England have famously won the World Cup only once. In the 52 years since that sole triumph on home soil, many managers have tried and failed to replicate the achievement of Alf Ramsey. The closest anyone has come in the intervening period is Bobby Robson and an emotional run to the semi-finals of Italia ’90, which ended with defeat by West Germany on penalties.
Burdened by unrealistic expectations, demanding supporters and a brutal tabloid press, the role of England manager has been popularly characterised as a poisoned chalice. In such circumstances, noble failure is perhaps the best that can be hoped for. Very few avoid significant and lasting reputational damage – just ask Graham Taylor, Steve McClaren and Sam Allardyce. Many are engulfed in scandal, turned into joke figures or forced to suffer public humiliation.
One who endured all three fates and still came out the other side as a hero of sorts is Mike Bassett. A proud Englishman, well-meaning yet often misguided, he briefly carried the hopes and dreams of a nation on his fictional shoulders. Portrayed by Ricky Tomlinson, the title character in the film Mike Bassett: England Manager was the vehicle which writers Johnny Smith and Rob Sprackling used to explore the country’s complicated relationship with its football team.
“He’s a Dunkirk spirit, backs-to-the-wall little Englander with a big heart, whose passion gets ahead of his brain,” says Smith. “He’s an archetype of a certain kind of Brit whose reach way exceeds their grasp. That was the Bassett character, but what made him work was that he was the best person to place at the heart of what we decided was driving the whole England setup, which was a series of vested interests.
“You can break those down into the FA, the press, the fans and the players. None of those parties are particularly on Mike Bassett’s side. He was the fall guy at the centre of a lot of cleverer and more cynical manipulators who aren’t necessarily working to the same agenda of England winning a game of football. Bassett makes the mistake of assuming they are.”
Bassett is employed in the wake of the role’s previous incumbent, Phil Cope, suffering a heart attack related to stress. With other English contenders lacking the requisite quality or temperament, the FA plump for Bassett, who has recently led Norwich to victory in the Mr. Clutch Cup.
His backroom team of Lonnie Urquart and Dave Dodds assembled, the journey begins with three qualifiers remaining, but it had already taken a while to reach this point. Released in 2001, Mike Bassett had been several years in the making.
“It was a long gestation period,” says Sprackling. “We started working on it in the mid-90s and it took six or seven years before the film actually got made. I’ve worked on movies that have taken 12 years to get made so seven years isn’t that extraordinary.
“We worked on it with a producer called Duncan Kenworthy to begin with, who’s a legendary figure and a fine man. He did Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, all these kinds of films. He loved the project and he developed it for a long time. Then he brought in Steve Barron, who was originally just going to direct it, but ended up producing it with him as well. Duncan was very instrumental in developing the piece.”
The original inspiration for the film was drawn from Sprackling’s love of football, his experiences of following England at home and abroad, and the hype and intrigue that surrounded the team. With his father in the army, the family often moved around; Sprackling was born in Singapore and raised in Germany among other places. The England team became the means through which he developed a sense of national identity. Almost because of the distance, those ties became stronger.
For Smith, football didn’t hold quite the same appeal – and nor did the England team.
“I’m Welsh, so I don’t really give that much of a shit,” he admits. “But I grew up in the 70s and famously remember England not qualifying for the World Cup and that being constantly in the headlines. It was treated as a national disgrace that they should be rendered low by a Polish goalkeeper. Me and Rob both remembered those things and found them funny.
“The idea for Mike Bassett came from writing in the voice of a football manager – the seriousness with which they speak about the game and the absurdities they get themselves into. The way they use football as a proxy for a philosophy on life in general and how they often get the words wrong but you still know what they mean. So we began writing silly little speeches and monologues for this character, some of which made it into the final film.”
In its depiction of a manager painfully unsuited to the task at hand, Mike Bassett plays on Graham Taylor’s struggles in An Impossible Job, the infamous documentary that followed England’s failure to qualify for USA ’94. The film borrows that same behind-the-scenes style and parodies several of the figures involved in the abortive qualifying campaign. There are parallels aplenty and Taylor’s emblematic struggles loom large.
“I watched it and I was informed by it. I won’t pretend otherwise,” says Sprackling. “It was a fantastic documentary. It wasn’t the only inspiration for the movie obviously – dear old Graham Taylor was just the latest and greatest example of a decent, honourable man who simply wasn’t good enough at management to win the World Cup.”
For its status as the world’s most popular spectator sport, there’s a relative scarcity of football films. Among those that do exist, the quality could charitably be described as mixed. There’s an inherent difficulty in getting viewers to root for a fictional team, and maintaining drama and tension when the outcome of a match is pre-ordained for narrative purposes. It’s something Sprackling was always wary of.
