Saturday, 1 November 2014

The Game (ITV, 1991)

I have no experience of playing non-league football myself. I was always let down by a less than sylph-like physique and was perpetually, to use the common parlance, 'carrying too much timber' in my younger days to be of any use. Little did I know it mattered not a jot.

Having watched The Game, I realise I had nothing to worry about. Danny Baker's six-part series for LWT proved the point more than satisfactorily as the spotlight was turned on men young and not so young who didn't allow their physical shortcomings stop them from enjoying a game of amateur football.

Shown late on Friday nights in London and the South East back in 1991, The Game portrayed life in Division Four of the East London Sunday League as if it were Division One of the Football League. Every week, ITV's cameras would focus on one match at Hackney Marshes or a nearby venue while Baker provided the commentary and interviews with players and managers alike.

Given Baker's comedic reputation, it's easy to think that this was his attempt to embarrass and humiliate a bunch of pot-bellied men possessing only the merest hint of footballing ability, but this simply wasn't the case. Every aspect of the programme was played straight down the line without a trace of demeaning condescension. If there was any humour to be gleaned from what was put before us (and there was plenty), it was earned simply by holding a mirror up to Sunday League football itself.

The first episode of the series featured a match between two pub teams, Coborn from Bow, and The Cock Hotel from East Ham. Rooted to the bottom of the entire East London Sunday League, Cock Hotel hadn't won a single game during their two-year existence and had recently appointed a new manager when the programme was made. They chose John Smythe, apparently, because he just happened to be in the pub on the night when the issue was raised.

As for Coborn, third in Division Four, they relied heavily on John Priestaff (right), already the scorer of 25 goals that season. Priestaff, hair slicked back, two rings in his left ear and a gold chain around his neck, told Baker about his proven pre-match preparations:

"Last time I went out and got drunk on a Saturday night, we had a game against Tesco's and I scored six against them and I had a terrible hangover. So every time I have an important game, I go out on a Saturday night and get well slaughtered, and I'm alright in the morning!"

Talk soon gave way to action, and for that Danny Baker was joined on commentary duties by Terry Franklin, an experienced Sunday League player in his own right. Between them, they described the play on Pitch 88 where 22 players, many with stomachs escaping the paltry confines of their team shirts, were doing battle in very windy conditions.

The difference in quality between the two teams was soon apparent, and after a flurry of goals, the final score of Cock Hotel 1 Coborn 8 confirmed the gloomy prospects for the team from East Ham.

Episode 2 of The Game once again provided the stories that added depth and interest to a fairly ordinary football match played by ordinary people. Chris Mostyn of the Young Prince 'B' team was supposedly getting married a day ahead of their match against Thomas Neale. Would the inevitable party the night before detract from Young Prince 'B's performance on the Sunday? Not necessarily, as it turned out. "The more drunk we get, the better we play" said one of their players.

And so it proved to be. Jamie Sykes, their centre forward (see below), claimed two goals in a 3-1 victory the next day. Interviewed ahead of the game, Sykes told Danny Baker: "I got sent off in a game about eight weeks ago... Their left back came across and gave me the old elbow in the mouth and cut me lip, so I reacted quite violently." When asked what he'd done, Sykes replied: "I chased him around the pitch. He was running backwards and I was running forwards and I still couldn't catch him. I got a 6-match ban."

In the following episode, Sykes found himself 'sans boots' just before an important match against Gascoyne O's. "I cleaned 'em up for TV and left 'em on the balcony" he confided, before being told to find some spare ones elsewhere in the dressing room. Such tales were rife in The Game, and it was these and many other vignettes that brought home the simple charms of football at this level, a world away from the big-name superstars, the sponsorship deals and the glamour.

Every game seemed to have something that brought a smile, if not a laugh, to your face. Whether it was the bulldog that got angry with any player taking a throw on in its close proximity, or the ball being kicked right off the field and under the axle of an oncoming P3 bus, the real-world brilliance of non-league football just kept on giving.

Without Danny Baker, the series wouldn't have been kept on such a rolling boil as it was, and his observations while commentating only left you wishing the likes of Clive Tyldesley or Peter Drury could be every bit as amusing.

At one point during a break in play, the cameras aimed their gaze at a woman sitting out on the balcony of her council flat overlooking the pitch. "This was one of the executive boxes they've recently built here at Mabley Green" said Baker. "It is for one and you get your own front room and Council flat with it" he brilliantly suggested. When the camera glanced across at a nearby match, he proffered: "Yes, as ever, ITV have gone and chosen the right game to cover..."

The series ultimately ended with the championship being sown up by Gascoyne O's and the Dick Coppock Cup (strictly for Sunday League Division Four teams only) being won by Young Prince 'B', but in many ways, it wasn't the winning that was important. What really worked about The Game was its focus on the people that played and their love for playing. Even now, some 23 years on, you can't fail to enjoy this series, and it's every bit as relevant today as any game involving Ronaldo or Messi - take my word for it.

-- Chris Oakley

Our sincere thanks to Revelation Films Ltd for permission to reproduce the above images.

Danny Baker's 'The Game' is available to buy from Amazon.co.uk for £3.99. 

4 comments:

  1. Baker said elsewhere that in one game the ref, having just dismissed a player on the far side of the pitch, came all the way over to the gantry and in his broad Irish accent said "I sent him off for calling me a c*nt, he also called my linesman a c*nt" naturally they couldn't use it!

    statto_74

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    1. I have a vague recollection of hearing that story!

      Elsewhere in the series was a referee who gave tactical advice to a member of one team that was losing a match. As far as he was concerned, that was an entirely acceptable thing to do as a referee! :)

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  2. I think Baker talked about it on Fantasy Football with Skinner & Baddiel, he was wearing full Millwall kit (a green & white halved away shirt) from memory.

    statto_74

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  3. Was a superb series, I was 16 at the time but remember it well. Chubby Bloke comes on and scores the last penalty??

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