Football in Film: Fever Pitch (1997)

This is a new series on The Set Pieces in which Adam Hurrey casts his eye over the numerous attempts to depict football in films. When Saturday Comes (1996)I.D. (1995); Escape To Victory (1981).

Synopsis in 140 characters

Mr Darcy of N5 tries to juggle football-hating girlfriend, Steve Bould-a-like best mate and Arsenal’s 1988/89 title challenge #UpForGrabsNow

While other films featured in this series have faced the surprisingly complex task of trying to choreograph the overwhelmingly unchoreographable on a football pitch, the concept of fandom has proved to be an equally slippery customer.

If the innumerable gambling and booze adverts are to be believed, we all just gather round on our sofas with a couple of pizzas, a few bottles of beer (never cans, for some reason) and some 4/10 banter to Watch The Big Match. Maybe these generic fans – who look like they ran naked through River Island and are now wearing whatever fell on them – have been priced out of going to a game, but these scenes are about as representative of football as a flying, scissor-kick volley from 30 yards. That is: eminently possible, but a bit too convenient.

One of the most frequently cited geneses for these rather sanitised depictions is Nick Hornby’s 1992 book Fever Pitch: A Fan’s Life, an indisputable cultural phenomenon that has sold millions of copies, been translated into 26 languages and succeeded beyond all expectations in its quest to explain football – and why it “matters” – to the middle class.

We’re not tackling the book here, but it’s as much a testament to its sheer influence as its commercial success that, five years later and with the Premier League/Sky Sports marketing machine in full swing, Fever Pitch was adapted into a film.


​The book’s format, setting and observations didn’t lend themselves easily to the big screen. The New York Times’ put their reservations on record, declaring that “just because a first-person analysis of a sociocultural phenomenon is fascinating in print, it should not necessarily be turned into a movie.”

On a more practical level, the book’s relative formlessness meant that Hornby was tasked with stripping it down and reconstructing it into a screenplay. No longer autobiographical, the story needed a convincing figure to ride the highs and lows, to faithfully present football fandom as a sort of therapy. Finding an actor who could play a football fan, it seemed, was as tricky a casting job as hiring an actor who could actually play football.

It was just a matter of months after a quarter of the UK population had watched Colin Firth go for a swim in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, propelling him from the status of a man whose own publicist admitted “you couldn’t give away to the press” to now being doorstepped by the Daily Mirror for buying a new hoover.

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“I was in Rome when I read Fever Pitch,” Firth told the BBC in 1997, “and it gave me a yearning for England and the sort of rootedness that Nick Hornby talks about. And I identified with that, because I have a similar middle class background. I felt he wrote about Englishness now – my generation – in an extremely unsentimental and yet not hostile or bitter way.”

Clearly equipped with the earnestness required for the role, Firth then had to bridge a football knowledge gap and, specifically, an Arsenal one. Hornby took him to Highbury in 1996 – the Winchester-born Firth’s only previous experience of live games was a few trips to watch Southampton at the Dell – but was encouraged by the leading man’s grasp of the game.

“He knew a reasonable amount of football. He went several more times that season; he read a history of Arsenal; he watched videos and, for reasons best known to himself, memorised the names of the 1971 and 1989 squads. One extra overheard Colin Firth giving a potted history of the club in between takes. Stuff like this was pretty much all I had to show for my four decades on the planet; it was a bit depressing to see someone master it in a couple of weeks.”

Firth’s portrayal of Paul Ashworth – laissez-faire English teacher/petty, pessimistic Arsenal fan – is propped up by some off-the-shelf iconography of late 1980s football fandom: Subbuteo squabbles, waiting for the fixture list to come out, and club-branded boxer shorts.

The antagonist to this routine football obsession is Ruth Gemmell’s Sarah Hughes, so tightly-wound that she’s dubbed “Iron Knickers” by her own best friend and whose first interaction with our man is to tell him to keep his riotous classroom quiet.

Paul: Would you like a lift?

Sarah: You don’t know where I live.

Paul: Yes I do, Crouch End. It’s on my way home.

Sarah: [Gets in the car] How about you?

Paul: Arsenal.

Sarah: Inside the stadium, or just nearby?

Their second meeting confirms her as the Eye-Rolling Football Cynic (outdated now, obviously, but nicely executed here) who semi-deliberately sighs about “Wolves United”, even though she’ll later find herself flicking back to the news to find out more on David “Rocky” Rocastle’s match fitness.

