September 23, 2007 was the night when televised football took a sabbatical from logic and reason. On the south bank of the Thames in Greenwich, housed in the now-defunct £4.8m David Beckham Academy, the Premier League All Stars enjoyed its inaugural night. Innovative rules, ludicrously lax production values and unfathomable methods of celebrity recruitment, all over in the relative blink of an eye. All Stars was an eight-day footballing circus, a celebrity charity tournament the likes of which we had never seen before. I instantly fell in love.
Sounds bizarre? Not even close. Just about everything from eight years ago exists in a blurry haze of half memories and forgotten details, but the events of those glorious evenings should be burnt onto the retinae of all who watched. The press release described it as a ‘futuristic football-entertainment extravaganza’. If anything, they underplayed it.
There is a strange fascination reserved for charity football tournaments. The quality is typically awful, of course, but that fails to register. Instead we gorge on the peculiar status quo of former players playing alongside celebrities like Gareth Gates. There’s nothing like watching a sweaty, overweight former Notts County full-back dribble past toned Casualty actors to make you realise just how much better professional players are than the layman.
The fact that money is being raised for a good cause is just an added bonus. We just want to see Angus Deayton and Ruud Gullit on the same pitch – that’s the real lure. Masters football, Soccer Aid, Football Aid, All-Star matches, we are not choosy. Has anyone got Jonathan Wilkes’ number?
Amongst all of the above, Premier League All Stars stands taller, bigger, louder and more proud of its absurdity. It only lasted for eight days, taken from our screens never to be seen again. In that brief time it set the bar to a height nobody could dare to reach.
“The real heroes were the fans who played for the team because they had great passion. I spent most of the tournament in the engine room. I thought I’d learn from the master, Bernie Slaven.”
Those words from musician and Premier League All Stars champion Alistair Griffin stand out as the sole element of Premier League All Stars based in footballing normality. Here was a Fame Academy runner-up talking, like y’know, in the nomenclature of a seasoned professional. “Fans are the real heroes”? Check. “Great passion”? Check. “In the engine room”? A thousand times check. After eight days of mayhem, real football had finally been found in the form of clichéd platitudes.
Those responsible for organising the event must have known this was something that could never be repeated. It was like when a child is allowed to decorate a birthday cake, gleefully taking full advantage of the opportunity. The result was a football tournament with four different flavours of icing, hundreds and thousands, chocolate flakes and those inexplicable silver metallic dragées that threaten to take out a molar or two.
In fact, even labelling it as a ‘football tournament’ is cheap, for sport itself only played a supporting role. One part football, one part reality TV, one part comedy and one part Saturday night entertainment. The closest comparison I can make is an It’s A Knockout omnibus crossed with Masters Football, for so long a staple of Sunday nights on Sky Sports but now sadly consigned to the past. Premier League All Stars was a one-man band, cymbals clashing and drums banging as he tries to do kick-ups with a ball.
You naturally assume that I’m over-exaggerating for effect, so without further ado let me give you the format. One team from each Premier League club, nice and simple. Teams comprised of legends and celebrities (frequently those terms are used loosely), but with the added intrigue of three supporters being part of each squad. Matches were played on a knockout basis according to innovative rules. The winning team gave £100,000 to local charities of their choice.
The reality TV element of the programme stemmed from the choice of fans to represent each team. This was not achieved by simple application, but through a boot camp-style selection process administered with wonderful gravitas. ‘As the legends start signing up, a nationwide talent hunt is underway to find the fans who will play for their team alongside idols and Celebrity supporters,’ Arsenal’s official website read. ‘The trials will take place on the weekend of August 4 and 5 at a Premier League club’s training facility, where a panel of expert judges will scrutinise the talent on show and hand over the coveted team shirts to the successful fans.’
Those knocked out in the first round would probably see ten minutes of playing time. You’d get less scrutiny at a trial for an actual contract. Still, it did provide for some wonderful moments. You only need to picture Neil Warnock lining up six Everton hopefuls of different shapes and sizes, speaking to each about their hopes of making the grade.
“It means everything to me, my wife walked down the aisle to Z Cars,” Peter McParland told Warnock. “I met my wife and she’s got an Everton tattoo on her arm. It’s all the time in our house.” Mercifully, Warnock did not destroy the perfect marriage: McParland made the cut. Bear in mind that this took place for all 20 Premier League teams. This was glorious commitment to flogging a horse, dead or otherwise.
After such an entertaining prelude, the football needed to avoid becoming the forgotten element, achieved via metaphorical punch in the face. The greatest part of any celebrity tournament is staring agog at the list of the famous, non-famous and infamous, and All Stars truly covered the alphabet from A to Z-list. I mean that as a compliment, too. Every combination of celebrity was ludicrous. Premier League All Stars – Where the son of a Prime Minister faces Ziggy from Big Brother 8.
Bjarne Goldbaek and a very young-looking Example on the same team? Oh yes. Ross Kemp and Omid Djalili playing for Chelsea with Roberto Di Matteo? Uh huh. Barings Bank trader and former prisoner Nick Leeson playing against Lee from Steps in central midfield? Okay, now you’re just being silly (but yes, that actually happened).
