It was only a matter of time before someone changed a few names and put it all on screen. The result is Eleven Men Against Eleven, a winning comedy- thriller from Hat Trick Productions broadcast to kick off the new season. It goes a long way towards restoring the credibility of football films after the genre was brought into disrepute by such crowd-displeasers as Escape to Victory (Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine as world-beating players-cum-POW camp inmates, anyone?). Writer-director Andy Hamilton laughs about the prospect of football clubs objecting to his portrayal of them in Eleven Men Against Eleven: "If they can demonstrate to me that they haven't had a ludicrous season of rampant disaster, I'll edit the difficult bits out."
The script kicks at many obvious targets. The corrupt club chairman (Timothy West) claims that "at all six clubs I've owned, I've been totally committed", before deciding to sell the club's star striker: "He's scored five goals this season, so we should get at least pounds 3 million for him." In a reference that attests to the topicality of the screenplay, he reveals that "we couldn't be more in debt if we had Nick Leeson as club treasurer". He assures the Inland Revenue inspector that they can iron out any misunderstandings, to which she gives the curt response: "I remember Lester Piggott saying exactly the same thing." Meanwhile, the club's traditionalist manager (James Bolam) rails against such changes in his beloved game as "flash away strips with sick-making patterns that look like pimp's pyjamas". Football has never presented so many open goals for a comedy writer.
It has also been quite a season for Millwall FC. Last month, the club's New Den ground was the venue for the launch of John Major's new sports initiative. In June, it was the location for Eleven Men Against Eleven.
The day I visit the set, a heat haze hangs over the car park. The tar is melting and sticking to the soles of people's shoes. The tubular steel superstructure glints in the sun. The light reflects off the club-shop window, behind which is displayed one of the world's shortest videos - highlights from Millwall's 1994-95 season. It's a day for cricket or something even less strenuous, like championship sunbathing. It's a day, in fact, for anything other than melting under the arc lights in the Millwall boardroom (the number of trophies gleaming in the cabinet indicates, incidentally, that this is fiction.)
Producer Jimmy Mulville is directing proceedings in a fetching pair of khaki shorts. "I look like an extra from It Ain't Half Hot, Mum," he says, pre-empting comments. "I'm Windsor Davies's stunt double."
Finding respite from the heat in the catering bus, Mulville, Hamilton and West hope the film notches up a few comic scores. "I should be very excited if there is a reaction from clubs, because that would show that we're getting through," says West, looking immaculate in a pinstripe suit and brogues shiny enough for Gazza to check this week's hairdo in. "You can't open a newspaper without seeing one of the things we're talking about. It's all too patent. When the necessity to win becomes a commercial one, people are bound to bend the rules a bit. It's the Thatcher creed - look after yourself and you needn't concern yourself with those who are old or young or who live north of Birmingham. That creed has infected everything."
Hamilton, a Chelsea fan, takes up the theme that money is tarnishing the Beautiful Game. "Since the Premiership started, the injection of money has caused a lot of problems. What will happen, for instance, when Manchester United hit a bad patch? I don't think the Scandinavians who fly over every weekend will still come when United are 14th in the table. With things like the replica kits, clubs are exploiting the fans rather than building a relationship with them."
"Those tiny things erode the game," Mulville, an Evertonian, continues. "Nobody asked the fans if they wanted to see a full-back with the number 33 on his back. In years to come, will players be told, 'Wear this number 33 with pride'? It's the sort of thing you get on a bus. It's changing the players, too. These days, you've got to have a Philadelphia lawyer as well as be able to kick the ball with your right foot. Jack Charlton stayed at one club for 17 years. That's unthinkable these days."
This "rapid-response" drama did not take much research. The stories about "football's shame" were plastered all over the front pages. After several years writing Drop the Dead Donkey, Hamilton is well aware of the legal pitfalls. "The key thing is that you have to inhabit a parallel world. In casting, its important that none of the actors look like anyone real."
Mulville and Hamilton do not want to be seen as cashing in on recent middle-class intellectualisation of the game. They stress they were fans long before Fever Pitch. "It's amazing how many people in the media have suddenly become fans," Mulville says. "Like people who get excited about sailing, new football fans have all the kit. They turn up in a brand new bobble-hat which a real fan would never wear." Hamilton adds: "I don't remember seeing Major or Mellor at Chelsea during the dark years when we were struggling in Division Two."
Unsurprisingly, no premiership club was rushing forward to play host to a film holding up a mirror to football's warty face. "You can't really skirt around the plot - the club's in crisis, and the chairman is a manic crook," Mulville says. "When you tell club secretaries this, you can see their eyes glaze over. They're thinking, 'Who let these guys in?' We didn't think it was worth approaching Arsenal, and Andy didn't want to go to Chelsea because he didn't want to get them involved in all this sleaze." Hat Trick ended up shooting the match sequences at Leyton Orient where, according to Hamilton, extras in the crowd got into character by calling the referee a wanker and abusing the policemen. When Orient's owner, Barry Hearn, heard there were to be 50 extras, he is reported to have said it would be the biggest crowd seen there for a while.
After such a season of insanity, at least somebody in football has retained his sense of humour.
Eleven Men Against Eleven is on Channel 4 on Thursday, 31 AugustReuse content