Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In review – less hairdryer treatment than crowning glory

Really, you can’t go wrong with this material: a working-class Scot becomes the most decorated manager in football, yet age and illness cannot dim his gleam

The life story of football manager Alex Ferguson is just so rousing that any movie about him more or less has to be a success. And so it proves in this heartfelt documentary: something like an authorised film biography directed by his son Jason. Here was the dynamic young Glasgow socialist, who led a shipyard apprentices’ strike on Clydeside in 1961, then went into football, scored an unprecedented hat-trick for St Johnstone against Rangers at Ibrox, wound up playing for Rangers, then managing Aberdeen, then in 1986 was appointed manager of Manchester United and after a tricky start led them to all-conquering glory.

This film is structured in old-school Hollywood style around Ferguson’s dramatic and near-fatal brain haemorrhage in 2018, from which the story is told in flashbacks. The man himself is extensively interviewed, the voice maybe a little slower and softer, but mentally entirely alert. We are offered an intriguing “Rosebud” theory for the rage and passion that drove him. Ferguson was raised Protestant and his wife Cathy was Catholic; and on joining Glasgow’s famously Protestant Rangers FC as a player, Ferguson was sternly asked by one of the directors if he had got married in chapel. Meek for the one and only time in his life, Ferguson replied that it was in a register office – instead of telling him to mind his own business. The Rangers bigwig declared himself satisfied.

But in that grim sectarian atmosphere, an unpleasant atmosphere persisted around the question of loyalty, and Ferguson clearly never forgot the angry humiliation of appearing to be blamed for Rangers’ loss against Celtic in the 1969 Scottish Cup final. His anger resurfaces to almost Brian Clough levels as Aberdeen manager, when his team won what he saw as an undeserved victory in the 1983 Scottish Cup final against an under-par Rangers, and he let rip with a bizarre live TV touchline rant against his own side at the moment of victory.

Some of the most interesting questions are unanswered and unasked: in the 90s, he was a supporter of Tony Blair (who naturally admired Ferguson’s management wizardry). What does Ferguson think of Labour and socialism now? Perhaps he thinks that football, a sport in which working-class men can win colossal success, is socialism in action. Oddly, despite that knighthood of his being front and centre in the title, we don’t hear about how it felt to go to Buckingham Palace. And of course, this film was made before the ESL debacle, although the last part of his tenure coincided with the Glazer ownership. What on earth Sir Alex makes of all that is tactfully left a mystery. With less gripping subject matter, this might have been a so-so bit of club memorabilia. As it is, it can’t help but be gripping.

• Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In is released on 27 May in cinemas, and on 29 May on Amazon Prime Video.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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