When Alex Ferguson was in the middle of a slow recuperation following the life -saving brain surgery four years ago, two fragments of life invaded his subconscious on a nightly basis; a commentator announcing a David Beckham corner and, more mystifyingly the catchy chorus from the Tra-La-La song, the 1969 absurdist hit by The Banana Splits. Night after night, both sounds returned to him.
Ferguson is not an obvious candidate for dream interpretation but he quickly deduced that the first sound was a calling to the fabled night in the Nou Camp in 1999, when his United team scored two goals from corner kicks to win the European Cup final against a shell-shocked Bayern side. He could offer no reason as to why The Banana Splits were following him through the twilight.
It's one of several vivid revelations in the unexpectedly sombre 2021 documentary Never Give Up. And in a season when Manchester United are moving towards a heightened state of dysfunction, the film stands as a useful reference point for what the biggest football club in the world has managed to squander over the last decade.
On Monday, it was reported that the United board are considering every option when it comes to the redevelopment of Old Trafford, including razing the place to the ground, clearing the rubble and building a state-of-the-art building from scratch.
It’s the least likely option but, given the self-destructive pattern which has characterised the club post-Ferguson, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see the wrecking ball plough through the most famous cathedral in Lancashire.
Why not literally destroy the club?
Of course, they’d rebuild it all and the Busby Stand and Ferguson Stand would be faithfully recreated except with more seats and bigger concession stands. But it wouldn’t be the same place.
The deluge of archive footage of Ferguson gives Never Give Up a peculiar, melancholy power. The cameras always seemed focused on him, drawn by the seething intensity from his rampaging seasons with Aberdeen to the very first time he set foot on the Old Trafford pitch in 1986.
“You could feel the ghosts,” he recalls in that glassy Govan accent of the powerful sensation of walking through the empty stadium that afternoon. He got the place straight away and understood the immensity of what became an epic restoration project; an unfolding glory in the gaudy, carefree 1990s.
It was inevitable that there were casualties along the way. You could compose a high-calibre football team from the number of Ferguson players who parted on cold terms. There's a black joke somewhere in whether Jim Leighton would make the team. Leighton was one Ferguson held in the highest esteem, the goalkeeper he took from Aberdeen to Manchester.
During United's unlikely run to the FA Cup final of 1990, Leighton was enduring a horrific loss of form. The concession of three goals in a nerve-wracking draw against Crystal Palace in the final left Ferguson with a dilemma. He needed to win that cup to secure his job. But he knew the terrible consequences of dropping the goalkeeper for the replay.
“It would finish Jim,” he says of his choice, all those years later. So he dropped him. Leighton shed tears when Ferguson told him. United won the replay. The goalkeeper felt betrayed and bitterness has increased with time. Just three years ago, Leighton said that he would still refuse to shake Ferguson’s hand and that other players from that time felt the same.
“He never spoke to me again,” Ferguson acknowledges, and if there’s a hint of regret there, then it’s fleeting.
Ferguson was attempting to build his life-work, his grand obsession. Within a decade, United had obliterated the other big English clubs and were league and cup winners in England and champions of Europe. The Leighton story is interspersed with Ferguson's ruminations on mortality, about how while he was told he was talking in Macclesfield hospital before going to Royal Salford, he doesn't remember a thing about it.
“So I’m not sure when the moment comes when you do die whether it’s the best way to go. And the moments when you are on your own there’s that fear and there’s that loneliness that creeps into your mind. And you don’t want to die. And that’s what I was at; I’m not gonnae die. I don’t want to die. These things did flash through my mind quite a lot.”
When he takes his seat in Old Trafford these days, Ferguson looks younger and more robust than most 80-year-olds. He’s learned to disguise what he must be thinking when he witnesses the pale fire of the present United side. He’s kept his counsel as the club blindly tries to stumble on a formula that might prevent United from drifting further and further away from its role as the standard-setter of the English game.
The 2022 season has been reduced to a series of diversionary subplots: the ongoing debate about whether Ronaldo is just an exorbitant fairground attraction or the only good thing about the team; about whether Harry Maguire is out of his depth; about the deteriorating fortunes of Marcus Rashford; about what happens next.
When Ferguson was at his height – the big tacky Sharp/Umbro coat, gimlet-eyed and up for the argument always, chewing-gum through winter Saturdays when he bullied and cajoled and squeezed every last ounce out of his players – it was difficult to fully appreciate the enormity of what he was creating.
United were serial winners. They were bigger, richer, colder and there seemed to be no real mystery about it. Ferguson’s teams won league titles out of habit, as though they were too frightened not to.
Nobody fully understood just how fragile the entire superstructure was; that if Ferguson was the chief architect of Manchester United, he was also the foundation. Once time – because he would have gone on forever if the gods allowed that – forced him to retreat to the stands, it began to fall apart with stunning rapidity.
All of Ferguson's successors – from the doomed reign of David Moyes to Jose Mourinho who looked haunted by the end, to Ole Gunnar who was incapable of offending anybody and wept tears of love as he stepped down – came to understand that they'd taken on a cursed role. Ferguson's theatre of dreams has become a graveyard for managerial ambitions.
And so little surprise, following Wednesday night's dismal 1-0 home loss to Atletico Madrid – underwhelming again, unreadable again, out of Europe again – that speculation on the future of Ralf Rangnick has intensified.
The rumours about the next saviour – Poch or Tomas Tuchel or Erik ten Hag – will come faster and faster as City and Liverpool duke it out for the Premier League title.
Meanwhile, United’s cast of stars, operating like independent brands with accountability to nobody, will plot their next moves. And upstairs, they’ll try to figure out how to replace the leaking, outdated amphitheatre with its outdated furnishings and its unmatchable aura.
At this stage, it will be no surprise if they manage to ruin the best asset United have right now – the ghosts, the promise of magic – even as the magician watches on.