Part Ten: “He’s Got a Pineapple on his Head”

By Steve Williams

First published December 2007

Until the 1990s, football and the real world rarely seemed to meet. There was little time for coverage of the sport on TV to ever really discuss what the game actually meant. The famous Monty Python sketch with John Cleese as the monosyllabic footballer (“And there it was in the back of the net”) was probably an accurate depiction of 99 percent of post-match interviews.

Rarely, too, was the coverage of the sport ever actually about entertainment. The reason Jimmy Greaves stood out when he began his career as an analyst was because he was always searching for a funny line while his colleagues seemed to take Bill Shankly’s famous line – “Football’s not a matter of life and death, it’s much more important than that” – seriously.

Before that, the only real attempt to genuinely amuse viewers came about every four years or so, when Brian Moore would cue up “a little something the backroom boys have put together” during the World Cup – normally a montage of speeded-up and reversed footage of players falling over. Besides, given the average football coverage consisted of five minutes before kick-off and five minutes after the final whistle, there was little scope for anything different. During the ’80s, too, the depressed state of the game rarely lent itself to much in the way of laughter in any case.

Indeed, as journalist Jim White wrote in 1994: “In the ’60s, football was almost as fashionable as swinging and the Merseybeat. Intellectuals like Karl Marx intellectualised it, sophisticated metropolitans like Brian Glanville write sophisticated metropolitan about it, cynics like Hunter Davies were cynical about it … but from the mid-’70s, there was nothing smart or amusing about football; the only literature was sociological, seeking to place blame with the government, the police, parents, drink, anything you fancied, for the trouble.

“Then, after the nadir of Heysel and the awful, ghastly tragedy of Hillsborough, things began to change. The hooligans largely gave up, seats replaced terraces, the football authorities realised that the future lay not in treating customers like cattle, but like consumers. And slowly, the literature returned. It began with the fanzine movement, acidic, abrasive and funny home-made publications written by the fan for the fan.”

By the 1990s, magazines like When Saturday Comes had become immensely popular. This new breed of football publication didn’t consist of fawning profiles of the first division stars, but instead thoughtful essays about the game’s place in society, the importance of the clubs to their communities, and proper investigative journalism about who was actually making money from the sport. Better yet, they were actually funny, affectionately taking the piss out of the game and the characters involved in it. Indeed, WSC’s front page, featuring a photo of a football personality with an appropriate speech bubble added, proved that fanzines owed more to Private Eye than the likes of Shoot.

Fan magazines for specific teams also made their mark. One of Liverpool’s leading amateur publications at the turn of the ’90s went under the name of When Sunday Comes, marking the fact that more and more of the club’s games were moving away from the traditional Saturday afternoon kick-off time, for the benefit of TV coverage. Meanwhile, some Sheffield Wednesday fans created War of the Monster Trucks in honour of Yorkshire TV’s notorious decision to screen the eponymous import instead of Wednesday’s post-match celebrations when they won the League Cup.

By 1991, virtually every club in the league had their own fanzine, so the obvious step was to put something like it on TV. Janet Street-Porter’s DEF II, the youth strand on BBC2, was more often home to music shows like Dance Energy and Rapido. Yet from September 1991, it also featured Standing Room Only, a new series devoted entirely to soccer. Host Simon O’Brien said, “It’s about time a programme like this was on. Football deserves more thoughtful coverage than it gets.”

The show was, therefore, not simply devoted to highlights and endless earnest discussion about groin strains. Instead the programme began with the staging of a match using many of the rules that fans seemed to want, such as bigger goals, sin bins and two referees – an experiment that was sufficiently controversial for the FA to rule none of their member clubs could take part, and so the match had to be staged in Wales. There were also more serious features, such as a report on neo-Nazi hooligans in Germany and an item on the standards of medical care at England’s top clubs. Yet it was all leavened with humour, featuring regular contributions from the comedy stars du jour, Rob Newman and David Baddiel.

The success of Standing Room Only – which eventually ran for three years – was another step on the way to football’s rehabilitation as an acceptable pursuit for the middle classes. Yet coverage on the whole remained rather parochial – we all knew England had invented the game, but bar the World Cup, mention of the game outside the British Isles was extremely limited. Given the ’80s saw many top stars – Gary Lineker, Graeme Souness, Ray Wilkins – try their luck overseas, where it was regularly reported the world’s greatest players and most exciting leagues could be found, this was a surprising omission.

Remarkably, the first channel to regularly show league football from elsewhere in Europe was Welsh-language broadcaster S4C. The thinking was that two of Wales’ most famous players, Mark Hughes and Ian Rush, had just signed for Barcelona and Juventus respectively, and so their fans should be able to see them play. In fact, by the time Sgorio finally made it to the screen in 1988, both had returned home to play in the English League again. Nevertheless, the show’s highlights from the Italian, Spanish and German leagues became something of a Monday night institution in Wales, and the programme regularly received letters from viewers in Liverpool and Bristol, where the channel could be received if the TV aerial was pointing in the right direction, saying that although they couldn’t understand the words they loved watching the action. Two decades on, the series is still running.

