As an activity, football is not inherently very important. In its essence the sport is, as its detractors claim, just 22 people running around after a ball. It’s the people playing, the people watching and the story that connects them that makes football matter.
©Mark Turnauckas (CC BY 2.0)
British broadcasters have never really grasped this point. Which is why, whether it’s a live match ruined by inane coverage or another weak attempt at drama, TV is where football goes to die.
Escape to Victory – a film, granted – is probably the game’s most successful fictionalisation. It’s got everything: a stirring storyline, a team you can root for, personal growth, a tactical fracture, John Wark’s moustache and a nail-biting finish. The problem faced by every other football drama since, though, is that the Nazis don’t still compete at the highest levels of international sport.
Because, of course, it’s the Second World War, not Sylvester Stallone’s struggles to become an adequate goalkeeper, that give the film meaning. Our boys don’t even win the game, don’t forget; it’s 4-4 at the end. The titular victory is not one of goal difference.
The Glipton Giants
Jossy’s Giants was one of the few shows that tried – and, at times, almost managed – to help football make the dramatic leap onto screen. You know of the show, of course – it’s part of Sid Waddell’s rich legacy to the world of sport. But it may have been a while since you actually saw it.
In fact, if you remember it at all, you probably think of Harvey, the body-warmer wearing goalkeeper; Ross, the selfish striker; or his dad, Bob Nelson, the comedy big-man of Glipton. You perhaps remember, too, that the second series went off on a strange tangent of ice-dancing and teenage hormones.
And then there’s Jossy Blair*** himself: good-hearted, disorganised, dangerously fond of the gee-gees and forever strapped for cash after a career cut short by injury. Jossy’s nemesis is Dave Sharkey – a blazer-wearing parody of the old-school administrators who ran football with little more than a stiff upper lip and endless contempt for the players and fans. Sharkey lectures ceaselessly on discipline and his superior conception of the game, but his technocratic style is an ahead-of-its-time attack on the Charles Hughes and Howard Wilkinson school of long-ball efficiency.
A hymn to lost joy
Jossy is no Arsene Wenger, though. His formula for victory is heart, focus and pride, with the occasional tactical pointer thrown in. The show isn’t a manifesto for a footballing renaissance, then, but a lament for the lost purity of amateur sport. The childhood joy of unstructured play, the ecstatic pleasure of kicking a ball, the bulletproof camaraderie of street football. It’s also a love letter to the north east of Waddell’s youth, to Newcastle United and its fans – “dreamers, loudmouth dreamers” – as he describes them.
Of course, at bottom, it’s just a show about kids playing football, full of incongruous dialogue, imperfectly staged match scenes and an improbable number of last-minute winners. But the same is also true of the best TV show ever made about sport: Friday Night Lights. Set in Texas and following a high school American football team, it managed to paint a far richer and more satisfying picture of life by showing how amateur sport, at least in parts of the US, can be the social glue that binds communities and their institutions together.
At the end of the show, Coach Taylor quits his job to start a new life with his family in inner city Philadelphia. Jossy’s Giants, meanwhile, ends with Jossy missing his own wedding for a cup game. Fear not, though! The vicar is rounded up and, by special dispensation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the marriage ceremony is performed in the centre circle.
The limits of sport
You see, what Friday Night Lights – and Escape to Victory – know, which Jossy’s Giants doesn’t, is that, unless you are really playing in the game, or watching your team in the flesh, life is something that happens off the pitch.
Sky doesn’t get this. And nor does the Premier League. If they did, they wouldn’t be so keen to consign historic clubs like Huddersfield or Wolves to oblivion.
Because old players weren’t very good. And old grounds were awful. But old football… that was magic. There’s no paradox here, no trick of memory. What made football so wonderful and so important was that it was connected to our lives in a different way. It spoke of communities and belonging in a way modern football no longer can.
Ask anyone in Britain about their lives. Big fish eating the little fish ad infinitum isn’t a story we need to hear told again. It’s played out every day in every workplace in every town. It’s part of the reason we need sport. It’s why this Premier League season has been the first genuinely interesting one in decades.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how rich the clubs are, how fast the players, how good the goals. None of it will mean any more than the next Justin Bieber video or the next net-breaking Vine. It doesn’t matter how polished and sleek, it’s empty entertainment – the sporting equivalent of junk calories. It no longer nourishes the soul.
Jossy’s Giants was by no means a feast, but, with hindsight, it was at least honest home cooking.
If you enjoyed this, please buy my book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”. That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.
This piece was originally published in the promotional newspaper Jonny Brick put out to support the launch of his book, Saturday, 3pm: A Modern Guide to Modern Football.
*** Did you remember that Jossy’s surname was Blair? There’s a strange and troubling parallel, here. Like Tony – that other Blair who claimed to have grown up on the goals of ‘Wor Jackie’ – Jossy travelled down from the North East with a hunger for improving the lives of people. But these two Blairs weren’t equally favoured. Tony, the time-travelling Magpies fans and autocredulous profiteer without honour, may have run the country, but it was Jossy who’d actually run out at St James’ Park and had been capped at England youth level. And, while Tony could boast Alan Milburn in his cabinet, it was Jossy who managed to rope in Jackie Milburn’s first cousin once removed – Bobby Charlton – for a cameo in Glipton. A lesson in the true nature of success or outlandish coincidence? I think I hear Sid Waddell laughing in his grave.