Tuesday 17 March 2015

Field of Screens - Five Great Football Documentaries

It's been a while since our last guest post, but we're delighted to welcome Dave Burin to The Football Attic who tells us about five excellent football documentaries - all available to watch via YouTube....

Football and film crews have always been uneasy bedfellows.  From Graham Taylor's England predictably crumbling under pressure in Do I Not like That, to the spectre of Thatcher-era hardship limiting Sheffield Wednesday's crowds, in 1984's Steel City Blues, the football documentary has often provided an insight into the fractious, emotionally-charged nature of the game. Away from the blandly glamorous veneer of 'Super Sunday' and inoffensive post-match interviews, football has always existed as something more earthy and complex... as the following five documentaries illustrate.

1. The Crazy Gang (BT Sport, 2014)

For younger fans, the reverence towards Wimbledon's FA Cup triumph of 1988 might seem rather confusing. Was this not a team whose name became synonymous with dull, route-one football? Were they not resented for their overly physical approach? Does this mean people actually like Dennis Wise? Yes. Yes. Hopefully not.

Wimbledon's FA Cup triumph - and to a lesser extent their eventful tenure in English football's top flight - are so celebrated because of the unlikeliness of their success. A ragtag band of lower-league stalwarts and juvenile misfits combined to catapult Wimbledon from a Southern League side to worthy winners of the world's most famous cup competition, in less than 11 years.

It's a genuine footballing fairytale, wonderfully relived through BT Sport's recent documentary The Crazy Gang. Weaving together rare archive footage from muddy, scrappy fixtures at Plough Lane to anecdotes like Dave Bassett's precise attitude to goalscoring ("If we didn't have 18 shots a game, then we had an inquest") and unflinching recollections of dressing-room bullying, it's a film which evokes both the charm and the cruelty of Wimbledon at their peak.

Comprehensive and unflinching, whilst remaining entertaining, The Crazy Gang is, just as the Wimbledon side were, not without its flaws. There's too much focus on Fashanu and Jones using the documentary as a platform for hard-man bragging, but overall, this is excellent football filmmaking. From Sam Hammam's tales of tough negotiations, to Lawrie Sanchez's wondrous Wembley memories - all of it sumptuously filmed - The Crazy Gang is well worth a watch, whether you're a Womble, or just wondering what the fuss is about.

2. Steel City Blues (BBC North, 1984)

1984 was a year of mixed blessings for the proud industrial city of Sheffield. Whilst the bitter feud of the Miners strikes took hold, amidst rising unemployment, United and Wednesday were thriving on the pitch. The Blades rose from the old Third Division through the infeasibly tight margin of goals scored, whilst the Owls returned to the top tier for the first time since 1970. This incisive documentary from BBC North examines the remarkable rise of Howard Wilkinson's Wednesday, amidst a backdrop of economic gloom, and an increasingly derelict city landscape.

As with The Crazy Gang, the interview sources are again a strength of this documentary. Steel City Blues includes interviews with a young David Blunkett (then leader of Sheffield City Council), several members of the Sheffield Wednesday squad - most notably Martin Hodge - supporters, and even an Owls fanatic who showcases his love of symbolism by collecting ceramic owls. The amount of football footage on show is - reflecting the times - fairly limited. However, close focus on a decisive promotion win against Crystal Palace, and the subsequent jubilant celebrations upon the terraces, provide a stark contrast to the scenes of industrial decline.

Steel City Blues is very much a document of its time, and feels all the more unbiased and authentic for it. Set to a strangely eclectic soundtrack, including Joe Cocker and dyslexic local lads Def Leppard, this remains one of the best and most concise documentaries about the way in which football offers an escape from the frustrations of everyday life. And in 1984, Sheffield Wednesday offered an exciting and uplifting glimpse of what football could bring to a struggling city.

