Small Screen Seagulls; ‘Birds, Balls and Brighton’ (2012)

Small Screen Seagulls LogoFootball documentaries had long been a stable of television coverage of the game. Programmes went behind the scenes at a club or during a particular campaign to bring fans better insight into the inner workings. Perhaps the most glorious of them all is An Impossible Job on Channel 4 in 1994, focussing on England’s doomed World Cup qualifying bid under manager Graham Taylor and contained everything you could wish for from a football documentary. During the 2011/2012 season another Channel 4 strand, First Cut, followed Brighton and Hove Albion to chart our historic first season in the permanent surroundings in Falmer. Here I review that programme. Contains swearing.

Birds, Balls and Brighton; More4 10.05pm, Mon 24th Sep 2012

BBS Titles

When you get a football documentary right, you have the ability for it to live forever in the memory. An Impossible Job from 1994 cemented England manager Graham Taylor’s beleaguered exclamation “Do I not like that!” in football folklore forever. Leyton Orient boss John Sitton’s extraordinary half-time rant from the following year’s Club for a Fiver documentary, also on Channel 4, is football at its most stripped-back. During a half-time rant with his side three-nil down at Brentford, Sitton launched into a gloriously expletive-ridden four-minute tirade at his players abilities in the midst of a cost-cutting exercise at the club. The most infamous bit of the entire show though, during another dressing-down whilst trailing at home to Blackpool, saw him sack his own defender at half-time and concluded with the immortal words; “And if you come back at me, we’ll have a fucking right sort out in here. Alright? And you can pair up if you like, and you can fucking pick someone else to help ya and you can bring your fucking dinner. Cos by the time I’m finished with you you’ll fucking need it.” More recently, March 2012 saw Queens Park Rangers inflict themselves to the behind-the-scenes doc with the acclaimed The Four Year Plan. The premise saw the cash-strapped Championship club taken over in 2007 by Formula One tycoons with the aim of Premier League football within four seasons. The resulting programme highlighted the strained relationship between owner and manager, as the West Londoners hired eleven managers during that short period before culminating in promotion to the top-flight under Neil Warnock in 2011. All three films got it absolutely right; capturing the real-life drama you aren’t normally partisan to. Birds, Balls and Brighton, however, rarely strayed beyond club video or magazine show features and thus lacked the intensity, the insight or the craft that it’s predecessors executed so magnificently. It had the premise of a peek behind the curtain coupled with a season review, yet it neither did one thing nor the other. The result left a flat, forgettable feeling when it could have been so much more.

More4 Ident First Cut ident

Billed on the Channel 4 website, Birds, Balls and Brighton claimed to have “exclusive and intimate access to Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club throughout the season, this First Cut film follows the team as they prepare to play one of the most important matches in their career: the game which decides their dream of moving up into the Premiership.” The match they’re referencing is the home clash against Watford in mid-April 2012; three matches away from the end of the season with the side in eighth place. The synopsis went on to say of the twenty-four minute programme; “Those who live and breathe the club, including the coach, fans, cheerleaders and even the people who clean the boots, share their experiences and capture the excitement, the personalities and the hard graft of professional football.” The programme aired some six months after the game, on Four’s digital sister-channel More4, under the First Cut documentary strand. The series was set up in 2007 as an opportunity to showcase new, upcoming directing talent. I suspect the initial aim was to premiere on the main channel but results conspired against the Albion and the promotion dream didn’t come true. This is the first flaw of the film; the entire concept was pitched towards promotion and thus the producers had no sway on the final outcome. The story shouldn’t necessarily have been ‘Will Brighton get to the Premier League?’, with this being the first season at Falmer there was so much more they could have honed in on. The narrative should have been contrasting between where the club had come from to where they were at the point of filming; surviving by the skin of their teeth in 1997, staying afloat against the odds until 2010, leaping through the Division in 2011 and holding their own in the Championship in 2012. Interviewing directors, the chairman, investors, players, staff and fans about the overnight transformation of a football club on a shoestring budget to being given these incredible new surroundings and then flourishing. Nobody expected Brighton to gain back-to-back promotions at the first attempt, least of all the supporters, so to have pinned the hopes of a documentary on that instead, at this point in the club’s history, was already a mistake as the documentary went on to prove.

