“The brain controls everything,” says Dr Nadir Ibrahim, part of the medical team that cared for Sir Alex Ferguson after he suffered a brain haemorrhage in May 2018, and who speaks as part of this new documentary about the former Manchester United manager.
“Your experience is all stored in your brain, in your memories,” the consultant anaesthetist continues, “and by that I think you make up your identity as a person. Childhood, adolescence — the memories make Alex Ferguson him, as him.”
That’s the crux of this film. It’s a character study that charts how the contours of Ferguson’s life shaped him into one of the most fearsomely talented football managers we’ve ever seen. A tough upbringing in a working class area of Glasgow with a “strong, socialist” mother and principled father, marching as part of an apprentices’ strike in the Sixties, and living through a playing career that was coloured by checkered success and personal grievance — it all contributed.
And the man himself seems acutely aware of it, especially in the aftermath of a medical emergency that, as another doctor tells us in the film, left Ferguson with only a 20 per cent chance of survival. Jason Ferguson, Sir Alex’s son — who directs the film with a clear-eyed intimacy — appears as a talking head at one point and remembers how, just before the operation, his father spoke about how “there better be nothing wrong with my memory”.
Later, while in recovery, doctors gave him a pen and notepad, and asked him to write down his friends’ names, family names, football teams, anything. In the film, we see that notepad. It’s little more than scribbled gibberish, but one word repeats: “remember”.
This film isn’t an exhaustive biography — it skims over much of his time playing as a striker in Scotland, and gives only the briefest of glances at his formidable successes after the treble-winning season of 1998/99 — but it does remember the moments that have left an indelible mark on his psyche, and draws some convincing through-lines.
There’s talk of his early years, growing up in the shadow of Rangers’ Ibrox Stadium, and Ferguson remembers with disarming glee when he signed to play for his boyhood club. But there’s a fire in his eyes — the same indignant passion that must have fuelled those hair dryer treatments as United manager — when he recalls a Rangers director asking spiky questions about his wife Cathy’s Catholic background. That animosity, Ferguson says, culminated in him being forced out of the club. Remembering the conversation now, he’s blunt: “I should’ve told him to f*** off.”
But, as Cathy says in the film, the experience only made her husband more determined. In the late Seventies and into the Eighties, he achieved brilliant things as manager of Aberdeen, breaking the Old Firm grip on the Scottish top flight and slaying European giants such as Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Still, as former Aberdeen player Gordon Strachan remembers, Ferguson was like a “wounded animal”, “desperate” to get revenge on Rangers.
In the 1983 Scottish Cup final, he did. Aberdeen beat the Glasgow club 1-0 — a moment of jubilation, surely? “We were a disgrace of a performance,” Ferguson says in a piece of incredible archive footage, taken from an interview on the pitch after the final whistle, his reddened face a swirl of confliction. “I can’t understand why I did it,” he says now in the documentary, remembering those words. In all honesty, his son Jason then asks, was it just about hammering Rangers? “I think it probably was [about] beating Rangers”, his father replies.
Footage of the Champions League final in 1999, in which Manchester United scored two late goals to snatch a comeback victory, is skilfully handled. As Sheringham and Solskjaer strike, we cut back to footage of the Glasgow shipyards, and that apprentices’ strike, and hear Ferguson talking about how, where he comes from, people “stand up for themselves, and stand up for their team — that’s always been in me”. It’s compelling stuff.
Ruminations on Ferguson’s family life are fascinating, too. Cathy remembers how her husband, wrapped up in his job, “never saw the kids much”. He agrees; his absence meant that it was Cathy who “brought the kids up, and I’m not proud of that”. But, he counters, he and his teams “got the reward” for all his dedication to football.
The documentary doesn’t reveal a side of Ferguson that we never knew existed. Anyone who’s followed the British game in the past four or so decades will know about his psychological steel, his towering football intellect, and his peerless triumphs. But what this film does so well is explain how he became that magnificent thing — and just how close he came to losing it all.
In cinemas from May 27, on Amazon Prime from May 29