Monday, 7 November 2011

Goals on Film: Mike Bassett - England Manager

I’ll be honest, I skipped Mike Bassett: England Manager when it was released in 2001. Never having been a fan of Ricky Tomlinson, I thought it would be a sub-Royle Family 'comedy' with little to offer.

Given its release just two weeks after England, under the guidance of Sven-Göran Eriksson, beat Germany 5-1 it was easy to dismiss the film and I wasn't the only one to do so. The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw suggested its "entire premise, with its jokey stoicism, suddenly looks obsolete".

Bradshaw's position was easy to understand at the time. After all, here was England’s so-called Golden Generation under the influence of a cosmopolitan foreigner with one of the best managerial CVs in the game dismantling an age-old enemy in their own backyard.

So, when I recently watched Mike Bassett I was pleasantly surprised and disheartened in equal measure. Surprised because it is a brilliantly observed satire in the best traditions of the British genre, disheartened because, well, despite the hope created by that famous win in Munich nothing’s changed, in reality the film could have been made last week.

It hits its targets time and again with its central themes of England's tactical inflexibility, the Press pack's favouring of character assassination over proper analysis, and a belief from all concerned that the country's imperial past somehow gives its football team the right to be successful.

Even some of the throw-away lines are bitingly accurate.  For instance, we learn that winger Alan Massey is "not stupid. He's got five O Levels". GCSEs more likely, but either way they include a 'D 'in technical drawing. (You hear that, Lampard? Real men don't fuck about with Latin, right?)

Bassett is filmed mockumentary style which grounds it with air of realism and you'd expect nothing else from director Steve Barron, who was responsible for, among other things, the ground-breaking videos for Money for Nothing, and A-Ha's Take on Me.

We first meet Bassett celebrating on an open-top bus parade after he's led Championship Norwich City to victory in the Mr Clutch Cup (a thinly disguised League Cup). At the time it might have seemed absurd that someone like Bassett would get the England job on that basis but it's pretty much the criteria that were used when Schteve McClaren was given the job. League Cup win with unfashionable club? Check. Unlikely to rock the boat or cause controversy? Check. Welcome on board, Schteve...

Bassett is asked at his first Press conference what his ambition is, to which he replies winning the World Cup. Not unreasonably he's asked if that's realistic to which he responds with indignation, but not in footballing terms. "People like you," he says "are always running this country down.  You forget what a great nation we are.  We invented Parliament, we abolished slavery, we defeated Hitler.  We have people like Wordsworth, Dickens and Shakespeare. And we invented football."

Mike Bassett was released 10 years ago - five years after the Daily Mirror's infamous "Achtung Surrender" front page - but watch Match of the Day or The Sunday Supplement now and they often still display this insularity and Little Englander mentality.

For example, just think of Brian Woolnough's undisguised disgust that Fabio Capello still can't speak English to a level meeting his approval (while never questioning how multi-lingual teams do so well in the Premier League).

Not only does that jingoism live on, but so does England's tactical inflexibility. Throughout the film Bassett is criticised for sticking with 4-4-2 although he again harks back to the country's glorious past by suggesting "if it's good enough for Sir Alf, then it's good enough for me."

Eventually he tries 3-5-1-1 (the "Christmas pudding") and a confused 3-1-2-1-2-1 before returning to 4-4-2. Again, this is ten years ago, yet absurdly the national team is still wedded to that formation or, at least, so often reverts to type when in trouble.

Despite my reservations, Tomlinson delivers a sympathetic and understated performance as a well-meaning football man grossly out of his depth and credit is also due to Martin Bashir who plays himself as the documentary maker following the England boss for a year. His performance puts Gaby Logan's piss-poor, wooden efforts to play just herself hosting a football show to shame. I mean how hard can it be? Actually, on second thoughts it is quite realistic.

When the film does miss a beat it's with its deliberately 'comic' moments. The portrayal of Kevin 'Tonka' Tomkinson is a case in point. We meet him in Sunderland lying pissed on a snooker table, daffodils shoved in his pants with someone pouring beer into his mouth. If it's not  immediately clear who he's meant to be the fact he gurns his way through the film and constantly breaks down in tears should leave little room for doubt.

He's a grotesque Hogarthian characterisation for sure, but for some reason he's just not that funny. He's given a second chance, he does something stupid, he's threatened with the axe, he cries. He's given a third chance, he does something stupid, he's threatened with the axe, he cries. He's given, oh you get the point...

Furthermore, without wishing to sound too po-faced, viewing Tonka now through the prism of Paul Gascoigne's well-documented mental health problems left me feeling slightly uncomfortable but of course back then Gazza was still plying his trade in the top-flight with Everton and probably seemed fair game.

That isn't to say the film boorishly plays for cheap laughs. The issue of the harassment received by Bassett's family is handled with genuine sensitivity and these scenes are also quite uncomfortable, but for all the right reasons. As it seems England aren't going to qualify for the World Cup, so his son is repeatedly bullied at school and kids throw eggs at his wife. Eventually the stress is too much and she leaves him, although they are reunited at the end.

Unrealistic? Well, let's not forget Sir Bobby Robson was spat on at St James' Park for dropping Kevin Keegan and Graham Taylor's mother was reduced to tears by her son's treatment in the Press while his wife was forced to call the police to remove reporters from their property after England lost a friendly 2-0 to the United States.

... to zero
Bassett's relationship with the Press pack is another keenly observed theme that runs through the film and it perfectly encapsulates the country's Messiah-complex which Jonathan Wilson talks about in The Anatomy of England "the ritualistic aspects" of which "ape religious discourse".

Initially Bassett is welcomed with open arms; applauded at his first meeting with journalists, the mythical saviour here to lead England out of the wilderness.

However, he is out of his depth and with no wins in five games is revealed to be "a false god" and so the attitude towards him turns ugly. When asked if England can beat Argentina in their must-win last World Cup group game an exasperated Bassett, knowing he will be pilloried if he answers yes, says he can't predict the future.  Immediately the Press turn on him for lacking faith in his own team.

It ends with a journalist telling him: "The players don't want you, the fans don't want you, we don't want you. Even your wife has left you. There's nothing keeping you here."  So the scapegoat is sacrificed and, as he is, all the game's ills as identified in the film - but which still beset England today - from inept, disinterested administrators; thuggish, uneducated players and tactical illiteracy to the rabid Press are absolved of blame. Just as they were after McClaren's sacking or Taylor's resignation.

Miraculously England beat Argentina (courtesy of a Tonka handball) and England reach the semi finals where they lose to hosts and eventual winners Brazil. Despite considering himself a failure, Bassett is greeted as a hero on his return to England, just as the oft-abused Sir Bobby was after Italia 90. He keeps his job despite only having won three of nine games. So recently crucified, Bassett's resurrection is complete.

If England is to succeed anytime soon maybe the fans, the media and the FA need to drop this perpetual search for a new saviour and focus instead on the things that count. After all, it seems to be working for Newcastle.

Last Goals on Film: The Firm (1989)

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