Every football fan worth their salt knows a little bit about Manchester United’s history. The Busby Babes, The Munich Air Disaster, their run of Premier League glory and of course, the historic treble winning season of 1998/99. However, the undercurrent of ambition combined with the epitome of winning, expressed as a way of life inherent to this special group of like-minded individuals, has rarely been encapsulated in any form of media. The United Way is cut from the same cloth as The Last Dance. It lacks the American flare and drama, but at its core, provides the same cross-examination not of football or sportsmanship, but of base winning mentality and of Manchester United’s relationship with it.
The United Way provides an in-depth look at Manchester United’s unique history from 1945 to 1999, charting the chronicle between post-war Manchester, the arrival of Sir Matt Busby and the Premier League side who became renowned worldwide. Taking us through this historical documentary are all the familiar faces, from talisman David Beckham to current manager OIe Gunnar Solskjær to the official narrator and fan-titled ‘King’, Eric Cantona. The passion emanates from every speaker, hearkening back to an unparalleled time of British footballing acclaim.
Such is the case with popular sporting documentaries, material achievements play second fiddle to the personalities that underpin them. Personalities in this instance which understand the traditions associated with Manchester and more importantly, The Munich Air Disaster which arguably started it all. On February 6th 1958, a United team returning from an important European Cup win in Belgrade had to refuel in Munich. Dreadfully, the plane skidded off the runway during take-off and crashed, killing seven players and an eighth some weeks later. These footballers represented ‘The Busby Babes’, a young and promising group of players who had the world at their feet.
The United Way reveals never before seen footage highlighting the emotional toll this event had on the people of Manchester. Of course, news of the disaster reached the furthest parts of the globe, but for the population of this working-class city, the effects lingered for a lifetime. Manchester United represents the people’s club, founded by railway workers and steeped in tradition which parallels the blue-collar industrial heritage of the city it’s based in. We see United go on to play in an FA Cup game less than 2 weeks later, winning 3-0 as their manager Matt Busby lies fighting for his life in a Munich hospital. With a makeshift team on a cold February night, the rebirth of a perennial presence in club history was witnessed by 60,000 desolate fans.
They would go on to make the FA cup final that same year, unfortunately losing to Bolton Wanderers. However, despite not finding the right result, a way of thinking and adapting became imbedded in the philosophy of Manchester United; a philosophy which would lead to remarkable success in the following half century. We see a team lose its spirit, its momentum and half of its players in 1958, only to bounce back over the course of the next decade and secure the biggest trophy in club football. The United Way allows the audience to feel the effects of that stark time, as opposed to purely documenting it. The rest as they say, is history.
As far as release goes, with the recent controversy of the European Super League and its potential destruction of grass-roots football, the timing of this documentary is appropriate. With billionaires attempting to delegitimise the Premier League and the heritage of British football, The United Way provides a timely reminder of where the sport started, why is it important to so many communities and who really makes a football team – the fans. Unfortunately, and conversely, the segments containing Ryan Giggs are tainted by the serious allegations that have recently been made against him, and perhaps would not have been included if The United Way was released slightly later in the calendar.
The documentary admittedly pulls at the heartstrings of all sporting fans who love a come-back story. Therein lies the biggest strength of The United Way, but also its greatest weakness. The documented moments are incredible, providing a degree of spectacle which appears almost unworldly in scope and prestige. Unfortunately, the charisma with which these scenes are delivered is ultimately lacking. Acclaimed sporting documentaries such as The Last Dance, O.J: Made in America and Senna all have one important thing in common – they are centred around larger-than-life icons. This is indeed the point of The United Way, that modest individuals like Nicky Butt, Steve Bruce and Mark Hughes can ignite a stadium with their play of the pitch. However, when voicing over historic moments, the lack of charisma leaves something to be desired and invariably feels flat.
These are worlds apart from the segments narrated by the supreme presence that is Eric Cantona. The second half of The United Way focusses on ‘King Eric’, his entrance to the club and his pivotal role in the success of the early 90s. Admittedly, the focus on his talents as an individual in a very strong side can be viewed as facile, however, the way Cantona held himself as an uncompromising and driven entity is at least partly responsible for the arrogance that underpinned United’s success. Central to this and Cantona’s uprising is the influence of Sir Alex Ferguson. During a time before nutritionists and sports scientists, The United Way shows Ferguson for the pioneer he truly was, revamping an old system with an iron fist, turning a bunch of talented boozers into a well-oiled machine.
Cantona plays the role of narrator like only he can. His recurrent soundbites shouldn’t work, and indeed wouldn’t work if it were anyone else. He is a borderline caricature and his lines borderline satirical; but in keeping with his portrayal in the documentary, he follows a unique path. During his career, he played the hero and the villain, but more importantly, made everyone around him a better player. He reminded a city and a football club of who they are and what they could accomplish if they emulate the passion and resolve of the 1958 squad. Testament to this are the glowing statements from his former teammates, each one vocal regarding Cantona’s effect on the club. The United Way reiterates the importance of teamwork throughout, from Harry Gregg relentlessly pulling survivors from the Munich wreckage to the unwavering support of Cantona through his turbulent career, the titular ‘way’ is explored as a paradigm of alliance and cooperation.
There are a multitude of names which you can attribute to United’s success. Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane and Alex Ferguson are names rightly thrown around by fans worldwide. However, The United Way serves to remind us that none of them brought the biggest football club in Europe to the world-stage like Eric Cantona, who encapsulated the mentality that originated with players he never played with, on a team he helped revitalise and reward.
The United Way is an ode to every football fan who wants their club to succeed. It provides the emotion and feeling to key sporting occasions, reminding fans of what is truly important. The events themselves are well-documented, but with novel footage and key supplementing dialogue, the way of proper football is illustrated. However, and more fittingly, it shows football clubs in their true light, as extensions of their cities and symbols of the collective populace, not some side-project collected advantageously by external conglomerates. Whether a lifelong Red, a rival fan or someone with no interest in football, The United Way has something for everyone, with the central point being less about the sport and more about the characters who make it special.
The United Way is released on 10 May on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital Download and launching on Sky Documentaries and streaming service NOW May 24