3. Big Ron Manager (Sky TV, 2006)

Ronald Frederick Atkinson. He of the remarkable suntan and the entirely baffling phrase "early doors". Winner of two FA Cups and two League Cups as manager. Reduced to ruining Steve Bleasdale's burgeoning managerial career for the sake of TV ratings. As the Posh slipped down the table during the bizarre experiment that was Big Ron Manager, the only real winners were the viewers of this unique and strange documentary. It was, if nothing else, a success of sheer entertainment.

Jeff Stelling narrates the show, taking time out from his usual role of impressing* (*scaring) viewers with an intimate knowledge of Stirling Albion's goalscoring woes and Exeter City's loanee midfielders. Opening the first episode, Stelling asks "will Big Ron being able to work his magic in this down-at-heel football world?"  The answer is a resounding NO. Mostly, he interferes in Bleasdale's perfectly competent running of the team, reels off 'Ronglish' platitudes to a confused dressing room and turns up at Barry Fry's gaff for lasagne. It's gripping TV, in its weird, slightly mundane glory.

The show's true gems, though, are a result of its behind-the-scenes access. Genial defender Mark Arber gets in hot* (*warm?) water as a result of tampering with a urine sample. Posh's youngsters misunderstand the contrasts of visiting a local factory as an excuse to act stupidly, and Bleasdale finishes a rousing team talk by telling the players "and the word I'm looking for, before the finish, is 'sloppy mode.'"  'Magic darts' and all that.

Big Ron Manager remains an interesting look at a footballing level and era where the gates are low, the ground is crumbling, and the measured old heads clash with brash young talents. It all happens at London Road, but in truth this could have been any contemporary lower league side. And it remains a fascinating watch for fans of any team.

4. City! A Club in Crisis (Granada, 1981)

Malcolm Allison's outspoken, frank manner means he's always been renowned as a footballing showman, as much as he has a managerial success. "There aren't many players who can do that", a City boardroom member tells Allison, after Kenny Dalglish scores a dipping strike against the Maine Road men. "What?  Make the ball bounce?" replies the acerbic, flamboyant boss. But, in a no-holds-barred piece of football filmmaking which turns many preconceptions on its head, Allison's increasing vulnerability is one of City!'s most fascinating facets.

As with Big Ron Manager, the behind-the-scenes access of this documentary gives it an authentic and refreshingly honest feel. After one defeat, the players congregate in the dressing room to analyse the fixture. This begins with a cry of "what about that fuckin' referee?", followed by noises of outraged agreement.  It's a world away from the lazy platitudes of glum midfielders with a microphone unwittingly shoved in their face by Geoff Shreeves.

It also shines a light on areas rarely seen by fans. The City team are seen training on the fields by Manchester's Platt Lane. John Bond's job interview is caught on camera. An incredulous narrator tells us how Allison likes any "new idea", trying "dancing teachers, psychiatrists, university lecturers and, now, he's planning music in the dressing room". It's a fascinating portent of what would become the revered footballing field of 'Sports Psychology'.

The most fascinating area of this production, though, is the battle between the aging master, Malcolm Allison, and his managerial replacement and childhood friend, John Bond. It's a narrative which Shakespeare would have been proud of, but the drama of it is low-key and emotional. When City meet Allison's new side, Crystal Palace, a seemingly desperate, shaken Allison faces the camera, and says, "I need to win badly. I need to win". He doesn't. It's the sign of a proud man having a genuine crisis, and as with everything in City! A Club in Crisis, there's that sense of intimacy and access which makes this a remarkable and engrossing gem of documentary making.

5. Football's Greatest Teams - Bayern Munich (Sky Sports, 2013)

Narrated by Hugh McIlvanney, whose voice sounds like a big bear hug, Football's Greatest Teams is one of Sky Sport's fleeting - but wonderfully produced - acknowledgements of football's existence prior to 1992.  Focusing on the Bayern team of the mid-1970s, which won three consecutive European Cups (bolded, because that's just ridiculous!), this superb piece focuses on game footage, but incorporates numerous player interviews - and perhaps most incredibly, fans' footage of the trip to Brussels for the 1974 European Cup Final at Heysel - Bayern's first ever appearance in the final.

