Depending on your view, this is the best or worst time to release a documentary about Manchester United. It arrives days after fans invaded the Old Trafford pitch, demanding the removal of current owners The Glazer Family as the fallout from the European Super League fiasco continues. With the club in turmoil, it may not be the time to look back on the good old days. Then again, maybe it’s exactly the right time for a reminder of what makes the soul of a football club.
Assembling a huge cast of old hands (Brian Kidd, Mark Hughes, Sammy McIlroy), 90s greats (David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, current boss Ole Gunnar Solskjær), and celebrity fans (Andy Burnham, Shaun Ryder, Peter Hook), The United Way finds its beginnings with the arrival of Matt Busby, the Scottish manager who brought Manchester United to prominence in the 1950s and 60s, with the latter decade a remarkable resurgence after the 1958 Munich Air Disaster. A combination of grit and grandeur is what director Mat Hodgson and his subjects come to define as The United Way, personified in its ‘presenter’ Eric Cantona.
King Eric is the first voice we hear, stepping out on to a stage insisting that “this is not my story, this is our story”. That may be true, but there certainly is a lot of time devoted to his influence on the club. Even a star of Beckham’s calibre looks misty eyed when he talks about the Frenchman arriving, lifting the standard and being treated differently because, well, he was different. The man himself waxes lyrical about his connection with the club and the city (“Manchester was a city that needed me, and I needed them”).
It’s all very affectionate, until arguably the most intriguing segment where we look into the moment in 1995 where Cantona infamously flying kicked a fan in the crowd. It’s the closest we get to a negative look at the club’s history – managers that were sacked, such as Tommy Docherty or Ron Atkinson, were seen as not fitting in with the spirit of United. They can’t do that with Cantona, a man who personifies a whole era. So, we get insights such as Mark Hughes revealing he used to run interference for Cantona when he saw his “eyes go black”, and laments being injured for that game. As you would expect, our narrator is unrepentant. “I have one regret” he says, staring into the camera. “I would have loved to have kicked him harder”.
One suspects that the filmmakers gaining access to Cantona is the reason why more time is devoted to him than many eras of the club. However, it is indicative of the film’s biggest problem: covering such a vast passage of time that inevitably things get glossed over. We go into minute detail over some players, but only get passing mentions of legends like George Best, Roy Keane, or Bryan Robson. The film ends with the cinematic 1999 Champions League victory, but ignores the years after, despite the club winning eight Premier League titles and another Champions League trophy. One suspects that other factors, chiefly the Glazers’ 2005 take over, were key to this being annexed. Despite the club often being described as a ‘family’, this is one clan that that won’t be looked back on as fondly.
While it may be painful for rival fans to watch, The United Way gets away with its romantic perspective because there’s a lot to romanticise. The enduring charisma of its narrator and the authenticity of its interviews mean anyone who witnessed those times will feel the warm glow of nostalgia.
The United Way is released on 10 May on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital Download and launching on Sky Documentaries and streaming service NOW May 24