When BSB‘s Sports Channel began in 1990, Serie A, the Italian first division, found a regular place in the schedules – not least because it was a fairly cheap way of getting live football on the channel in the days before the Premiership. This coverage is now most notable for giving Alan Hansen his first break in punditry, but the renamed Sky Sports lost the contract in 1992.

Its new home was, surprisingly, Channel 4. Its arrival there came about after the independent production company, Chrysalis Sport, produced a documentary for ITV about Paul Gascoigne’s fight back from serious injury before he departed in a high-profile move to Lazio of Italy. During the filming, Gazza remarked to the producer, Neil Duncanson, that it was a shame hardly anybody would be able to see him play there. So Duncanson approached the Italian Football Federation and attempted to land the rights for C4. With the Premier League about to arrive, Sky no longer considered Serie A a top priority and the terrestrial broadcaster won the contract to screen a live match every Sunday afternoon.

Channel 4 had never previously been a major football broadcaster. As part of its remit to cover minority interests, as well as a requirement to complement ITV, soccer on C4 had meant the stuff that didn’t sit comfortably on Match of the Day – women’s football, African football and even Subbuteo. Italian football, therefore, was simply in keeping with this alternative approach.

However it soon became apparent this was actually a major draw. In part it was a question of timing. The coverage began in the 1992/93 season, when the Premier League had just moved from ITV to Sky Sports, still an expensive luxury in many homes. Some ITV regions had replaced the old top flight coverage with lower division matches featuring local clubs, such as Grimsby or Walsall, which were obviously of limited appeal, while other regions simply shoved on old films. Hence if you wanted to see top quality football in the familiar Sunday afternoon spot, the Italian game was probably the best option. Within weeks it was reported C4 was regularly enjoying audiences of around two million – comfortably more than the Premier League on Sky, and at a fraction of the cost. Suddenly the Milan, Juventus and Inter teams were as famous as Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs. And all this despite the fact Gazza was still injured and not playing.

C4′s live matches from Serie A were linked off screen by the veteran broadcaster Kenneth Wolstenholme, while commentary duties were usually handled by regular ITV voice Peter Brackley – although he always remained in London and simply worked from monitors. These matches were accompanied by a Saturday morning magazine show, the punningly-titled Gazzetta Football Italia. The series was sold as actually being presented by Paul Gascoigne himself, although in reality he only made a few brief contributions while one James Richardson did the rest.

Richardson was working behind the scenes before being asked virtually at the last minute if he could also present, as Chrysalis hunted for anyone who knew about football and could speak Italian. He fitted the bill, but as he had spent most of his formative years living abroad, he hadn’t seen much TV coverage of football and thus came to it with a uniquely humorous and laid-back approach. The enduring image of Richardson – and of the Italian coverage as a whole – is of him sat in a pavement cafĂ© leafing through the Italian newspapers and translating the stories, while, somewhat uniquely for a football broadcaster, he was also extremely cerebral and could come up with some brilliant lines – once describing a particularly hopeless bottom-of-the-table scrap as featuring “more errors than a South African archery competition”. Inevitably he was soon promoted to full-time anchor, linking all the live matches, while he was even loaned to the BBC to report from the Italian camp during both Euro 96 and the 1998 World Cup.

Such was the success of the Italian league coverage other broadcasters looked to the value of European football as an attractive supplement to the British game. Chrysalis also gained the rights to screen the Italian Cup, and sold them on to the BBC who ran highlights on Sportsnight throughout 1992/93, while Granada screened Spanish league highlights as part of their Saturday afternoon Sports World strand.

Finally it seemed television football coverage was expanding its horizons. The same was also true of radio, as in 1990, the BBC’s sports programmes had moved off Radio 2′s medium wave frequencies to the newly opened Radio 5. No longer squatting part-time on a predominantly music-based station, there was now scope for more than just commentaries.

Perhaps the dominant figure in the early years was Danny Baker, who from 1991 fronted the post-match phone-in 606. Baker celebrated all that was great about being a football fan, at one point playing Summer Holiday in the middle of January just so fans on coaches home from matches could enjoy a sing-song. He was clearly on the same side, and wavelength, of the supporters, and Baker’s love of football and eye for the absurd led to him fronting a series of top-selling videos showcasing ludicrous own goals and cock-ups.

Another Radio 5 success came in 1992, when Ross King fronted a version of a postal game known as Fantasy Football League, where fans selected 11 players from all the top flight clubs to create their own dream team. Throughout the season the players’ success on the pitch would translate into points for the fantasy teams and their “managers”. The radio show invited celebrities to pick their own sides and monitored their progress throughout the course of the season, as well as giving them the chance to talk football generally.

