The United Way review – Eric Cantona’s over-simple Manchester United history

·2-min read

This is a perfectly watchable documentary, but events have overtaken it, exposing a crucial naivety. It is about the soap-operatic tragedy and triumph of legendary football club Manchester United, co-written, co-produced and presented by its saturnine bad-boy hero Eric Cantona, and in this version of history, he looms larger than Bobby Charlton or George Best.

Cantona smoulders his way outrageously through his script, though revealing little or nothing about himself, except for one remark about the notorious kung-fu incident against an abusive Crystal Palace fan: “I would ’ave liked to kick him even harder … ” His theme is Manchester United’s 20th-century golden age, from its comeback after the 1958 Munich disaster through to the fairytale ending of the 1999 Uefa Champions League final. And there it stops. The film goes on and on about Manchester United’s European ambition, European vision, European destiny – all those heroic ideals that now look shabby in the light of what we have just experienced: the club’s greedy participation in the European Super League fiasco. The announcement of which, let’s not forget, followed the club’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward meeting with Boris Johnson’s chief of staff Dan Rosenfield, and briefly with the prime minister himself.

Of course, this film finishes way before this, before the Glazer takeover of 2005. But why does it finish in 1999? After all, Sir Alex Ferguson continued in charge until 2013, which might have made more sense as an endpoint. Does it stop at the end of the 90s because that’s when Eric Cantona bowed out? Maybe. But the film’s resolute determination not to see how the seeds of commercialisation were already being sown in those days is obtuse.

Well, it is an enjoyable history: Matt Busby’s rebuilding of the team after Munich, the dysfunctional family psychodrama of Tommy Docherty’s sacking, the cheery pub-amateur laissez-faire of Big Ron Atkinson, and then the fiery command of Alex Ferguson. Talking heads include David Beckham, Norman Whiteside, Ryan Giggs and many more players; politicians Michael Heseltine, Neil Kinnock and Andy Burnham talk about the conditions for working-class fans in those days. But I would have liked to hear from Tony Blair, the Labour leader endorsed by Ferguson before the 1997 general election. I would have liked also to hear from Kevin Keegan, famously needled into his “love it” rant in 1995 by mind-games Jedi master Alex Ferguson, who’d implied that Newcastle’s opponents weren’t really trying.

As for Cantona, there is a film to be made about what this complex, talented man was really thinking and feeling all this time. But this isn’t it.

• The United Way is released on 10 May on digital platforms.

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