As is always the case, the squads contained filler alongside thriller (killer was mercifully a bridge too far), so it’s now time for you to play celebrity, fan or legend? Clue: There are two of each.
1) Leeroy Thornhill
2) Barry Hunter
3) Simon O’Brien
4) Nathan Cooper
5) Iain Hesford
6) Vernon Angel
This was a knockout tournament with 20 teams, which caused its own problems. Maths fans will know that 20 into eight doesn’t go perfectly, so the organisers introduced the concept of ‘worst winners’. ‘Winning was not enough,’ we were told.
Apart from that it was enough, but Liverpool and Derby were both eliminated for drawing 3-3 against each other whilst Middlesbrough advanced on penalties after also drawing 3-3. Make sense of that if you can.
The action was spiced up with the aid of some Americanised innovations. The match was started by the ball being dropped from a chute 10m above the pitch (‘The Drop’), two-minute sin bins were signalled by the award of a blue card (‘The Cooler’) and goals scored in the final minute of each ten-minute half counted double (‘The PowerPlay’). Nobody seemed to ask why. The tournament was played in a celebrity-endorsed, lavish indoor stadia, but the pitch was squeaky to the point of distraction and the goals looked like something a child would use in their back garden. Again, stop getting hung up on the details.
The tournament was won by Middlesbrough, the aforementioned Griffin scoring the winner against West Ham in the last minute of the final. “It was about doing it for the charities and for Boro as well,” he says. “It was unbelievable. We just scraped through in the first rounds but we really believed we could do it.”
Don’t think that our tale stops there though. Welcome to Premier League All Stars: Extra Time. Meet the naughty older brother. Whilst the action from the main event was on Sky1, the late-night ‘analysis’ appeared on Sky3, hosted by then-fledgling comedian Jason Manford, fresh from winning the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh festival. There was a live audience, there was swearing and there was beer being drunk. This was banter-rich, before banter was b*nter.
It was also dreadful, but in a way that made it thoroughly enjoyable. Gags were laboured and errors were made more frequently than not, but it didn’t matter because it flew by the seat of its pants. It was like watching a children’s nativity play, enjoying the endearing gaffes more than the perfectly-delivered lines.
In the space of ten minutes of one episode, Manford had mocked Dean Saunders’ weight (“The camera adds ten pounds… and we’ve got eight cameras”), the brother of one of the playing fans had insinuated that he got his brother’s girlfriend pregnant and a folk singer had sung his song about supporting Middlesbrough. It all felt like an incredible acid trip.
Manford’s punditry reached exceptionally low standards, epitomised by the following dialogue:
Manford (to Saunders): “You’re err… going out in the first round of course but there’s been a fair few teams gone out in the first round. You must be a little bit gutted… I mean we all wanted to see Platty and Saunders in the next round. How did that feel playing against… errr, playing with Platty up there tonight on the pitch?”
Saunders: “Well you saw that ball he laid off for me. You trust him. That tells you all you need to know.”
Manford: “Let’s have a little look at Platty’s goal, you can never get sick of seeing Platty’s goal….”
(Cuts to screen of Saunders’ goal that has already been shown)
Manford: “Oh, that’s Saunders again. Okay, no worries, we’ll get it… Let’s have a look at Platty’s goal like we were supposed to.”
(Producer has word in Manford’s ear)
Manford: “Oh, we won’t look at Platty’s goal… because he never even fucking scored.”
Such lunacy shouldn’t have worked. This should have been disastrous, a televised sporting car crash. The missed cues, missed goals and mistakes should have combined to create something abominable, and yet the opposite occurred. Premier League All Stars wasn’t just watchable, it was unmissable. Those eight days of madness will never be repeated. Football on television has become obsessed with analysis and statistics rather than unfathomable fun, but All Stars stands up as a beacon for silliness. Sometimes bonkers is beautiful.
Every good story needs a happy ending. Incredibly, Griffin released an album in September 2014 entitled ‘From Nowhere’, a reference to Sky Sports’ Andy Burton’s commentary on his tournament-winning goal. “I was a bit thin on the ground for a title, but then I remembered I was in this little Premier League All Stars cup final,” Griffin said. Less of the little, Alistair.
“I had my Roy of the Rovers moment, scoring a goal. The commentator said, ‘Alistair Griffin, from nowhere’. Perfect title!” There are no arguments here.
Yet Griffin’s musical tribute still isn’t the perfect embodiment of the tournament. That comes via the dulcet tones of West Ham fan and celebrity player Danny Dyer. Dyer had just been sent to ‘The Cooler’, when he was interviewed by former Liverpool midfielder Craig Johnston.
“You’re in ‘The Cooler’, Danny,” Johnston said. “Was that a good decision?”
“Nah, I’m devastated, y’ know what I mean?” was Dyer’s reply. “My boys have got five men out there. The geezer was winding me up. I look like a right mug. I’m a bit gutted, cos I don’t wanna be in this fuc… this thing.”
Johnston handed over to Helen Chamberlain and Ian Wright, both guffawing uncontrollably. “Amazing,” Johnston said.
“But that’s Premier League All Stars.”
And it was. It really, really was.
You can follow Daniel Story on Twitter (@danielstorey85)
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Quiz answers: 1) Celebrity 2) Legend 3) Celebrity 4) Fan 5) Legend 6) Fan