Nearly 2000 years ago, in the north of Greece in Macedon, Alexander the Great was born. Some historians will tell you he wasn’t great at all — that he was a little conceited, destroyed great empires, and left for better ones to take over. He was a conqueror with a vision during his swift yet short stay in the world, but he never ruled and didn’t live long enough to prove otherwise.
2000 years later, in the north of England in the little parish of Govan in Glasgow, Scotland, his namesake Alexander Chapman Ferguson was born. Alex Ferguson briefly conquered Scottish football with Aberdeen by breaking the duopoly of Rangers and Celtic. His grand vision surpassed conquering, and for over two decades in Manchester, he ruled English football. Does that befit greatness? You can be the judge of that.
With Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In, the new documentary film on the legendary footballer manager directed by his son Jason Ferguson, he lives long enough to reflect on the costs of the conquests and rule.
If fans and curious onlookers were looking for a Last Dance-style hagiography, this doesn’t quite fit the bill. Ferguson has had a litany of literature dedicated to him and has written a few books himself. The achievements of his teams have been documented en masse. A paean of his greatest triumphs wouldn’t have provided interested parties with a new perspective but Never Give In does because it’s not obsessed with documentation and is more biographical. It’s only tangentially interested in his footballing feats.
While the film does follow a linear timeline from his halcyon days of youth in the Govan shipyards to the moment of his return to Old Trafford after suffering a near-fatal brain hemorrhage, it’s unique to all other accounts of Ferguson because its muted tone helps strip away the mythos surrounding Ferguson while acknowledging that it exists.
This is evident in the black background that Ferguson is strategically framed into for its nearly two-hour-long runtime. Forget everything you know. This is a tabula rasa.
Told in flashback, Never Give In is a slow-rumbling meditation into mortality, age, memory, and family. Not a unique idea for a biography or documentary, but when it chronicles the long life of a singular individual like Alex Ferguson, it’s noteworthy.
It acknowledges the myths nearly an hour into the film when Sir Alex gives us this statement on taking the helm at Old Trafford:
For all the gods that have touched the hallowed turf, Ferguson would become something greater during his 26-year-spell at Old Trafford. He was an all-father figure in this pantheon. Any accounts from him or those who worked under him would’ve included some hyperbole, but when the account is narrated by those he was a husband, brother, and father to, it humanizes even those at the top of the mountain.
Tales of Ferguson pressing the right buttons of his players at half-time have become part of football folklore, and son Jason seems to have inherited some of his father’s gifts.
No Ferguson tale ever feels complete without mentioning Mark Robins’ FA Cup goal in January 1990 and how that was a turning point during his time at United. However, some might suggest that it’s almost a little boring to hear the same tale, so the film glosses over it by paying greater attention to the abuse that Ferguson’s family had to contend with in those years.
Ferguson’s decision to drop Jim Leighton from the final in the same tournament is also given greater attention. In the film, we get to hear some of Leighton’s thoughts, and you get the sense that Leighton still holds a bit of a grudge.
Leighton was a precedent. At some point in the future, David Beckham, Roy Keane, Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy and a host of other players would all feel like Jim Leighton. Some were more forgiving, like Gordon Strachan, who stars in the documentary but didn’t always see eye to eye with his fellow Scotsman. Strachan, as Roy Keane would put it, ‘wasn’t one for a cuppa tea in the canteen upstairs and a biscuit.’ The strategic decision to include these figures makes for a gripping watch.
But it wasn’t just his players that felt the cost. In Mario Puzo style, we learn the costs of being the head of two families from Ferguson and his immediate family. Ferguson is open about the fractious relationship he shared with his father before son Darren states how it wasn’t always easy as a child with Ferguson occupied by the undertakings that come with football management at the highest level.
Perhaps, the most significant conflict highlighted is the one between the love for his wife Cathy, a Catholic — and loyalty towards his boyhood club Rangers FC, popularly Protestant.
Football management can be a lonely job, as Ferguson reminds us. The achievement of the treble from Ferguson’s perspective isn’t one of uninhibited exultations with his players. An irked Ferguson is reminded that the celebrations can wait after the post-match interview with those from the press quick to pull him away.
We also get a peek into his strong socialist values. It makes you wonder what he really thinks of the formation of the Premier League, the Glazer ownership, and the existential threat of the ESL. His famous Cloughesque rant in Hampden Park gets a little mention as well. One wonders if Ferguson’s path would’ve paralleled that of his vociferous contemporary — taking minnows to the moon – had he not taken the Manchester United job.
So while the documentary answers many questions, it doesn’t ask all of them and leaves enough to ponder on. Sir Alex looks in good health. Fans can take solace in knowing that with his short rendition of Aberdeen’s European song and the anxiety before his return to Old Trafford for the game against Wolves, his memory and that child-like innocence have been preserved. It’s never given in.