From director Mat Hodgson comes The United Way, a 90-minute documentary charting Manchester United from the 1958 Munich Air disaster, through to the treble winning season in 1999.
Hodgson is probably best known for The Four-Year Plan, an extraordinary look at the years when then-F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, along with disgraced former Benetton and Renault F1 boss Flavio Briatore (although pre-the 2009 uncovering of the ‘crashgate’ scandal where Briatore encouraged his driver Nelson Piquet Jr. to crash the previous year in Singapore to engineer a safety car period, ultimately gifting a win to team leader Fernando Alonso) owned Queens Park Rangers. The documentary showed the owners involving themselves in team decisions meant for the manager, and, ultimately, causing nothing but distress, before stepping down without achieving any of their goals.
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The United Way is a very different beast. Led by United legend Eric Cantona, and featuring contributions from, well, almost everyone you could imagine – David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Ole-Gunnar Solsjaer, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt – along with many unexpected participants, such as Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, Shaun and Bez from The Happy Mondays, and more minor figures in the club’s history such as Kevin Moran, the film is more of a celebration than an investigation.
After a quick primer on the young ‘Busby Babes’ team of the 1958s, we pick up with the fateful night in February 1958 when a plane carrying 44 members of the team and local press crashed at Munich airport on the way home from a European tie in Belgrade, killing eight of the team, and a total of 23 of the passengers.
Wasting no time, and in fact somewhat rushing through the story, by the 15-minute mark we move on to the rebuilding of the club over the next decade, as Busby puts together a side featuring such legends as George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law (note: Best has passed away, Charlton has dementia, and Law does not appear, leaving goalkeeper Alex Stepney as the main representative of that side). The comeback culminates in the winning of the 1967 league title, and the 1968 European Cup – the first English side to win the trophy, after Celtic had become the first British Team to win the previous year.
By 17 minutes into the film, Busby has left the club, and we shift forward to 1992, picking up with the then-Chairman’s call to Leeds United that led to Cantona coming to the club. Members of that team – Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs and others – discuss his immediate impact on not only the team, but the club as a whole, as he brought with him a committed attitude to training that permeated the young players around him. We are reminded of the level of gamble he represented as a signing, as – at the age of 26 – United was Cantona’s eighth club by this point.
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From there the film cross-cuts across the eras, moving first back to 1969 to look at the managers that followed Busby, with a good deal of input from the now-departed Tommy Docherty, manager of the side to win the FA Cup in 1977 – the first trophy post-the European trophy – before documenting his sacking after an affair with the wife of the club’s physio. We look at the challenges of replacing a legendary side, as Best starts to become increasingly affected by the alcoholism that would eventually claim his life. From there we are back to 1992, and Cantona talking of his need to feel loved as part of a family atmosphere. It is all very enjoyable, but seems to be lacking in focus.
Back to the 1970s, we pick-up with the social problems affecting Manchester in the late-70s and early-80s. Not considered a desirable place to live at that time, its then-biggest club begins to suffer from the problems affecting football as a whole: a stale product, increasing hooliganism afflicting the game – leading to a five-year ban from European competition in the aftermath of the Heysel stadium disaster in 1985 – and grounds crumbling due to a lack of investment, driven by falling crowd numbers.
Reaching 1981, Ron Atkinson is appointed as manager, and we follow a period that brings two FA Cup wins, but a failure to win the league title that had stretched all the way back to 1967. Ron is portrayed as a chequebook manager, little interested in matters beyond the first team. This is the era of Bryan Robson, Gordon Strachan, Norman Whiteside, all of whom contribute. We see the social activities of the team start to get out of hand, as Atkinson imposed little discipline away from the pitch, and injuries run rife as the club’s drinking culture takes an increasing grip.
The United Way is not narrated, as such; it is all talking heads, and archive footage. The regime immediately changes with Ferguson bringing in strong discipline, and taking an interest across the club to structure it all as he wanted. We see the difficult first three years, where Ferguson fails to win a trophy, with only his strong work ethic and version appearing to allow him to retain his job. Finally, he secures the FA Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup in successive seasons, followed by the agonising near-miss of the league title in the final pre-Premier League season in 1991-92.
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As entertaining as this is, we are at around 45 minutes at this point. The work is rushed, and a more episodic, TV-based look at the club’s modern history would have allowed for more thorough examination. The film approach allows for the theme of triumph from adversity to be developed, however, though it is fair to say that this theme seems to arrive at the end as something of an afterthought. Paralleled with the era of ‘Madchester’, the early years of success are shown as part of a renaissance for the city. We see the Cantona kung-fu kick, and a reasonably thorough telling of the story of his over-eight month ban from football, and, as has been reported recently, Eric remains unrepentant: expressing the sole regret that he didn’t kick the fan in question harder.
Moving on to the break-up of the first double-winning side, and the promotion of so many members of the 1992 Youth Team at the start of the 1995-96, but around the 75-minute mark we reach the treble sinning season of 1998-99. With flashbacks through history intercut with the Champions’ League final, the film finally comes full circle in postulating the 1999 win as final validation of Busby’s desire to take the club into European competition: a decision that had led to tragedy.
The United Way is a disjointed and slightly rushed tour through the club’s modern history, one which will prove nostalgic for fans of the club, and the filmmaker must be applauded for the sheer range of big names he managed to secure for the work. It is a decent watch, just one which may have worked better as an episodic TV show.
The United Way is out now on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital Download, and launches on Sky Documentaries and streaming service NOW on 24th May.