Survival article Champions

The programme began with narrator Dave Westhead exclaiming; “With rare behind-the-scenes access to the club, this film uses footage shot over the football year to paint a portrait of their biggest game of the season. The film will follow the players, the fans and the backroom staff and see the people’s game through the eyes of those for whom winning is everything.” That immediately drew attention to a surprising omission; the ‘backroom’ staff? So, not the “charismatic manager” the very first sentence mentioned. There would be no word from Gus Poyet in this programme, whoever’s choice that was, be it his or the filmmakers I do not know but it was a big mistake. Think of Sunderland’s 1998 series Premier Passions and you picture Peter Reid. Think of Sheffield United’s 2005 behind-the-scenes look Warnock and you cannot forget the manager’s rants. Pretty much any football documentary worth their salt had unrivalled access to the main man and yet we heard nothing from Poyet here. If the casual football fan knew absolutely nothing about the Albion or their story, the chances are they would have recognised Poyet, after all he had gained us much more media attention in recent seasons than most previous bosses due to his illustrious playing career and fiery touchline nature. Instead he was namechecked within the first three minutes during a brief recent-history lesson before attention turned to their willing participant; first team coach and former Albion midfield general Charlie Oatway.

Charlie Oatway Driving

When Gus Poyet was appointed in 2009 he brought with him his former teammate Mauricio Taricco as assistant manager and added Charlie Oatway as first team coach. I doubt Poyet had ever heard of him before, certainly not during their respective playing days. Oatway joined the Albion in 1999 in midfield, went on to captain the side and was a key part of the successive titles during the rise up the Leagues as well as the Play Off Final victory which even spawned a DVD release of footage he filmed personally. He retired in 2007 through injury and had a spell coaching at non-League Havant and Waterlooville before re-joining Brighton to work successfully with the new management. In this film Oatway admitted he didn’t believe the players would be able to adapt to Poyet’s passing philosophy and attractive style of play; “I made it perfectly clear to Gus that I didn’t think we was capable of doing it. Lo and behold we ended up winning the League and beating teams what was expected to be beating us.” The most frank sentence came when he was driving in his car; “Not only did it pay off, it told me to shut my mouth cos I don’t know what I’m talking about in a sense, out of all due respect to myself really.” This gave some early promise to the film. This sort of honesty and candidness was a key component to the previous greats of the genre.

El-Abd Adam El-Abd

Local-born defender Adam El-Abd rose through the ranks having been a part of the Albion since he was ten, making his debut nine years later in 2003. A clear aim in the film here was to show how Championship footballers differed to the tabloid image of the Premier League, with their fast cars and champagne lifestyle. We saw El-Abd go about his daily duties; putting his daughter to bed, helping his wife Jade out with the cooking and doing enough to get by and pay the bills. You don’t usually get to hear from the player’s wives, they’re normally restricted to paparazzi photos in gutter-newspapers. Jade El-Abd revealed the nerves she gets watching husband Adam play as a defender, where one mistake invites fan scrutiny; “You can’t ever really be a hero but you can very easily be the villain.” She shared some of the nicknames he receives on Twitter if it doesn’t go Brighton’s way such as ogre or Shrek! We also heard him talk of his early days at the club when he was selected to join the School of Excellence with the under-10s. El-Abd came across as likeable, personable and down-to-earth. He didn’t take himself too seriously, as demonstrated when he laughed about the Shrek comments, and clearly was happy to be playing football for a living and doing his best. He improved leaps and bounds under Poyet and somebody that supporters could get behind even more as a graduate of the youth system.

Training Ken Barnard

The scene had been set early on as to whom our main insiders would be; Charlie Oatway and Adam El-Abd. The next component of the documentary was introduced after five minutes by the narrator; “To stand any chance of winning their way into the Premiership, Brighton have to beat fellow Championship side Watford on Tuesday. That’s just three days time. The countdown to the big game had begun.” Footage of the squad training on the pitch at the stadium was shown, with Oatway’s words overlayed. Having been around the club for many years he knew what it meant to everybody from the players, staff, supporters and locals alike. They all wanted to see the side succeed, flourish in the new stadium and the dedication it takes. “You can’t ever relax. That’s the sort of mentality you wanna try to breed. There’s no time to relax, you don’t want to be relaxed. As soon as you start relaxing then someone else will come in and take your position for that game and all of a sudden, three or four games in and you’re out.” Other characters featured included kitman Ken Barnard and club photographer Paul Hazlewood doing their final tasks. Charlie Oatway shared the frustrations of no longer being a player and not being able to influence the outcome; “You do everything you can possibly in the week and anything you can to make sure they’re mentally and physically right for the game, but as soon as they go over that line it’s down to them.”

