his contribution to the game in 1999, may well have responded to Mozza’s theatrics with a blast of his “hairdryer,” his famous dressing-room invective. He was never one to indulge artistic temperaments. He blames celebrity culture for undermining the careers of several players, most notably David Beckham’s. “I hold no rancor towards David at all. I like him. I think he’s a wonderful boy,” muses Ferguson in his book. “But you should never surrender what you’re good at.” At the press conference to launch My Autobiography, he pointed the finger at Beckham’s Spice Girl turned fashion-designer übercelebrity wife: “He fell in love with Victoria,” said Ferguson. “That changed everything.”
Earlier this year, Morrissey expressed far sharper criticisms of the Beckhams. They “are insufferable to anyone with intelligence,” he told an interviewer. Neither memoirist is known for moderating his opinions. “The hardest part of Roy Keane’s body is his tongue,” snipes Ferguson when recalling the spat that led him to let go of United’s former team captain. Mozza takes aim at his former bandmates, his enemies, Margaret Thatcher (a bugbear he shares with Ferguson), his friends, anyone who “eats death.” “You either approve of violence or you don’t, and nothing on earth is more violent or extreme than the meat industry,” declares the passionate vegetarian.
At breakfast with David Bowie in Los Angeles, Morrissey dissuades Bowie from eating cold cuts, observing that “another soul is saved from the burning fires of self-imposed eternal damnation.” They then turn to more rock ’n’ roll topics. “David quietly tells me, ‘You know, I’ve had so much sex and drugs that I can’t believe I’m still alive,’ and I loudly tell him, ‘You know, I’ve had SO LITTLE sex and drugs that I can’t believe I’m still alive.'”
Anecdotes, witticisms and chunks of philosophy enliven both autobiographies. Morrissey, who prevailed upon his publishers, Penguin, to release his book under the Penguin Classic imprint that is usually reserved for dead greats, has literary ambitions. Ferguson has always sought to control and to prevail. Their stories detail their efforts to reach the No. 1 slots in their respective fields and their fury when thwarted. Fate — and perhaps their publishers’ eye on Christmas sales — has now put them head-to-head. Whoever triumphs, the reading public wins.