“A film can’t really replicate the true feeling of watching a football match where you don’t know what’s going to happen, apart from if it’s England and we’ll probably fuck it up,” he laughs. “You do know that’s going to happen but you somehow convince yourself that it won’t this time. You can’t replicate that visceral passion and excitement you get from watching an actual football match in a film, because everyone knows it’s made up anyway and you’re going to have a happy ending.
“Normally they kind of fall down on that front, and the only way you can mitigate that is if you perhaps end the movie with a game where if the team doesn’t win then they find something else and win on another level. There’s kind of an emotional victory rather than just winning the game and everyone cheering. We certainly tried to do that with the end of Mike Bassett.”
Having stumbled through the final qualifiers, taking one point from a possible nine, England are only rescued from their own ineptitude by an unexpected Luxembourg victory over Turkey. That result seals their qualification for the World Cup in Brazil, but Bassett’s side continue to flounder on the big stage: a drab draw with Egypt and a crushing defeat by Mexico leave them needing an improbable win over Argentina in their final group game in order to progress.
With the match goalless and England heading for an ignominious exit, talented yet wayward maverick Kevin Tonkinson – the film’s version of Paul Gascoigne – is introduced from the bench. He embarks on a Diego Maradona-esque run through the Argentina defence and then handles the ball into the net when his shot rebounds off the crossbar. It’s a moment of redemption for the wrongs of the 1986 World Cup and sets England on a run to the semi-final, where they lose to the hosts.
“It would have been very easy to end that film with England winning the World Cup, but we knew that no one was going to buy that,” says Sprackling. “It’s probably not true and the irony is that given the state of English football, getting to a semi-final is heroic enough in itself. We’d take that. With this World Cup, everyone’s saying it would be good enough to just get through the group stage when even 20 years ago there was a belief that we were going to win the whole thing.”
A readjustment in expectation is one of many significant changes to have taken place since Mike Bassett first came out. Smith and Sprackling believe the relationship between England supporters, the media and the national team is less fraught than it once was, while football culture has become more progressive too.
Another issue that football films traditionally struggle to overcome is how best to present the on-pitch action. It can feel forced, overly choreographed and unnatural, but by its very nature Mike Bassett tends towards the ridiculous and absurd. For the most part, the turmoil surrounding the team and manager takes priority over match footage, although several scenes are shot at the old Wembley and the Maracana.
“Me and Rob were on set every day to lend a hand and it was a fantastic atmosphere,” Smith recalls. “It was a joy. A particularly great moment came on the second or third day of filming. If you’re ever asked the quiz question, ‘Who were the last teams to play at the old Wembley?’ The actual answer is cast vs crew, Mike Bassett: England Manager. We got Wembley at a budget price because it was being knocked down, but we had to get the pitch relaid first.
“When I walked up through Wembley tunnel for the first time, I saw they had the big scoreboard at the end and the scoreline was one we’d written in the screenplay. It was an amazing feeling. And going from that to Bisham Abbey, and then to the Maracana and meeting Pele was so exciting. All the actors were great to work with and it was so much fun.”
At the centre of it all was the inimitable Mike Bassett, a simple man of simple pleasures – wedded to the notion of England’s greatness, blind to his own shortcomings and a fierce believer in the unrivalled merits of ‘four-four-fucking-two’. But for all his many mistakes and failings, he cares deeply about football and his country. Ricky Tomlinson embodied the character with conviction.
“I have to say that he was my casting suggestion actually, which I was very proud of,” says Sprackling. “Obviously now I can’t imagine anyone else delivering it anywhere near as well as he did. I think he’s a brilliant actor anyway, and much underrated. I honestly think he’s one of our best actors. He can do comedy brilliantly, and he can do pathos better than anyone I know. They were the two things that character had to deliver, and he nailed it completely.”
A TV series followed, and a sequel – Mike Bassett: Interim Manager – potentially remains in the works, but the original incarnation undoubtedly had the greatest impact. It became something of a cult classic which lives on through the continued strife of the England team and temporarily resurfaces during each international tournament. With the 2018 World Cup now well under way, the same will no doubt happen again.
“It’s nice that it bobs back up and re-enters people’s consciousness. It’s the same whenever there’s a new England manager,” says Sprackling. “Bizarrely, when the film actually came out in 2001, Sven-Goran Eriksson was in charge and he was at the height of his pomp. Everyone had become convinced that it had all changed now, that we were going to be successful and continental about it all. This bungling uselessness was all in the past.
“So the time it came out, almost to the month, it felt like we’d kind of missed the boat. Everything felt like it was going to be all modern and new and professional. The wheels weren’t going to come off and we weren’t going to have disasters. But that wasn’t the case. That’s why people come back to it so often, because the same disasters continue to happen.”