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A spate of shows are claiming to reveal life behind the scenes at the world's biggest clubs, though most are part of a well-oiled PR machine

20 August ~ Football and documentaries have always provided fertile territory for film-makers – witness Graham Taylor watching his England managerial career unravel in An Impossible Job, or Leyton Orient manager John Sitton’s infamous dressing room rant in Football Club For A Fiver – but recently a new trend has emerged as clubs themselves attempt to muscle in on what is fast becoming a battleground for a global fanbase.

Earlier this year, Netflix released First Team, a documentary following Juventus’ 2017-18 campaign, while Manchester City have just launched an Amazon Prime series. Red Bull, meanwhile, harnessed the power of their numerous teams around the globe in The Streets Don’t Lie, a curiously jaunty reality show where former France striker Djibril Cissé scouts talent overlooked by big clubs before bundling them off for a week of training at Leipzig, Salzburg or New York where coaches gently tell said talent they’re really not good enough.

If it seems curious that clubs are willing to offer their internal machinations up on screen then it’s worth looking at the audience figures. While Netflix is notoriously coy about releasing viewer numbers, it did reveal that 73 per cent of its subscribers watched at least one documentary in 2016, which is roughly equivalent to 68 million people around the globe.

This opens up opportunities for clubs that didn’t exist even a few years ago. When the behind-the-scenes series Being: Liverpool was aired in the UK in 2012, it found a home on Channel 5. Two years earlier, Blue Moon Rising, a joint effort between Manchester City and Endemol, received a limited cinematic release after initially being conceived as a TV series. Not that marketing departments need encouragement to expand their video production – it’s rare to find a club who don’t already produce behind-the-scenes snippets or episodic mini-series for their in-house or YouTube channels.

At a lower level, this tends towards the type of features that would normally have been buried in the matchday programme, but Premier League teams take video seriously. A recent article in business publication Fast Company claimed Manchester City’s most important product after football is content, while plenty of other European top-flight sides devote significant resource to their YouTube channels.

But while the likes of City and Juventus may be opening up their methods and players for exclusive access, the nature of the clubs’ involvement in the production side means a heavy degree of censoring of anything unfavourable to them. Being: Liverpool may have been nominated for an Emmy, but aside from then-manager Brendan Rodgers coming across as a David Brent-in-waiting, it didn’t really tell the viewer anything they didn’t already know about the club. Juventus’ First Team throws up an interesting look at manager Massimo Allegri’s tactics but this is offset by a significant portion of the series being devoted to hyping up minor threats to the Italian team’s dominance, making for a somewhat tedious watch.

What these two series and the latest one about Manchester City are unlikely to offer are those moments of candour and insight that make a compelling watch. The same year as Being: Liverpool was released, the BBC screened The Four Year Plan, a fly-on-the-wall film about QPR’s ownership under Flavio Briatore. A few minutes in the flamboyant Briatore describes one manager as “that prick in the dugout”. Later, the Italian discusses mid-match how he can get playing instructions to the touchline without anyone noticing. It’s these moments, along with the meltdowns of Taylor and Sitton, that make football documentaries so captivating.

Hunter Davies, who spent 1971-72 embedded with Tottenham Hotspur for his behind-the-scenes book The Glory Game, has bemoaned the state of the modern game where controlled access by PR teams would make a book like his impossible to write. Like Davies’ immersive chronicling, it’s hard to see how An Impossible Job or The Four Year Plan could be made now.

But there is one promising football documentary set to arrive on Netflix that is unlikely to be a sanitised marketing tool to sell a global brand. Film crews were embedded at Sunderland last season expecting to capture a triumphant return to the Premier League. Instead the narrative has shifted to a disastrous second relegation, an absentee owner and a flawed squad. Sunderland fans may anticipate its arrival this summer with dread, but the story has all the elements to suggest it could join the most enthralling films in the genre. Gary Andrews

This article first appeared in WSC 377, July/August 2018. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here


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