Grant Phillips Tattoos

The next person was introduced to the mix; Brighton fan Grant Phillips. The film wanted to tell the story of the match against Watford from both sides of the build up; inside the club and outside. Phillips chatted in his kitchen about his love for the club, drinking from his Albion mug and various Brighton tattoos on full display. This included a huge seagull across the back of his calves, taken from the club crest used during the Withdean years. He portrayed the role of the superfan; where everything during the build-up in the week was about getting through each day until the game started. This was where you could let everything out, relieve the stresses of everyday life and get behind the team. He spoke of when his mother was ill, how football would alleviate some of the strains. “Football made me forget, for those two hours you do literally forget. It’s ridiculous. I don’t know how it does it, you just get pulled up into it.” Superstitions are a part of sport, they’re a part of football and they can sometimes play a part of the fans preparation. Phillips was shown cooking a full English breakfast, as he claimed he didn’t feel like it was a matchday without it. When he was washing up, his Albion mug had to be placed above the rest so it was “on top of the pile.” “That’s fairly embarrassing!” Final arrangements were made ahead of the Watford fixture. During the match, fans Phillips and Mary, who had been supporting for over eighty years, were shown in their positions around the stadium going through the emotions as supporters do. These were perhaps exaggerated slightly due to being miked up with a camera their faces. Additionally, some of the crowd footage was actually from other matches as clearly illustrated by the scoreboard unfortunately placed right behind Phillips and the daylight for a night match.

Supporters Watford match

Another flaw in the documentary was it lacked a clear intended audience. There’s no doubting it would appeal to fans of Brighton and Hove Albion because it’s about the team that they love. It gives a chance to see some of the areas of the ground and the inner workings of the club that most do not ordinarily see. But some of the tone of the narration was as if football was being explained to people who had never seen a match before. “Pre-match rituals take many forms. For some, alcohol appears to be a vital preparation for the pivotal match that lies ahead.” Football supporting and alcohol are pretty much synonymous with one another. “The fans are, to use the football cliché, the twelfth man and supporters really can affect the outcome of games. In cold statistical terms, teams playing at home are significantly more likely to win than teams playing away.” It’s perfectly understandable that there would be viewers tuning in that were not football fans, some that even hated the sport, but I think some of the wording was far too simplistic and lacked direction. Showing the fan ritual of preparing a breakfast, or having tattoos were not particularly noteworthy enough to have several minutes devoted to it in a programme that only had twenty-four to play with. The chat with the club photographer amounted to ‘it’s the most nervous I’ve been all season’. As the film portrayed this as a do-or-die match then that is stating the obvious really. Considering the entire focus was the match against Watford, it was somewhat surprising that no actual footage of this was shown. Rights issues would be the obvious reason, and it was hardly a necessity to the storyline that we did not witness the goals, but it still felt slightly odd. Usually these documentaries cover the game from lower or unusual angles to the main position but this was just spent focussing on the fan reactions as Brighton came from two-nil down at half-time to gain a draw. With that result, the Play Off dream was over for the season as Brighton would no longer be able to finish in the top six. After some brief reflections from the main participants, the credits rolled.

Full Time Credits

The overwhelming thought when the documentary finished was of a missed opportunity unfortunately. The huge focus on the Watford match was perhaps understandable had Brighton won that to reach the Play Offs, however surely it would have been equally as disappointing a programme if it did happen as the focus needed to have been on the subsequent fixtures. My thought is that the filmmakers were pinning their hopes on behind-the-scenes of the Albion’s promotion and when that didn’t happen they had to rethink. The fact the manager Gus Poyet was missing was a disaster, he’s mainstream box office. Production wasn’t amazing either, I’m willing to go easy on this as it’s not what First Cut is all about. However, the editing of the fan celebrations and reaction shots left a lot to be desired. The scoreboard in the back of shot gave away the fact they were using other matches; celebrations of an equaliser according to the narrator was actually against Portsmouth in the previous month for example and a huge giveaway was when Leicester assistant Craig Shakespeare was standing on the touchline next to a close up of Poyet. And elderly supporter Mary was shoe-horned in towards the end as if we’d followed her all programme when we had absolutely no idea who she was or what her back story was. All this further suggests that a lot more was planned for the programme which simply got changed or cut due to the outcome. The positives were Charlie Oatway and Adam El-Abd, who both came out of it very well. And it is always nice to see your team on the telly, hence this whole website. Yet so much more could’ve been done with the footage. In the end it was neither access-all-areas nor an insight into the daily running of a professional club. Both of those things were promised in the synopsis and introductions but they were not delivered and what we were presented with was actually an extended piece that the likes of Football Focus on the BBC or Sky’s Football League Weekend do better in short-form on a weekly basis. For a true look into the bowels of the club, we should really have heard from more of the ground staff who having had to do their best despite the terrible Withdean conditions were now working at an award-winning stadium, or the new people who Falmer has given an opportunity to now the club employs many more staff. Ken Barnard had been kitman for sixteen years but it was like they were afraid to go into much detail for fear of alienating people, same for photographer Paul Hazlewood. The surface was barely scratched. For that reason this documentary does not live long in the memory.

About Mark O'MEARA
I am Mark O'MEARA.

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