Reviews Short Documentary

20LEGEND – Tribute to a legend (2021) – 1 star

Director: Anthony Parker

Running time: 21mins

Of all the hair-raising moments Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s storied career as a professional footballer, sweeping Rob Lee’s legs from beneath the Newcastle midfielder to deny a late goalscoring chance is probably not one of his finest. Yet Anthony Parker – an unabashedly avid fan of the Red Devils – makes the odd decision to close out his 21-minute love letter to the cult hero. Just why this should be the way he closes out the story with this, rather than one of Solskjær’s more celebrated moments, is initially hard to discern, but it at least an interesting touch to an otherwise flat and repetitive watch.

Full disclosure; as a seven-year-old Newcastle fan, Solskjær’s Fernandinho-level shithousery left me absolutely distraught at the time, so to see it not only replayed at the end of a documentary praising ‘the baby-faced assassin,’ but captioned with “THE GREATEST RED CARD OF ALL TIME” was always going to stick in my craw. It does, however, seem to encapsulate something of Solskjær’s self-sacrificial nature, his adaptability, and his undying commitment to a club which despite a promising first season often side-lined its number 20.

That image of a wayward striker, hurling himself at the shins of Newcastle’s attacker as his team’s last line of defence as United’s title-hopes in 1998 ebbed away does capture something of the essence of the man who remains an unlikely legend in the Theatre of Dreams. Finding himself fourth-choice in the Old Trafford pecking order, behind Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole and England striker Teddy Sheringham, rather than throwing his toys out of the pram and seeking a lucrative move elsewhere, Solskjær instead knuckled down, and was reborn as probably the greatest ‘super-sub’ there has ever been.

It was that willingness to selflessly ‘take one for the team’ which would eventually lead to that night in Barcelona, as the Clive Tyldesley cliché-machine would routine remind us for decades to come. And just in case you had forgotten the famous “AND SOLSKJÆR HAS WON IT” moment, Parker thoughtfully replays it at an average of once-a-minute – sometimes with the iconic commentary, sometimes silent and in slow-motion, sometimes with the colours and contrast messed about with as if it were playing out in some Hacienda fever-dream, and sometimes with jarring electronic music, aping the hordes of insufferable “unbelievable football moments you won’t believe” montages on YouTube.

This, sadly, is what most of the documentary actually consists of, and to be frank, it’s “not for me, Clive.” Assembled snippets of televised sporting coverage, repeated ad infinitum, or clips lifted directly from other films documenting Solskjær’s life. Several evidently pulled from Sky Sports’ archive even include the original narration from Richard Keyes. This is not just repackaging footage unimaginatively into a film of ‘nothing we haven’t seen before,’ then, but in several cases, literally pumping out things we have seen before, as none of the sources are mentioned in the end credits.

Intriguing as the insights into Solskjær which come from these snippets of Sir Alex Ferguson or Ruud van Nistelrooy were at one time, they are not insights gleaned from any of Parker’s own efforts. They are public knowledge – and they add nothing other than a distasteful sense of being short-changed. Meanwhile, a lot of the footage seems to have been ripped from YouTube clips, and seems to be rendered in 144p, while the film also repeatedly calls its central figure “Baby Face Assassin” instead of the baby-faced assassin, taking the sheen off these moments further.

At the same time, the film – which was produced earlier this year – stops at the point where Solskjær retires, even though any football fan who has been conscious for the last two-and-a-half seasons knows this is not where his story at Manchester United ends. Ever the glutton for punishment, the selfless Solskjær has returned to preside over the club as manager while it struggles to find its identity or trophies in the post-Fergie years. Further illustrating his commitment to getting the shit kicked out of him on behalf of Manchester’s red half, this season has been characterised by Solskjær being criticised routinely for his tactical naivety, while trying to galvanise his team into a consistent collective of winners despite being consistently undermined by the club’s ownership of American private equity vampires.

This would arguably have made just as fitting end to the documentary as the red card did – but with the bonus of not completely evading the inconvenient truth that United are not half as successful as they used to be. In this regard, many of the documentary’s shortcomings not relating to its interesting interpretation of copyright law seem to come from Parker’s inability to extract himself from the scenario as a fan. In the brief segments where the director himself appears on camera to talk about Solskjær, he refers to many glorious occasions where “we” did something amazing – and in a documentary pieced together largely from more balanced, impartial sources (even including infamous United fan Clive Tyldesley), it is utterly jarring.

There is something of trying to have your cake and eat it too about this approach. Parker seems to want to talk about the club’s glory days in objective, journalistic terms, while also taking credit for it as a member of the ‘twelfth man,’ cheering for the team. At the same time, he dodges any of the issues he should address on either of these fronts when they might compromise the idea that United hasn’t paled in comparison to its “noisy neighbours” of the reputation laundering exercise at the Etihad.

If we are to go down the journalistic route, is Solskjær making progress in his attempts to rebuild United, and step out of the shadow of Manchester City who are now building a dynasty of their own? And if we are going to talk about what Solskjær means to the club from a fan’s point of view – something which I think would have made for more interesting viewing than the vast majority of the archive-based lauding of the man anyway – what does Parker feel about the fact United are losing Europa League finals to Villareal, while City are poised to play their first Champions League final, on the brink of a treble of their own? Club legends often have hard times managing their beloved clubs, from Alan Shearer to Frank Lampard. Is Solskjær’s legacy compromised, or enhanced, from where the supporters are sitting right now? Or is the best still to come?

Loath as I am to admit it, Manchester United’s treble-winning season was an incredible sporting feat, and Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s part in clinching it rightly deserves to be celebrated. At the same time, however, like any piece of history, we need to be told how it ties to present events, what it means in the context of the present day, and how it might inform future events. Parker could do that from either an impartial, journalistic standpoint, or from the perspective of a red-blooded United fan – but ultimately evades doing either. In the end, this leaves his film as little more than a compromised, ungainly and unimaginative trudge down memory lane.

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