As with the other entries here, there are some superb pieces of insight. Not least Bayern legend Rainer Zobel's slightly guilty recollection of that infamous European Cup tie against Leeds United.  "It was a goal" he admits. "It wasn't offside". It's not going to mean much to those at Elland Road, but it's a humble admittance which seems to rest uneasily with the brash, no-nonsense confidence of many of Bayern's stars of the period.

The footage, though, is probably the highlight here - especially for lovers of continental football. The rare, fuzzy footage of Gerd Müller smashing home goals from inside the box is enough to warm the heart, especially combined with McIlvanney's superb narration. It's a fitting tribute to a wonderful team.

Thanks to Dave Burin for his wonderful guest post. Seen any great football documentaries? Tell us about them! Drop us a line or do as Dave did - write us a guest post! We look forward to hearing from you...

Thursday 12 March 2015

The Football Attic Podcast 22 - Panini Special

Football sticker enthusiasts: you have reached your aural Valhalla! The Football Attic is proud to present 80 minutes of discussion on the subject of sticker collecting featuring our very special guest, Greg Lansdowne.

Greg's currently promoting his new book, 'Stuck On You: The Rise & Fall... & Rise of Panini Stickers', which looks into the history of self-adhesive football stickers in the UK. Having spoken to the great and the good from Panini, Merlin and many other great names down the years, Greg has put pen to paper to document the fascinating story of how we all got hooked on the great collecting craze for football lovers young and old.

'Stuck on You' is on sale now, but if you haven't got your copy yet, never fear - The Football Attic managed to catch up with Greg recently to bring you a personal take on some of the fascinating stories you'll find in the book.

And if you sent in questions for Greg, you're in luck as our guest very kindly spent some time providing answers to all your Panini-related enquiries and disputes.

Belly dancers, newspaper moguls and striking TV broadcasters... You'll find out all about these, plus stickers, cards and much more besides on The Football Attic Podcast 22!

Subscribe to The Football Attic Podcast on iTunes or download our podcast here.

Stuck on You: The Rise & Fall - & Rise of Panini Stickers
By Greg Lansdowne
Pitch Publishing Ltd
256 pages
Price: £12.99 (Amazon.co.uk)

See also:

Friday 6 March 2015

Panini: Football 83

In 1983, Panini did for football players what Morecambe & Wise did for Angela Rippon. Where before there was a tidal wave of heads and faces, now there were legs everywhere - hundreds of them adorning virtually every sticker on every page. This was a new approach: out went the head-shots of previous collections and in came full-length shots of every player in full team kit. Amazing.

It's difficult to know what people thought of this change back in the day. Speaking personally, I remember being a little confused but ultimately rather pleased with the sight of whole players, rather than just their heads and shoulders. Now we could see a complete team kit, and though we might have seen glimpses of it on TV, it was now possible to gaze eternally at the entire ensemble in all its detailed glory.

The shift to tall, thin stickers from the squarer, more squat shape was a seismic event in the history of Panini's UK domestic football collections. It's never been repeated (not to my knowledge, at least) and people still talk about it to this day. The obvious nod towards the old cigarette cards of the early-20th Century would have pleased the nostalgia lovers no end, but younger collectors may have missed the chance to see what a player looked like close up. As it is, they weren't missing much. Who wants to see sensible haircuts and dead-behind-the-eyes facial expressions in fine detail anyway?

The change in shape of the stickers could have posed one or two problems where the foil badges were concerned. Your average club crest tends not to be tall and slim by its very nature (Birmingham City's being one of the few exceptions), so how could you fill up all the empty space going spare? One idea was provided on the first page of the album with the shiny versions of the logos for the Football League and Professional Footballers' Associations in England and Scotland.

What Panini did for the team badges, however, was rotate them 90 degrees and add a cartoon illustration of the team's nickname. My 12-year-old self thought this was magnificent; an informal adjunct to the ruthlessly slick content found elsewhere in the album. More often than not, the cartoons were literal (Ipswich had pennants sporting the word 'Blues') while others were common knowledge to the regular football fan anyway. It was when I got to the Scottish teams that I struggled, though. My knowledge of football north of the border was considerably patchier, so why were Dundee United represented by a bunch of fans being noisy?

