Following its world premiere at Glasgow Film Festival, Maxwell Tait looks at SIR ALEX FERGUSON: NEVER GIVE IN, a deeply personal account of the most successful manager in football's history.
“You worry you’ll lose all this history, all these memories. But they live on, and they’ll never be forgotten.”
Though they might not admit it, most fans will appreciate the unparalleled success of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at Manchester United — 38 trophies in 26 years speaks for itself. On the 5th May 2018, Ferguson was hospitalised after suffering a serious brain haemorrhage. He recalls falling, and after that he remembers nothing of the incident. Only the day before, his son Jason Ferguson had joined onto the documentary project that would become Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In, as director.
Any right-minded human being would agree that Sir Alex Ferguson’s recovery was a relief. His moving return to the Old Trafford stands later that year was met with standing ovations. TV producers, especially, rejoiced at the ability to once again cut to Ferguson during 1-1 draws with Wolves, the old master raining unimpressed stares down upon *checks notes* Jose Mourinho.
With this seismic event, what would’ve been a fairly routine documentary about an extraordinary life and career was given a shot in the arm, and the finished product is a poignant, personal account that frames the peerless accomplishments of Ferguson around the events of this incident. The film opens with a distressing recording of the phone call to the emergency service, and, through frank conversations between Sir Alex and son Jason, the film dives into the Scotsman’s past, intermittently returning to the incidents of 2018. Immediately, the benchmark is set for the impressive degree of access the audience will be granted, crucial for any film about such a prevalent figure.
There's plenty of footage of a young Ferguson looking like Albert Finney in his heyday. We see the range of Ferguson’s working-class beginnings in Govan, from his early playing career as a prolific goalscorer for St. Johnstone and Rangers, to leading an apprentice strike for workers rights in 1960. The previously unseen footage of the march is a real coup from the archivists, who needless to say have done stellar work throughout the film.
A highlight is Ferguson’s time managing Aberdeen. Even today, the triumphs he led them to in Scotland over the established old firm are remarkable, as is famous footage of European Cup Winners Cup victories over Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. It is inferred that Archie Knox’s arrival as assistant manager to Ferguson was almost exactly like in The Thick of It/In The Loop, when Malcolm Tucker is laying into someone and Jamie McDonald peers his head in through a door.
It’s a sizeable task trying to cram in the history of a managerial career that spanned five decades, but credit to Never Give In for what is afforded time, like the difficult decision to drop goalkeeper Jim Leighton for Manchester United’s FA Cup final replay in 1990. Though ultimately vindicated by a winning performance from Les Sealey, it was not without unfortunate repercussions, and Leighton never spoke to Ferguson again afterwards. It’s one of many moments that is vital in illustrating Ferguson’s uncompromising winning mentality, and the high pressure environment that it created.
Also given a welcome amount of screen time is Ferguson’s wife of 55 years, Cathy. Born to Catholic parents, Cathy speaks candidly about the difficulties faced during her husband’s time at Rangers, a Protestant club. Though Ferguson’s time playing for his boyhood team was not entirely unsuccessful, Cathy’s religious beliefs were made a scapegoat for any shortcomings, and the couple endured vile threats and aggression before moving on to Falkirk.
Such a broad account inevitably loses the character and colour of a narrower temporal focus, as in Asif Kapadia’s Diego Maradona, but that isn’t the goal here. At the heart of Never Give In is memory, something Ferguson was terrified of losing after his accident. Never shying away from the difficult medical details, we are reminded that back in 2018 Ferguson was only given an 80% mortality rate (to clarify, a 20% chance of survival).
With that in mind, Never Give In succeeds in what it set out to achieve — preserving memories. Though the film is unrelated to dementia, its objective comes at an appropriate time; in light of the recent passing of Nobby Stiles, and the work of Chris Sutton in relation to his father’s battle with the disease, it is fitting to focus on the fragility of memory. Never Give In provides brave, intimate testimonies from a man whose footballing achievements are as of yet unmatched, and who quite literally survived against the odds.
Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In is currently scheduled for a UK cinematic release on 28th May 2021.