Hailed as a ‘ground-breaking’ docu-series, All or Nothing was the behind-the-scenes story of Manchester City’s 2017-18 season. It covered, on and off the field, City’s race for the Premier League title which they’re favourites to repeat again according to just about every online bookmaker – at this stage of the season, at least.
It made for decent viewing, though the truth is, it probably didn’t go deeply enough in terms of probing the inner sanctum of life at City – as this Guardian writer asserted. If you watched it, you learned a few things, none of which were especially surprising. Vincent Kompany’s a good bloke. Sergio Aguero misses his family and hangs out quite a lot with David de Gea (yes, he plays for Manchester United, but the two were previously team-mates at Atletico Madrid, so we can dial down the shock factor). And Pep Guardiola isn’t afraid of dropping a few F-bombs when the mood takes him, which is pretty often, judging by the footage. In that, Pep is very probably the same as every other top-flight coach; football dressing rooms aren’t places known for impeccably clean language.
But, whatever you made of it – or make of it when you catch up with the series – the football documentary genre is here to stay, in the short term at least. We can expect the trend to continue for as long as there is a viewing appetite for it. And, for the football fan, what can make for better TV than football mixed with behind the scenes fascination? Football has long been featured on the small screen, in many different ways.
All or Nothing was aired by Amazon Prime. In September, step forward Netflix with the announcement of a new football doc-series. Boca Juniors Confidential follows the fortunes of one of Argentina’s most famous clubs. It’s the second prominent similar production from Netflix, after First Team: Juventus featured the Serie A giants.
Of course, football documentaries aren’t particularly new. Over the years, we’ve seen plenty. In recent times, the BBC – and Sky, who snapped up the third series, showed the Class of 92: Out of their League, which shadowed most of Manchester United’s celebrated players of that era (all expect David Beckham, in fact) as they bought and took over Salford City, and attempted to guide them upwards through the non-league pyramid.Embed from Getty Images
It was, all things considered, an entertaining watch. It showed non-league football at its best and worst, showing the charm and the warts and all nature of the game. It also made minor celebrities of some of Salford’s players, not least Gareth Seddon, who we later saw, amusingly, buying an artisan cheese shop. It also enabled Salford to galvanise themselves as a football club, achieving successive promotions. So far, all good. However, in the last few months particularly, Salford have perhaps been on the receiving end of a bit of a backlash, seen as a big-spending outfit pricing rivals out of the market – and attempting to buy their way into the Football League.
And there’s the risk of being featured in a docu-style series. Depending on how the participants are portrayed, depending on what happens in the editing suite and what’s included in the final cut, could make or break an individual or the image of a football club. Graham Taylor’s reputation never really recovered from the 1994 ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary An Impossible Job, which will forever be remembered for the infamous, ‘Do I not like that…’ phrase uttered by the England coach as his struggling team stumbled to defeat in a disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign. It felt like fun to chuckle along at the time and at face value it was a moment of dark comedy. Yet it was also a too-intrusive study of a coach going through anguish on the touchline. As a result, Taylor was a laughing stock among football supporters for years. That an insightful coach and a brilliant man with a warm personality, who climbed to the very top of his profession, had his legacy tainted in such a crude way is actually something quite shameful.
Taylor hasn’t been the only manager to see his reputation dented by a documentary. The 1995 Channel 4 show Orient: Club for a Fiver became famous for a scene in which Orient manager John Sitton went into a meltdown in the dressing room, sacking a player on the spot and challenging a couple of others to a fight. Funny? You bet. But not for Sitton, who was later sacked and struggled to really break back into a coaching role (though he did have a brief, four-game return at Orient). Among other things, Sitton later ended up becoming a black cab driver. Sitton’s story features our Issue 16.
There have been others that haven’t quite been stories of success in the same way All or Nothing has. The Four Year Plan detailed QPR’s attempts to gain promotion to the Premier League. Rangers did it, ultimately, but the four years seemed less of a plan than 48 months of wonderful chaos – 11 managers came and went in that time. QPR might have got over the line, but the reputation of the club that seems to make a strategy up on the hoof still lingers to this day. Made for great TV, though.
Still, at least the QPR documentary had a winning ending. When production company Fulwell73 started filming at Sunderland throughout the 2017-18 season, they would have hoped to capture the glory of a promotion campaign from the Championship and a return to the Premier League. What they actually got was the opposite – a miserable, miserable campaign as The Black Cats dropped into League One, tasting a consecutive relegation.
That’s the issue with a documentary – when the cameras start rolling, there’s no guarantee what they will capture.