Eric Cantona, executive producer and co-writer, makes his presence felt in an entertaining documentary
A word that comes up multiple times in The United Way is “tribal”. The feature-length documentary presents the idea that Manchester United are a family, more than just a football team, a representation and embodiment of a city, a culture, a set of values.
In the film’s telling, there is something special about the Old Trafford outfit’s nature and its soul. A stellar roster of contributors from David Beckham and Ryan Giggs to Lord Kinnock (!) and Lord Heseltine (?!) argues not just for this singular quality, but also suggests that even non-United fans have found something admirable, exciting, and uniting about United.
Anyone But United types may wish to bring a sick bag when the film airs on Sky Documentaries next month, and is released on DVD. Or perhaps not: the question is raised as to whether something universal can be found in another team’s sporting success.
In the divisive times in which we live, social media toxicity has arguably made football more tribal, rather than less: is it possible to recognise the claims of specialness by a rival team, or is the other side always bad and wrong? You would not necessarily expect the DVD to fly off the shelves in Liverpool, but we shall see. For devotees of United there is a great deal to like here, not least the central presence of a Mr E Cantona, who is credited as an executive producer of the film, as well as a co-writer.
Sporting that cloth cap that has become his signature fashion quirk in the same way that his popped collar once was, Cantona is given free rein to indulge his theatrical side: we open on him commanding a lighted stage in an auditorium, and travel with him through time from the Busby Babes, Munich, the rebirth, the wilderness years, and finally the 1999 Treble.
There are some deliciously Cantona-ish bits. “To understand Manchester United is to understand the fundamental part of the human mosaic: what thrills us, what makes us feel.” Oh mon Dieu is there much more of this, some viewers may ask. Then again, his take on the kung-fu kick all these years later is very enjoyable: “I don’t regret it. I have one regret: I would love to kick him even harder.” “The empire grows, but the soul remains intact,” says Cantona of the ongoing story.
Not everybody would necessarily agree with that: indeed many Manchester United fans feel that a soul has been lost, or sold, in the era of the Glazers, dud managers, and potentially with this new Super League carve-up.
But form on the pitch comes and goes, as United know from their previous barren run before the Sir Alex-King Eric axis of the mid-1990s.
What is being presented here is something beyond a football team: a sporting myth. But fans of Liverpool, or Manchester City, or Celtic or Nottingham Forest or Athletic Bilbao or Accrington Stanley could also argue that there is something special about their club and the bond that it has with its people. That is the whole point of a football club. What definitely did make United special and different, at around the same time as Cantona, was the way they became a global sporting brand, creating an army of Reds from Guildford to Guatemala who were brought into the fold, and into the club shop, by Beckham, Giggs, Fergie, the Nou Camp 1999, Munich 1958, Bestie and all the mythology of the club.
United at that 1990s time were in a completely different commercial league to any other British team, results on the pitch fuelling sales of Official Gary Neville Duvet Covers and feeding the beast. Mismanagement, poor succession planning and the debt burden have weighed the club down, and the team have often looked ordinary.
But the charisma of Cantona and the on-pitch heroics of the 1990s make the case that there was something extraordinary in the red part of Manchester, then, and perhaps sometime soon again.
The United Way is available on DVD from May 10 and on Sky Documentaries from May 24
Written by Alan Tyers.