End of the sick parrot, enter the cuddly toy

Sport on TV

CITY, the fictional football team in the hilarious comedy drama Eleven Men Against Eleven (Channel 4, Thursday), had their problems. Their manager had just been exposed as the recipient of a bung; their goalkeeper was spending a lot of time with some visiting Malaysians; and the Inland Revenue wanted to talk to the chairman about mysterious discrepancies in the recorded attendance figures. All references to persons living or deceased were, we were to understand, entirely intentional.

Eleven Men was written by Andy Hamilton, who writes for the newsroom satire Drop the Dead Donkey, and the targets of its comedy were, as one might expect, up to the minute - from pathetic Clubcall phonelines to noisy cockney players' agents. While the club stalwart Ted Whitehead (James Bolam) lectured the apprentices on professionalism, the first-teamers could be seen behind him practising crudely gyratory goal-celebrations. Meanwhile, on a nearby playground, City's neo-Nazi hard core was thinking again about scratching its gang-name on to the chests of its victims on the grounds that it might be wiser not to get caught up in anything involving spelling.

Presumably, these were the people responsible for the recent crowd trouble, the fine for which City was still paying. The club chairman, Sir Bob Luckton (played by Timothy West), complained to the man from the FA, "the police stood around like lemons. At pounds 93 a lemon." West pulls off wonderfully the expression of the tough bluffer at the moment of his enfeeblement. He has surely beenstudying all the available videos of Premier League chairmen in action.

In the market for a new manager, Sir Bob reckoned he had tried just about everyone. "Big Jack, Big Ron, Big Mac." A short pause. "Graham Taylor." It brought home what was the biggest problem to beset Graham Taylor during his period as manager of England - apart from seeming not to have a clue, that is. Granted a name irreducible to a tag suggestive of fond awe, he could never be taken to heart.

On top of all this, the film also included the best running gag involving someone dressed in a penguin suit since Bill Forsyth's Gregory's Girl. There, in the school scenes, a small and entirely irrelevant pupil totters into sight at irregular intervals, done up, for no clear reason, as a flightless bird. Its descendant in Eleven Men was the team's matchday mascot, first glimpsed flapping out of the tunnel behind the City side and later embroiled in a Cantona-style touchline incident. This latter induced tears of laughter, in no small measure because of the perfect Alan Hansen impression which accompanied its coverage. ("Dreadful . . . There's no excuse for what happens here . . . Bang, down goes the penguin.")

Here, still more than the bung business, was a feature of the modern game ripe for satirising. It is sometimes stated that football has been colonised by the middle classes - a dubious claim made normally by sociologists with limited match experience. Far more worrying - and staged with greater subterfuge - is the gradual take-over of the game by cuddly toys, which nowadays are at almost any ground before kick-off, waving dumbly. The gladiatorial solemnity of the players' entry into the arena gets somewhat undercut by the simultaneous arrival of a foam parrot, and any satirical initiative which comes down on this hard is welcomed.

Perhaps Eleven Men had its eye mainly on what are perceived to be larger issues. A list of grievances from the melancholy Ted Whitehead ("green referees, full-backs with number 38 on their backs") mentioned the infestation of "the people's game" by "trendies". This is another assertion now common in articles about "the state of football", but anyone who imagines contemporary stands as an uprooted cocktail bar or a large version of the fresh pasta section at Sainsbury's clearly isn't going to matches.

In any case, at Chelsea, for example, something like the opposite is true. It's well known that, during the club's early-1970s heyday, the stands were stocked with an above average number of celebrity fans, mostly actors or comedians. You couldn't get to the tea bar at half-time without squeezing past Lance Percival, Marty Feldman and entire casts of West End musicals. After years of attrition on the field, this is no longer the case. If any kind of class revolution has been staged at Stamford Bridge, it is one in which the people have wrestled the club from the stranglehold put on it by members of Equity.

The abiding message of Eleven Men was, above all, uplifting. If something succumbs this readily to satire, you know at least that it's alive. It is not long ago that the best you could do satirically with football was a skit on a post-match interview in which a sheepskin-coated manager or garishly suited striker would juggle the phrases "over the moon" and "sick as a parrot". Contrast the riches on offer to Eleven Men. In a quarter of a century the game has never been so interesting.

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