“Football, bloody hell!” Taciturn, but never a man to mince his words, only occasionally did the inscrutable exterior of Sir Alex Ferguson – one of football’s most fearsome managers – ever crack a smile.
Directed by his son Jason, documentary memoir Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In builds to the dreamlike conclusion of the 1999 UEFA Champions League Final and a famous post-match reaction that conveyed all that is simultaneously good, bad and entirely inexpressible about the beautiful game. A victory which marked the greatest moment in a glittering career, Ferguson was – understandably – unable in that moment to fully articulate what had just occurred.
Never Give In takes a frank and all-encompassing look at the life, on and off the pitch, of a footballing great. Turning the hairdryer down to a gentle breeze, the steely, blue-eyed gaze, with a knowing glint that could just as easily terrify as inspire, remains the same. But unlike the control that was maintained over all elements of running a club during his managerial days, Ferguson acknowledges that when it comes to his health, things are out of his hands.
In an early quick-fire round of memory test questions, Saturday 5 May 2018 is a total blank. In light of the devastating brain haemorrhage suffered on that day, the reflections on his upbringing in Govan, his family, the bitter division of religion and club affiliation in Glasgow, his playing career and move into coaching, are all remembered. Preserved by a man thankful to still have the ability to do so, they are the memories of a rich life, full of incident and achievement. Given only a 20% chance by doctors that he would make it through surgery, the Ferguson family find it hard to recall those tough first days.
Interviewed individually, wife Cathy and other sons Darren and Mark are able to also look back on times where such a steadfast dedication to management meant that their husband and father simply wasn’t around. And as a result, there are regrets. Just as there are for crucial decisions of team selections which either bolstered, or effectively ended, playing careers. “When there’s a doubt, there’s no doubt.” Firm in his convictions to this day, a slight wavering in voice or expression does betray the hurt left by the loss of friendships and pain caused over the years. Ex-players Gordon Strachan and Ryan Giggs are chief commentators on the Aberdeen and Manchester United eras respectively.
Diary entries, lists and tactical notes appear on screen, and there’s a whole host of crossed-arm team photographs and footage from the biggest games, as Ferguson grows and greys before our eyes. “Ally was always the leader, always the guy in front,” says Martin Ferguson, reminiscing on his brother’s tough, no-nonsense approach to life from a young age. And for all the trophies, accolades and achievements listed as Ferguson returns to Old Trafford for the first time after his brush with death, Never Give In makes it clear that he has never forgotten where he came from.
No matter what your allegiance, or feelings of antagonism toward the man for Fergie time and defeats doled out by championship-winning sides year after year, it’s impossible not to admire his dedication to the game he loves and the town that made him who he is. With a quick glance to the watch, as Ole Gunnar Solskjær pops up in the box in injury time and we cut away to wind howling through a Glaswegian shipyard, we’re reminded that there’s no more fitting a place for this testimonial to make its World Premiere than at the Glasgow Film Festival.
The 2021 Glasgow Film Festival takes place between the 24 February to 7 March. You can follow CineVue’s coverage here.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63