The illustrations, despite not having the nicknames provided, were good fun and very nicely drawn. In fact the whole presentation of the foil badges was very well done indeed, from the scarf-like team name banner to the inclusion of the year the club was formed.

But back to those player pictures. Despite Panini's usual meticulous efforts to get all the required photographs in a single shoot, their high standards were sometimes compromised by the players themselves - or specifically their attempts to dress appropriately.

The classic example of this was found on pages 38 and 39 of the Football 83 album where you'd find several of Swansea City's fine band of men devoid of any decent footwear. First there was Colin Irwin, captain of the side and a former Liverpool defender and yet, despite having been given a football to hold onto, didn't have any boots to wear. The same can be said of Bob Latchford, one-time Everton great yet now, at the ripe old age of 32, forced to pose for a picture with only socks on his feet.

Alan Curtis notched up the embarrassment levels even further by wearing a full kit and carpet slippers on his feet. Little is known about the Great Swansea Shoe Shortage of 1983, but this album will give historians a valuable insight into those austere times.

Over on the West Ham pages, Phil Parkes only just avoided humiliation of a similar nature by donning what appeared to be a pair of desert boot/football trainer hybrids, but even with the right footwear, other perils were abound. Take, for instance, the gentleman in the dark jacket and grey flannels walking accidentally into shot behind Birmingham City' Pat Van Den Hauwe. All very unfortunate...

At least Football 83 had its fair share of curiosities throughout. There was Arsenal in their first ever modern, shiny kit complete with Dennis the Menace socks; Dave Sexton wearing that rarest of things - a Coventry 'Talbot' tracksuit top; and a host of future Premier League managers from Martin Jol to Alan Curbishley all looking fresh-faced and free of the stress that was to blight their post-playing careers.

After the previous year's collection, Panini decided not to bother with a section on Division Three and stayed with the tried-and-trusted 'badge and team pic' format for the Division Two teams. As for the Scottish Premier Division teams, there were no full-length pictures for their players. Yet again, they were two to a sticker (head shots only), but as with the English First Division teams, there was room for an extra player on the page thanks to some skilful rejigging of the layout.

Finally, on the last seven pages of the album, we were treated to one of the more inventive and interesting features from Panini's rich canon. 'Laws of the Game' made great use of the longer-shaped stickers by giving us pictures explaining each of the laws of Football. Accompanied by full text descriptions of everything from the correct way players should be dressed to the offside rule, this was a genuinely useful and satisfying addition to the album - not least because of the 'Boys Own' style of illustration used on each of the pictures.

And that was that - a great end to a very good collection filled with new ideas that kept our love for Panini well and truly alive. But could it last, and what would the thousands of loyal Panini sticker collectors expect in 1984? All would soon be revealed...

-- Chris Oakley

Tuesday 3 March 2015

Preview: Football Attic Podcast 22

This Saturday, March 8th, we'll be recording Episode 22 of The Football Attic Podcast - and we'll be interviewing a very special guest, author Greg Lansdowne.

Greg's new book, 'Stuck On You: The Rise & Fall... & Rise of Panini Stickers', is a fascinating look at the heyday of football sticker collecting in the UK. Covering Merlin, FKS and many other manufacturers as well as Panini, it's the must-have book for anyone that's ever known the joy of swapping and sticking!

Ahead of the podcast recording, we're inviting you to send in your questions on sticker collecting. Whether it's a technical query about one of the Panini albums or you're just curious about which collection Greg likes the most, leave us a message below or email admin [at] thefootballattic [dot] com.

We'll do our very best to read out your questions as we indulge in our love for one of the most a-peeling pastimes ever! Thanks for your participation!

And you can order your own copy of 'Stuck on You' via Amazon UK for just £12.99 (paperback) and many other great retail outlets.