PENALTY caught up with Steve Barron the day the European Super League reared its ugly head and fulfilled one of football fans’ biggest fears: money triumphing over the beautiful game. It felt only natural to speak to the Mike Bassett: England Manager director as the very pillars of the English game were collapsing around us.
Ricky Tomlinson’s Mike Bassett has, to even the director’s surprise, stood the test of time and risen as a cult hero over the past two decades. The fictional manager remains cemented as a figure of the glory days of the sport: teamsheets on cig packets, changing room fracas’ and, of course, four-four-fucking-two.
Ever the optimist and forward-thinker (Barron is a proud owner of a sustainable hemp farm), the filmmaker believes remnants of this bygone footballing world still exist in the game today as long as Big Sam and Leicester City are around. Only days after our call, the fury and passion of fans led to the dissolution of the ESL and proved Barron’s summation to be true: the grassroots spark that has made Mike Bassett so popular will never leave the sport.
PENALTY: We’ve chosen a big day of football to do this, have you been following what’s going on?
Steve Barron: It’s crazy isn’t it?! I don’t know what they were thinking.
P: More importantly, how does it feel for Mike Bassett: England Manager to be 20 years old?
SB: He’s actually 70 years old [laughs]! It feels great that it’s still getting a bit of an audience and I get quite a few messages about it and yeah, it was such a lovely experience. Obviously for anyone who likes football to be able to direct a movie about football and meet your idols and have a kickabout in the world’s most iconic stadiums is what dreams are made of. It’s a massive part of my life and one of the high points of my career.
P: So you were born in Ireland right? But are you an England fan?
SB: Good question! I was born in Dublin, but I grew up as a young kid, and got obsessed with football, supporting England, Scotland and Ireland. That’s because it was George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law. That is what informed me.
P: What made you want to produce the film back then?
SB: I love football and had made a couple of movies, and done some tv. I’d always said ‘you can’t make a film about football. You cant make up what happens live and what emotions you go through. That’s why football films don’t work.’ But along came this 3 or 4 page synopsis for Mike Bassett, written by Rob Sprackling and Johnny Smith, based on the Graham Taylor Impossible Dream thing, and I though ‘oh, I was wrong!’. There is a way to do it, and that’s as a mockumentary – you put it in another reality, but still close to reality, and do it that way. You let things happen in front of you and you keep it very loose. Yeah, that’s when I suddenly thought ‘there is a way to do a football movie. This is it’.
P: When you first saw Graham Taylor Impossible Dream what was your reaction?
SB: It was so insightful. Everything you imagined was going on, but you couldn’t believe it was actually that crap! Everything I thought was happening, was, and that fly-on-the-wall documentary making hadn’t been seen that much before and it was really interesting way of exposing what a bunch of hapless people make these decisions!
P: Is there a particular memory from the production and shoot that you look back on frequently 20 years later?
SB: Selfishly, yeah! [Laughs] There’s a few moments. Walking onto the grass in the Maracanã Stadium in Rio and thinking ‘Oh my God, there were 200,000 people here when Brazil played Uruguay many years ago’. It’s such a spectacular stadium.
Then, when we got to old Wembley and we cut the grass and put the goals up – it was in the process of being demolished – I became a kid again. When I was 10 years old I remember watching Bobby Charlton score that goal against Mexico from outside the box and it gave it me such a tingle, a feeling I’d never felt before. I avowed then that I would do that one day. I thought that meant I’d be a professional footballer, and it wasn’t until I was 14 and started seeing other kids who were better than me, I realised it wasn’t going to happen [laughs]! But, here I was 20 odd years after that, in Wembley stadium having a kickabout. We had a game with the footballers in the film, and we all put our kit on in the changing room and I had that same buzz of heading out on to the Wembley pitch. So I got the ball, outside the box, at the same end Charlton scored that goal –
P: - Oh, wow
SB: Yep! And I put my foot through it and I put the ball in that same corner, it was the exact same goal! It gave me such a thrill. I realised in that moment, that when you have dreams, and you hold on to them, they can come true at anytime.
P: That’s so lovely, did you hold your own in those games?
SB: It actually ended up being 1-0 and I think that was the last goal ever scored from outside the box at Wembley, ever!
P: Pele of course features in Mike Bassett: England Manager, how on earth did that happen?
SB: Yeah, we got him for a lot of money! Two hours for a hundred thousand dollars. At the time, that was a huge part of our budget, but it absolutely didn’t matter. I lost an hour of those two hours just dealing with the cast and crew who were all big footballers or fans and trying to get them off him!
P: Did he have any idea of what was going on? With it being a fake documentary and with a slight language barrier?
SB: He got it straight away. I let him improvise for most of it [laughs]. I said to him ‘look you’re going to name as many countries that you think could possibly do well in the World Cup, but you ain’t gonna mention England at all!’.
P: One of my favourite gags is the Benson & Hedges bit – was that one of Sprackling’s?
SB: I can’t remember which one of them said it, but someone mentioned that he wrote the team on the back of a cig packet – it was almost a cliché and they thought they had to get it into the script. It’s one of my favourites too.
P: Do you have a particular favourite from the many gags?
SB: My favourite piece of performance is Ricky Tomlinson when MB completely loses it in the changing room, such a special moment. ‘The hand of God’ moment felt very good – there was a number of
places where this film just had to go! We were extremely lucky to get someone as good as Ricky Tomlinson, he was just such a perfect fit. In a lot of people’s eyes he is Mike Bassett.
P: What is it about the film that you think people keep flocking to it?
SB: It’s a difficult one, you should ask the people who flock to it I suppose [Laughs]! I think we touched a nerve with a character who everyone who followed football can relate to.
P: Do you know if Graham Taylor ever saw it?
SB: I think he did, but I can’t remember the comments [laughs]!
P: How did your past experiences as a music video director feed into the faux Atomic Kitten World Cup song?
SB: Yeah, I mean, there just had to be a World Cup song in it. I knew Keith Allen before, and he wasn’t really concentrating when I asked him, so he just kind of said ‘yeah, I’ll do whatever’. I just wanted to make it as hammy as possible and Allen wrote a really great song to do that with.
P: How do you feel the game itself has changed, are you still an avid watcher? in a way Mike Basset: England Manager prophesised the current obsession with data and technology..
SB: I thought Sky originally did such a good job of making a world, and providing build up with more information, more spectacle, more cameras. But, it is very disappointing when now it has become all about money, but you grimace through that financial fog and see little glimpses of hope, like Leicester winning the league: the impossible title.
P: Do you view MB as an encapsulation of a sport that doesn’t really exist in that way anymore?
SB: I did think it was going to be of its time. We had a lot of reviews in 2001, when Sven was taking over, and even then they were saying it was good, but it was ‘the old school’, ‘It’s not there anymore’, ‘we now have a Swedish manager who knows what he is doing’ y’know. But here we are 20 years later, and you know what? It is still the exact same impossible job. It still has the same managers and try and get their naïve ideas across. When you’ve still got Sam Allardyce in the Premier League, spouting off his words of wisdom, you know that it isn’t history, just a part of history. It hasn’t ended, it’s still the same puzzle and still got the same cliches that will buzz around the game forever.
You can purchase Steve’s book, which looks back on an incredible career of directing music videos and includes more Mike Bassett insight, here.