Sport on TV: True story of a game going to the Bulldogs

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the best sports feature films ever made was Bruce Beresford's The Club, about a bohemian Australian Rules player who cannot decide whether to devote himself to his sport or spend his days getting stoned. It featured some marvellous scenes centred on the ruthless internecine machinations, the veracity of which was authenticated by Michael Cordell's documentary in the Storyville series, Year of the Dogs (Channel 4, Saturday), the real-life tribulations of Footscray Bulldogs, a breed in imminent danger of being put down by enforced merger - a depressing scenario mirrored by their performances on the field.

The plays of David Williamson, who wrote the script for The Club, have been described as "life at the top of your lungs", and there was that kind of feel to Cordell's film, which succeeded despite the fact that the sporting fly-on-the-wall is as much of a cliche as yet another docusoap set in some hotel or shopping centre.

Alan, the coach, is under pressure and, when you hear his half-time team talk, you begin to understand why. He is as inspirational as Graham Kelly with the flu, or Graham Taylor without it, and he limps to a climax of "Boys, I can't do any more", which sounds like his own professional death knell. They lose by 87 points. "Too slow, too young, too stupid," one fan snarls at them as they leave the pitch.

Things get worse. They play North Melbourne and go down to a record score between the two sides - 132 points. The coach offers his resignation but the board does not accept it. The players, though, hold a crisis meeting - "can you turn the camera off for a sec?" - their patience near exhaustion.

The club psychologist has a go at raising morale, going through the match programme pointing out the defeatist language. Nothing more than a spin doctor, though, he wants them to learn some buzzwords, like "professionalism", to use in their interviews. Meanwhile, the pressure mounts on the coach. One old fan defends him: "He's got an implacable record." As they are in the process of losing yet another game, Alan is frantically trying to get through to the bench on the phone but cannot make the connection. It is all so grimly symbolic.

Pat and Jenny Hodgson, a mother and daughter, and faithful to the last shout, have seen it all before but never quite this bad. Between games, when they are not at training, they look through old scrapbooks, or fill in the dreaded merger survey. Towards the end of the season, as the star players perform at a fund-raiser in various states of undress and cross- dress, Pat and Jenny watch the rest of the lads train, sitting alone in the rain under the umbrellas, having refused to spend $30 on a ticket. "I'm old-fashioned," says Pat. "I just love them as footballers out there on the field."

After a vote of no confidence from the players, it is all up for Alan, and this time his resignation is accepted. His assistant, Terry "Plough" Wallace, takes over, though the players do not seem too impressed, despite having got their way. They ask him: "What's going to change?"

At his first team talk he rants and raves, but though they rally after a first-quarter massacre, they lose by a point. Plough is livid. "Fantastic effort," he roars, "but what does a fantastic effort mean? Nothing! If I see one guy go out there getting a pat on the back for a good effort, I'll spew up! Because it's not acceptable!"

There are no happy endings. Despite a roaring performance in the last game of the season, they finish bottom. "The wheels fell off our season," Plough says. "Heaven knows what happened. I don't know." He's only the coach. Shortly after, a merger is averted, the new owners change the name to the Western Bulldogs, to widen their appeal. As I say, no happy endings.

I tuned into A Question Of Sport this week (BBC1, Wednesday) to see how Chris Eubank, that celebrated man from another planet - and, until the rise of Naseem Hamed, the No 1 provider of mocking copy for this column - has been getting on. (Though I always used to enjoy giving him a verbal kicking, I have to say that the only time I met him, as he was strolling down a Brighton side street chatting to antique-shop owners, he was utterly sweet and charming, with the best-kept skin I've ever seen.)

Perhaps it was being named L!ve TV's "Silly Punt of the Week", but a strange thing seems to have happened: Eubank has had a dawning of self- realisation. He has cottoned on (perhaps someone had the courage to tell him) that he has been a figure of fun all along, that weirdness is his unique selling point, that he should just relax and take a rise out of himself.

So, for example, in the picture round, he thought Tiger Woods pulling his jumper over his head was Nick Faldo. Why? Because Faldo reminds him of Harrison Ford - their "hand rhythms" are similar - and consequently, pulling his jumper over his head "is the kind of thing Nick Faldo would do."

Later, there was a Home and Away question asking which Olympic sport has Mistrals, Lasers and Tornados. "It's skiing," Eubank said, waving his hands around, "because somewhere along the way, subliminally, I can pick out those words, Mistral, Tornado..." Cue much baffled hilarity.

Eubank even laughed at his lisp. Having been told the terms had nothing to do with skiing, he ventured, "It's some sort of snow sport." And then, articulating what everyone was thinking, he protested, "There are too many S's in this game." Chris Eubank, welcome to planet Earth.

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