Tuesday 1 June 2021

On demand: "Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In"

Never Give In opens with a memory test designed to determine whether its subject, Sir Alex Ferguson, can recall key incidents from his life, is up to the task of talking about them, and still has his side of the story straight. Ever up to the challenge, he can, he is and he does; the sequence provides a poignant contrast with the business of last year's Finding Jack Charlton, while allowing director Jason Ferguson, one of the manager's three sons, to frame the biography that follows within the context of the near-fatal brain haemorrhage of May 2018 that left his father muddled and briefly mute. The good news is that the voice - that great Glaswegian growl - has returned, here coaching us through the byways of a fabled career and the development of a famously combative mindset. Long before he gets to Manchester, it's a story to make social historians sit up and coo, taking in a childhood lived in the shadows of the Govan shipyards, the Glasgow apprentice strike of 1960, and the city's sectarian divide. Though he married a Catholic, Cathy, the younger Ferguson wound up playing for the traditionally Protestant Rangers, before retiring early and under a cloud, convinced the club failed to help him realise his full potential. Football was Ferguson's one true religion, although his subsequent managerial career was clearly informed by a Protestant work ethic and an unyielding sense of right and wrong. One of Never Give In's achievements is to explain in passing why this no-nonsense firebrand took to a maverick like Eric Cantona, whose genius had gone somewhat underacknowledged - and started to turn erratic, against itself - in his homeland. You may also come away persuaded that any player on the receiving end of the infamous "hairdryer treatment" - the ruddy-cheeked full blast of anger Ferguson reserved for those who weren't making the most of their talent or opportunities - probably, on reflection, deserved it.

A coproduction between John Battsek's Passion Pictures and Andrew Macdonald's DNA, the film adheres to the tried-and-tested tactics of the modern blue-chip sports doc, but comes through with a fully rounded portrait of its subject, at once lucidly structured and rich in stirring detail. One immediate selling point would be the largely underseen archive footage, which paints brisk pictures of post-War Govan, Ferguson's generally illustrious playing days, and the transformation he later wrought on turn-of-the-Eighties Aberdeen, which may just have been even more remarkable than his tenure at Old Trafford. (Not least because this magic was worked with far fewer resources.) The testimony, however, achieves an intimacy that may only be possible from having someone who really knows their subject behind the camera. Sat in a darkened room - perhaps the same cupboard Cantona was crowbarred into for the recent The United Way - Ferguson calmly, thoughtfully picks over his lifestory, only occasionally giving into flashes of his old touchline fire. (On the Rangers official who questioned why he'd married a Catholic: "I should have told him to fuck off.") Three sons add their own recollections - it's a rare doc to show its subject apologising for not being around as much as he would have liked during the filmmaker's youth - as does Cathy, his wife of a half-century now; sporadic diary entries suggest Sir Alex plunged into a mild depression after United's 5-1 defeat by rivals City in 1989. 

Some knowledge has been assumed. A montage addressing the "difficult decisions" taken by any manager offers glimpses of Roy Keane and Arsène Wenger, encountered as mere bumps in this particular road, otherwise unremarked upon. But cutting to the chase allows it sometimes jolting psychological insights, points where the film's interviewees offer observations that seem to bear out the director's own experience of his father. Gordon Strachan, on typically wry form, wonders why it was so important for Ferguson to beat Rangers during his time in charge of Aberdeen - raising a question the film's admirably comprehensive backstory has answered to some degree. (Watching as a Coventry fan, the presence among the archive's variably fresh-and-familiar faces of Strachan, Eric Black and Mark Robins - three of our best managers these past 25 years - speaks in its own way to those lessons that were passed on, taught or forcibly instilled while playing for Ferguson.) At its best, it appears Ferguson's tenacity manifested in an intense loyalty to players like Aberdeen and United goalkeeper Jim Leighton (a revealing case study here, pointing as it does towards just how hard it must be to retain any kind of socialist ethos in a business as fundamentally results-driven as football); at worst, it presented in the form of old-school grudges, and you certainly need a good memory for those. Here is a man who's simply held on throughout it all - and who now goes into extra time in far healthier shape than anyone associated with this very fine profile would have dared imagine three years ago.

Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In is now streaming via Prime Video.

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