Review: Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In is a fine and inspiring profile of the football manager

Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In.(M, 107 mins)

3 stars

For plenty of readers, the name of Alex Ferguson, subject of this documentary film, will be very familiar. For many, myself included, Alex Ferguson could be anybody - head ball boy at Wimbledon, composer of avant-garde musical scores for video games, or a ditch digger.

Turns out this particular Alex Ferguson warrants a documentary because of his illustrious career as manager of football teams.

The title subject in Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In. Picture: Supplied

The title subject in Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In. Picture: Supplied

This Alex Ferguson took Scottish team Aberdeen to the top of the Scottish league in the early 1980s and then revived the fortunes of Manchester United, now arguably the most famous team in the world.

British film critics seem to be overly kind to Ferguson in their reviews for this film, but theirs is a football (soccer) mad country and Ferguson has been part of their cultural fabric for decades.

I found him to be a thoughtful interview subject, quite insightful into his own behaviours in the way that people can only be when they're older.

He's not particularly a raconteur, or at least, I don't find soccer fascinating so his stories about life on the field were good background to understand this man, but not gripping. But he's honest about his gruff, direct and in all likelihood occasionally awful approach to managing people. There's footage of him screaming right into people's faces. His work was long over before cancel culture began.

The presence and sometimes absence of the interview subjects might be telling

It didn't seem like he was a particularly involved parent or husband for most of the 50 years of marriage to wife Cathy, who appears throughout. But in his older age and no longer carrying on his affair with his job, he is full of regret and he finally appreciates the strength it took his wife to bring up their children in his absence and deal with a workaholic husband.

That is what give this documentary its strength - not a bunch of talking heads blowing smoke up Ferguson's backside, but his own slowly-arrived-at self-insight.

Reinforcing that strength is the film's director - Ferguson's son Jason - who recalls in his own interview moments the absence of his father through his childhood.

The film serves a double purpose - not just a document recording Sir Alex's career achievements, but a tool helping him articulate and capture his thoughts and memories across 50 years of playing, coaching and managing football. Ferguson suffered a brain haemorrhage in 2018, and thought for a time that words were lost to him for good. As part of his rehabilitation process, he was asked to write his thoughts - and the process of documenting has been ongoing for both Alex and for his family. This is the fascinating drawcard for this doco.

Plenty of viewers will be more enthralled by the standard sports-legend narrative of archival footage of the young and casually handsome Ferguson as the top goal scorer in the Scottish league while playing for Dunfermline in the mid 1960s. They will appreciate the determination of taking Aberdeen to the top of its game, and then the challenge to try to defibrillate the comatose patient that was then Manchester United, a team that hadn't seen a premiership in 20 years.

The presence and sometimes absence of the interview subjects might be telling. All those luminaries whom the now successful Man U made rich and famous, David Beckham among them, are nowhere to be seen, The exception is Eric Cantona, who says that Ferguson's strength was as a psychologist. Ferguson says, "Psychology is somebody else's word, I call it management."

One of the film's pivotal moments centres around Ferguson's 1999 firing of Man U's goalkeeper Jim Leighton before the final of the FA Cup, ending a career-long friendship between the two.

As a study in the challenges and the loneliness of leadership, it offers the viewer a lot.

This story This is a fine look at leadership first appeared on The Canberra Times.