Also milling about in Paul’s life is his best mate Steve, played with no small amount of innocent charm by actual real-life Gooner Mark Strong, and hopefully named in honour of his more than passing resemblance to Arsenal centre-back Steve Bould.

Their chemistry is simple, and not unrealistic: Paul generally thinks Arsenal will lose, Steve’s quietly confident, and they irritate each other accordingly. “It was my ideal job,” Strong told the Independent in 1997. “I was born in north London and Arsenal were the first team I ever went to see. When I went for the audition I told them I was an Arsenal fan and I could see them nodding. But I wasn’t sure whether they believed me because everybody who went said they were.”

Anyway, as a passable rom-com, the central theme is Paul’s vain attempts to make Sarah understand why Arsenal are at the centre of his universe. That struggle is summed up by one crossed-wires exchange where she thinks he’s disappointed about being overlooked for Head of Year and he assumes she’s comforting him about Arsenal’s 2-1 home defeat to Derby.

That leads inevitably to the most Person Who Doesn’t Get Football line imaginable.

Sarah: Paul, it’s only a game!

Paul: DON’T SAY THAT! Please! That is the worst, most stupid thing anyone could say! Cause it quite clearly isn’t “only a game.” I mean if it was do you honestly think I’d care this much? Eh? Eighteen years! Eigh-teen years! Do you know what you wanted eighteen years ago? Or ten? Or five? Did you want to be Head of Year at a north London comprehensive, I doubt it. I’d doubt if you wanted anything for that long. And if you had, and if you’d spent three months thinking that finally, finally you were gonna get it and just when you think it’s there it’s taken away from you…I mean I don’t care what it is, a car, a job, an Oscar, the baby…then you’d understand how I was feeling tonight. But there isn’t, and you don’t, so…

Back to the actual football, then, and the Fever Pitch narrative arc was already handily constructed by real life: Arsenal travelled to Anfield on the final day of the season, level on points with Liverpool, and needing to win by two clear goals to secure the title on goals scored. Whether you know what happened next or not, the extended scene of Paul and Steve watching the game on ITV back in north London does the circumstances justice.

Half-time comes, Arsenal are yet to make the breakthrough, and the pair’s contrasting outlooks are laid bare.

Then Alan Smith glances home the often-forgotten opener. Brian Moore’s real ITV commentary does a tidier job than any fictional one of reminding us what’s going on: “Remember, Arsenal need two goals. At the moment, they have one. If it stays this way, Liverpool will be Champions for the 19th time.”

As the game drifts into injury time, and before Arsenal launch their last desperate attack – Lukic, Dixon, Smith, Thomas – there’s a fleeting but utterly perfect moment of universally-accurate football fandom that feels almost too good to be hidden away in this film: namely, getting annoyed by a co-commentator.

ITV’s David Pleat: I think, in a way, if Arsenal are to lose the Championship, having had such a lead at one time, it’s somewhat poetic justice that they have got a result on the last day, even though they’re not to win it.

Steve: SHUT UP PLEAT

91 minutes and 8 seconds on the clock, and Lukic bowls the ball out. Paul finally answers the incessant doorbell from his window – “Will you please, please, please, please, please just fucking FUCK OFF. You have arrived during the worst sixty seconds of my life, and I really don’t want to see you” – before realising it’s Sarah, crashing down the stairs, and then realising something’s happening…

And it’s all brought neatly to a close. Paul finds and embraces Sarah in the midst of spontaneous Avenell Road celebrations and, apparently, she finally gets it about football.

Perhaps the film’s Hungarian title of Egy férfi, egy nő és egy focicsapat (A Man, a Woman and a Football Team) was the more logical choice for this rather boiled-down and cinema-friendly take on Hornby’s more nuanced print observations. The film was released in the US in 1998, although their DVD cover was more than a little misleading compared to the original:

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An American audience finally got their own adaptation in 2005, shoehorning Hornby’s take on sporting infatutation into a baseball setting, but we won’t dwell on that.

There will always be the threat of a post-milennial remake, but an awful lot has changed about football – and Arsenal – since 1997 looked back on 1989. Today’s Paul Ashworth would have to negotiate Arsenal Fan TV, cast his vote in a Sky Sports News poll, finish off his “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH – Wenger Out” banner and refer to the Arsenal squad exclusively by their first names … all while sweating over finishing fourth.

It’s easier than ever to slip into caricature, then, but Fever Pitch just about managed the balancing act.

Football in Film: Fever Pitch (1997)
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