United Review: It’s Not About The Game

UNITED: Sunday 24th April, BBC2, 9pm

Every football fan knows the tragic story of the 1958 Munich Air Crash which claimed the lives of 23 people (including eight gifted young Manchester United players). The disaster shocked not just Manchester, but the whole nation back in 1958 and over 50 years later memories are still raw for the people involved (look out for an excellent Bobby Charlton documentary later in the week).

Starring David Tennant as Jimmy Murphy and Dougray Scott as Sir Matt Busby, United is a powerful, emotive piece of television and serves as a fitting tribute to all of those who lost their lives on that snowy night.

The early part of the story focuses on setting the backdrop of just how great a side the ‘Busby Babes’ were supposed to be, and follows the young Bobby Charlton’s efforts to join his mates in the first team. As well as the football, it also shows us all the players as vibrant young men who all have a great love of life on and off the pitch – “don’t tell them you’re a footballer,â€? Duncan Edwards tells Charlton talking about chatting up girls in a bar. “You make £15 a week and only play until you’re 40 – what girl’s going to want that?â€?

The mood changes dramatically by the time the players are at Munich airport. The crash scene is sickening, and the tension has been cranked up by showing the passengers on the two failed take off attempts before the fatal third. It’s easily enough to put you off flying forever.

The whole programme, though, is made so affecting by a cast that all give great performances, most notably David Tennant. Playing a coach that has educated and invested so much of himself in his young players, Tennant is brilliant across the spectrum, whether he’s making you laugh as he talks to the boys in a pub or cry as he breaks down in the hospital stairwell. Another great performance from one of Britain’s finest actors.

The story ends with the 1958 FA Cup Final, which United lost to Bolton, and as Murphy prepares to lead out the team onto the pitch he sees the faces of the players who died standing in the line. If the rest of the drama has failed to stir you, this is the moment you’ll be reaching for the tissues.

In watching United, never has Bill Shankly’s quip about football being more important than a matter of life and death seemed so wrong. This might be a story about football, but it is far more than just a football story; it’s the story of 23 lives lost and, more specifically, a story of 7 young men who never got to fulfil their potential as footballers or as people. Even if you have no interest in football, this is drama that will move you .