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Manchester United documentaries face off in end-of-season friendly

Two documentaries about the Manchester United story capture the build up to monumental moments in the club's history.
Alex Ferguson before his first match as Manchester United boss in 1986. Photo: Staf/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

In days of old, the end of a football season would be marked by the release of a round-up DVD or video for the more successful teams. Now, Manchester United Football Club gets a pair of glossy film documentaries instead.

Out this week is The United Way. The selling point here is Eric Cantona’s involvement, the former United star narrating and co-writing the film, which seeks to get to the heart of what’s made Manchester United the club it is today. Given he’s only got 90 minutes to do it, he and director/co-writer Mat Hodgson primarily focus on three eras in the club’s history: the ‘Busby Babes’ of the 50s and 60s, the Tommy Docherty/Ron Atkinson interlude in the late 70s and 80s, and then the introduction of Sir Alex Ferguson, peaking with the 1999 treble win (but not going beyond that to his retirement).

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That treble win is also the fulcrum of another United-related film, Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In that arrives at the end of the month. Ferguson is a notable absentee from The United Way – a film otherwise packed with politicians, musicians and ex-United players – but that’s because he’s given his story in an entirely different production. This one’s directed by his son, Jason, and sees Ferguson addressing the brain haemorrhage that nearly took his life in 2018, and reflecting on his career.

The focus of Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In is the man himself getting his memories down on film, and again, pulling all this into around 90 minutes is a challenge. Jason Ferguson’s film still gets in his playing days, his managerial days at Aberdeen, and his United career pretty much up to 1999. All tailed by Ferguson candidly discussing his brush with death, with input from colleagues and family.

Eric Cantona stares at the screen and gruffs out the story, almost daring you to look away. I was too scared to

Both films inevitably cross over a fair bit. The stretch in the 80s and early 90s when Ferguson was under extreme pressure at Manchester United is common to both, as is the signing of Cantona, the pressure of aiming for the first title in decades in the 1990s (eventually achieved in 1993), and the build-up to the 1999 treble win. But each has different bits to add to the overall story.

The most welcoming to non-United fans – and I have no skin in the game here, my team a good league below – is the Ferguson documentary. It frames the story very much from his perspective, and even when it comes to the plentiful football footage, there’s a clear effort to get shots of his reactions. Hearing him talking about the regrets of not being around when his children were growing up is a very human moment from a man whose image tended to be presented more harshly.

The United Way meanwhile clearly invested in a drone to film shots of United’s ground, Old Trafford, and heck you get an awful lot of them. But then at the heart of it is Cantona, our on-screen narrator. He stares at the screen and gruffs out the story, almost daring you to look away. I was too scared to. His presence knocks an otherwise glossy telling of the story a little off-kilter, even if it makes a film about a near 150-year old football club a fair amount about him.

1461 Film review - The United Way
French revolution Eric Cantona’s incredible United career forms a sizeable chunk of The United Way The United Way is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and download, and on Sky Documentaries and Now from May 24 ©Ad Hoc Films

Neither film goes too deeply into the rougher edges of football, although major incidents are looked at (including Cantona’s suspension after being convicted of assaulting a fan in 1995). But there’s still more than you’d get from a traditional end-of-season round-up.

What’s more, football documentaries have been getting better – just look at Diego Maradona for evidence of that – and both of these productions are very well put together, capturing the build up to monumental moments in Manchester United history. Neither is likely to leave even casual football fans short-changed either, especially the Ferguson film. The frustration is that if the two had come together a little, there might be a more compelling mini-series. Or maybe that’s for a future cinematic universe crossover movie. Ferguson vs Cantona: Dawn Of Justice, anyone?

The United Way is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and download, and on Sky Documentaries and Now from May 24

Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In is cinemas from May 27 and Amazon Prime Video from May 29