In the world of football, few men have dominated quite like Sir Alex Ferguson. Even if you are a supporter of one of the teams his Manchester United side made miserable, the numbers speak for themselves. Thirteen Premier League Titles, 2 Champions Leagues, 5 FA Cups, and a lifetime of memories for those whom he brought glory. This new film is directed by his son Jason, but even with his intimate knowledge of the man, the first-time filmmaker has a task choosing what to focus on in such an illustrious career.
What Never Give In chooses is memory. In the heart-breaking Finding Jack Charlton, we saw the England legend battling dementia, unable to recall a truly remarkable life. With Ferguson, happily that isn’t the case. We begin with a playful ‘quiz’ where the 79-year-old seems to be in fine fettle, remembering key anniversaries, locations, and goal scorers. We then cut to the one thing he doesn’t remember – a rush to hospital in 2018 when he suffered a bleed on the brain. For the Scottish manager, there was a fear bigger than any loss on the pitch: the notion that he might lose his memory. When you’ve lived a life like his, it’s easy to understand why.
So, the film finds its narrative anchor. The importance of recalling the moments that make your life what it is. It’s a clever entry point, with his recovery separating the various chapters of his life. He tenderly looks back at his upbringing in Govan, the toughness it instilled in him, and the breaks football gave him. He talks about his love for his wife Cathy, and the religious difference that made his time as a player for boyhood club Rangers so difficult. His early years in management are covered (he remains the last manager to win a Scottish championship outside of Glasgow), where former Aberdeen player describes his and assistant Archie Knox’s approach as “Bad Cop, Worse Cop”.
At around the fifty-minute mark, he joins Manchester United, and you probably know the rest. After a few years of struggle, Ferguson’s mentality and youth policy resulted in around two decades at the top of the English game. The filmmakers are banking on the fact that most people watching will know this, because after the path to his first trophy with United, we skip through much of the glory years.
Sir Alex narrates the story himself, choosing to focus on the mentality of winning rather than the particular decisions that led him to glory. The film’s title is repeated as low points are overcome, and he shares the secrets of two of his most celebrated signings. Ryan Giggs talks of him like a son would a father, while we see Ferguson preach the merits of being hard on his young charges. On the flip side, he discusses how allowing the temperamental Eric Cantona to be himself, allowing certain privileges others didn’t get, would bring out the best in him.
Giggs, Cantona, Strachan and Archie Knox are the only colleagues featured, while his sons and wife share what it was like to be related to him. Basically, only those viewed as family get a say, which creates a rather one-sided perspective. There’s nothing about his famous rifts with Roy Keane, David Beckham, or other managers like Kevin Keegan. There a segment about his falling out with goalkeeper Jim Leighton, who isn’t interviewed and probably doesn’t have the platform those other names would to answer back. History is written by the victors, and Ferguson closes a story about dropping him for the final by saying “make no mistake, it was the correct decision”.
He freely admits to being something of an absent father and husband, with football monopolising his time. There’s something matter-of-fact about that acceptance, however, that isn’t dwelled upon. A character assassination would be inappropriate for such a lauded figure, but for all his talk about struggle in life, it’s a shame to see many of his own battles left out.
Despite that, it’s hard to not be charmed by this front row seat to sporting history. The film concludes, as The United Way did, with the 1999 Champions League final and the breath-taking finish against Bayern Munich. Ferguson Jr uses footage from a camera trained on Ferguson Sr, a live document of a man experiencing the pinnacle. This is contrasted with a scene where he reads a portion of a letter his letter to Cathy, after the operation that nearly claimed his life. These two very intimate moments play out beautifully.
Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In will of course be a moving experience for Manchester United fans, seeing a man they love talk about the good times. For neutrals, it’s missing an inquisitive edge, but hearing a lifelong winner talk for two hours about what it takes to succeed is an interesting watch nevertheless.
Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In is released in UK cinemas on May 27, 2021 and available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK and Ireland on May 29, 2021