Curse of the Fry-off-the-wall documentary

Sport on TV

Andrew Baker
Saturday 31 May 1997 23:02

The fly-on-the-wall football documentary is developing into a genre all of its own - the fly-on-the-ball documentary. First there was The Impossible Job, in which Graham Taylor ensured immortality not through the deeds of his England team, but through his pathetic catchphrase "Do I not like that", which lingers on in quiz-show titles and headlines long after its inventor has retreated to obscurity - or Watford, which amounts to the same thing.

Then there was Club For a Fiver, a fine and savage exercise which charted the decline and fall of John Sitton at Leyton Orient. Last week brought us There's Only One Barry Fry (ITV), the tale of an amiable buffoon and his ill-fated takeover of Peterborough United, shown all over the network, even in East Anglia, which must have put a few television screens at risk from flying bricks.

It may be instructive for any other football managers who are considering allowing a documentary team to film them at work to note the three things that these three documentaries have in common, which are (1) bad language, (2) bad football, and (3) the abject humiliation of the manager concerned.

There's Only One Barry Fry - which might aptly have been subtitled And He's Only Got Half A Brain - was billed by the continuity announcer as "an inside view of one football manager's traumatic season, containing all the agony and the ecstasy of football life, with strong language to match". Well, agony, yes. Strong language, sure. But there wasn't much ecstasy around, unless it was the chemical variety which was responsible for the Peterborough players' inability to shoot straight.

The basic story was that Fry had been sacked by Birmingham City with a substantial pay-off, which he decided to use to buy control of Peterborough. No doubt it seemed like a good idea at the time, just as the Charge of the Light Brigade must have struck Lord Cardigan as a spiffing notion. Fry's ambitions were simple. "Off the pitch," he declared, "I would like to bring some financial stability to this club. On the pitch, I want to win the Second Division championship." If, at this point, someone had mentioned the word "hubris" to Barry, he would no doubt have responded "Wassat then? Brand of bleedin' after-shave?"

Soon he knew, if not the word, the feeling. Peterborough - "Posh" to their fans - were losing game after game. Time for one of Barry's morale raising team-talks. "You're f***ing hopeless," he encouraged one unfortunate player. "F***ing hopeless as a defender, f***ing hopeless as an attacker." The poor lad was too crestfallen to suggest a spell in midfield, which seemed his only remaining career option.

One of his colleagues responded to a similar sally from the manager by throwing a (full) cup of coffee at him, a poor advertisement for both the articulacy of the second division footballer and the quality of the Peterborough coffee. "I bully 'em a little bit," Fry conceded. "I'm never satisfied even if we win 6-0."

By this time it had become abundantly clear that Fry's side could not have beaten the local girl scout troop 6-0 given a half-a-dozen-goal start, and shortly it was revealed that the manager's delusions extended beyond the field.

On taking over the club, he had assumed responsibility for debts of around pounds 650,000, but had declined to bring in a financial expert to take a gander at the books. Sure enough, the debt was just a shade higher than estimated, at pounds 2.5m. "Only a prat like me could come into a club without knowing the full implications financially," Fry lamented, and it was hard to argue with him. He stood to lose the home he shared with his long-suffering family: not only was he taking the job home with him, but the job was threatening to take his home from him.

As the team spiralled towards relegation, it transpired that, through a legal oversight, Fry did not own the club after all. He'd spent all that dosh, and he didn't have Posh. "To be honest, I went out of my depth," he admitted. In the end, Fry and his water-wings were dredged out of his personal Marianas Trench by one Peter Boizot, a pizza millionaire possessed of a pair of eyebrows like twin rhododendrons. If, as he has promised, he keeps Fry on as manager in the future, he'd better get used to raising them.

On an altogether more glamorous topic, the French-Sicilian racing driver Jean Alesi is at present appearing in television advertisements for L'Oreal shampoo, which, if the slightly slapdash dubbing has not obscured the message, gives the mercurial pilote "strength" in his bouffant barnet.

A couple of notions occur: first, that Jean had better go easy on the stuff if he wants to be able to get his helmet on for the next race, and secondly that other shampoo manufacturers might like to get in on the act. Michael Schumacher would no doubt be prepared to overcome his natural modesty in order to model a product called Head And Shoulders Above All The Other Racing Drivers, while Damon Hill seems a natural choice to plug Wash 'n' Go Up In A Cloud Of Smoke.

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