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...


  1. Football's long-standing global popularity is unique and football could be considered as an entry drug leading onto murkier, harder stuff like geography, human nature and politics. One documentary that educated, intrigued, entertained and appalled me was Football & Fascism first shown on the BBC. Everything that is football and everything it shouldn't be is there in, mostly, black and white footage from days long since past: murder, dictators, superstars, superteams, cheating, wars, interviews with people - some of them genuinely heroic in a way that a mere footballer or fan could never expect to be - at the heart of events mostly forgotten and barely ever even considered these days. Control, tyrants, appeasement, racism, cynicism, art and inspiration all preserved via footage of games long since played (and in many cases fixed!). It's absolutely brilliant documentary making and really should be included in any list such as this. Go here to see it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oS0yeCONIaM

    1. An excellent suggestion, Babararacucudada. In fact I have a TV recording of Football & Fascism which I hope to review in the very near future.

  2. I recently watched some good ones from the ESPN 30 for 30 collection, "Hillsborough" very moving and informative especially with the events from this week, also "The two Escobars" and one about Ardilles and Villa during their time in England during the Falklands war, I think it's called "Black and White"
    Oh nearly forgot, "4 year Plan" which follows QPR when they were pushing for promotion under Warnock and numerous other managers, unbelievable footage behind the scenes of directors and owners with no idea of football.

    1. They all sound very good, Rob. Thanks for bringing them to our attention... :)