Thursday, 10 March 2011

Goals on Film: The Manageress Series 1

Back in the day when we had a female Prime Minister and David Cameron was just a twinkle in Margaret Thatcher's eye, The Manageress, staring Cherie Lunghi, hit British screens. The series, which aired in the summer of 1989, came at a time when we began to look at Football differently.

Written by Stan Hey, it's the story of Gabriella Benson a successful businesswoman who is a keen fan of the club in the (unidentified) northern town where she lives. We see in a small prologue how she inherits her love of the game from her estranged, Italian father and it is through his influence as a Uefa committee member that she becomes manager of the club. 

In many respects the series provides a snap-shot of the way football used to be. The club is in the Second Division (that's the Championship for all you post-decimal kids) and facilities for fans and players alike are terrible - it's strange to remember quite how bad things were back then.

Who's the daddy? Oh...

Yet, take away the amusingly obsolete technology and the terrible Eighties fashion and you find a series way ahead of its time. Although created 22 years ago, it deals with a host of issues which still afflict the sport today. These range from attitudes towards diet and fitness and England's lack of tactical flair to the country's insularity from the rest of the football world.  I guess a more depressing way to look at it would be to say it's frightening how little remains unchanged.

Before she gets the job, Gabriella is patronised at every turn. When she attends a match she is asked if it's her first game and is met with surprise when she reveals she's a season ticket holder and furthermore deconstructs the team's poor tactics in eloquent fashion. However, sexism is hardly touched on after the first couple of episodes, in essence Gabriella is really a metaphor for that thing most hated by footballers; an outsider.

Not only is she a woman, but she's well educated and - most outrageously - has no background in football.  She is questioned on what she can teach the team as she has 'never played the game'. Indeed, much of the initial resistance from the players is not sexist, but simply directed towards her new ways of thinking; she changes their tactics and the menu in the canteen (both of which are met with consternation). She even asks them not to tackle in training but to win the ball through anticipation. Tackling she argues, is a last resort (Big Sam would choke.)

Been there, done that, bought the sheepskin.

Remember this is seven years before Arsene Wenger strolled into Highbury and introduced such novel concepts as grilled broccoli (much to the disgust of Ian Wright) and 16 years before Sir Clive Woodward was asked to bring his world-cup winning experience to Southampton. Woodward was an ex-public school boy and had never played football. He eventually lost the battle of wills with working class former-footballer Harry Redknapp.

There is an interesting scene when Gabriella argues with her assistant Eddie Johnson (played by Tom Georgeson) which touches on this issue of class. He says "people like you don't feel the game in your hearts", before bemoaning fans who watch the game from "heated boxes". Over a decade later Roy Keane would echo the sentiment when criticising the "prawn sandwich brigade".

Off-the-pitch, we see players with gambling debts, players being photographed in compromising positions with teenage girls, transfer bungs and suspect accounting practices which allow board members and former managers to bleed the club dry of money.  Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

While The Manageress is idealistic it pulls no punches, ultimately the players buy into Gabriella's ideas but there is no fairytale ending - the team finishes the season a disappointing 10th. However, it does over-estimate the power fans have. Gabriella argues against the plans to redevelop the ground into a shopping centre saying she'll mobilize supporters as "that's where the real power in the game is; on the terraces".

However, as ticket prices increase to fund players exhorbitant wages and clubs are bought and sold like toys by billionaires here, sadly, the series does show its age.

Last Goals on Film: Escape to Victory

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