Two of the guest managers were comedians Frank Skinner and David Baddiel. Both were massive football fans, and indeed had first met at the Comedy Store in London during the 1990 World Cup, bonding while watching an Ireland match on TV backstage. As Baddiel had just ended his comic partnership with Rob Newman, the BBC were after a new vehicle for him, and the pair suggested Fantasy Football would make a perfect TV format which they could host together – still inviting guests to “manage” their teams, but also as a vehicle for plenty of jokes and sketches. In fact, there was already a comedy show revolving around football, BBC Scotland’s Only An Excuse? (the curiously named parody of Only A Game?, a heavyweight BBC Scotland documentary on the history of the sport), but this was only shown regionally and consisted mostly of impressions.

The Fantasy Football TV series started extremely quietly in January 1994 in the unhallowed Friday 11.15pm slot. Indeed, some editions in this first run went out after midnight – but with an 18-episode run to play with, the BBC were happy for the show to become a slow burner. What soon became obvious, though, was the game aspect of the series was much less important than the jokes and piss-takes. Indeed, the opening section was called, simply, “Things We Noticed While Watching Football This Week” and consisted entirely of daft clips from the last seven days worth of fixtures.

Other notable features included “Phoenix from the Flames”, where a famous player was invited to recreate a notable moment in their career alongside Frank and David, while ITV’s threadbare football output was mocked in the self-explanatory “Saint and Greavsie Talk about the Endsleigh League as if it’s Important”. Bizarre clips from the archive were also a regular feature, in such wonderfully-titled features as “Old Football was Rubbish” and, unforgettably, “Pele was Shite”, where the hopeless misses and fouls of the world’s greatest player were screened for the hell of it. Meanwhile each show ended with Frank’s all-time hero, West Bromwich Albion legend Jeff Astle, dressed in a ridiculous costume and performing a song he had clearly never heard before.

Best of all, Fantasy Football League was unashamedly aimed at fans. Indeed, Frank Skinner said, “It was hardcore football fans who were our target audience. We never talked down to them or bothered to explain an obscure football reference. If you didn’t know about football, that was tough.”

It wasn’t long before Skinner and Baddiel became the official voice of the fan on TV. At the end of the 1994 season they were invited on to Match of the Day to offer their take on the action, while they also mounted a couple of “Phoenix from the Flames” re-enactments as part of the BBC’s Cup Final build-up.

Come that year’s World Cup, the duo had a regular role in the BBC’s coverage, appearing every few days with jokes and sketches – often with Bob Wilson as a highly unlikely straightman. On one occasion Wilson handed over to them by asking if anyone had particularly caught their eye during the tournament. As the camera panned to the pair in ginger wigs and goatee beards – in homage to the USA player Alexi Lalas – Frank deadpanned, “Not really. Georghe Hagi’s been quite good.” Later in that programme, the pair were even invited (still in their Lalas outfits) to join the actual pundits after the match – but then it was 2.30am.

Their weekly series remained a massive cult hit, running for a further two series. By 1996 their influence was such that Nottingham Forest player Jason Lee told the press he believed Fantasy Football League had ruined his career. Lee was best known for his unusual dreadlock hairstyle and fans had already taken to chanting, “He’s got a pineapple on his head” at him. However he also became notorious for his seeming inability to score, and Fantasy Football ran a sketch where Baddiel, with an actual pineapple on his head, contrived to miss a teacup with a sugar cube and miss a litter bin with some paper.

The sketches seemed to strike a chord, with viewers sending in drawings and photos of pineapples, but Lee himself claimed the constant jokes undermined his confidence and made him a complete laughing stock. Skinner later seemed to regret the experience, saying, “It’s one thing to take the piss out of Peter Beardsley or Gazza … these were extremely talented players with massive self-confidence who couldn’t give a shit about leg-pulling, but Jason Lee wasn’t, by Premiership standards, quite good enough. This, I suppose, must have led to all sorts of doubts and insecurities and so the running gags, to him, must have felt like a cruel vendetta.”

Skinner did go on to say that, when Lee shaved his head and appeared in The Sun with a pineapple saying he was now a “kiwi-fruit head”, he’d probably got over it. But by the 1996 European Championships in England, Skinner and Baddiel were all over the place, most obviously performing the official England song, and cutting a rug to it before the semi-final against Germany at Wembley Stadium.

As well as their Fantasy Football shows, by that point it seemed to be obligatory all soccer coverage now featured a humorous “lighter side of the game” feature, helped by BBC pundit Gary Lineker’s regular appearances on the panel game They Think it’s all Over. That show’s host Nick Hancock contributed some inserts to the BBC’s coverage of Euro 96, but the nadir came on the other side, with Jim Rosenthal on ITV having to smile weakly while comedian Lee Hurst ran through an endless succession of dismally unfunny lookalikes. It was clear not everyone could successfully make football funny …

Fortunately, what was happening on the pitch had an even bigger impact …

<Part Nine