Before Ted Lasso became the screen’s most popular football manager, there was Ricky Tomlinson as Mike Bassett: we look back two decades.
Happy anniversary to cult classic football mockumentary Mike Bassett: England Manager which was released 20 years ago today. Good films about the beautiful game are rare, but even within the few heralded as such, Mike Bassett is too often overlooked.
Let’s set the scene: two months prior to the movie coming out, The Office had debuted on UK televisions while the equally brilliant The Royle Family, featuring Ricky Tomlinson (who plays the eponymous manager), had completed its initial three series run the Christmas before. In football circles, Swede Sven-Göran Eriksson had just become the first foreign manager of the English national team in January of 2001, despite the reservations of many fans.
Co-writer Rob Sprackling reflected of the time in an interview from 2018. He recalled of the England football team in 2001 that “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.”
Mike Bassett would prove otherwise; somehow proving to be simultaneously a hark back to the past and yet also ahead of his time. Pint of wine aside, we never got to properly enjoy the Sam Allardyce experience as England manager, his record-breaking reign brought to an end after just 67 days due to a newspaper scandal. Bassett, however, gave us some insight as to what a no-nonsense, old-school, Alan Partridge-esque character might be like in the hot seat.
Based on An Impossible Job, a documentary which followed then-manager Graham Taylor and his team as they failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, Mike Bassett has a similar set up. It’s the 2002 qualification campaign in this one, but when gaffer Phil Cope has a heart attack, the FA must quickly appoint a successor. The trouble is, who’s available to replace him?
After dismissing various candidates for different reasons – one is successful but Scottish (much like Alex Ferguson), another is seen to be too much of a loudmouth (a reference to Brian Clough never getting the job), and no-one else of worth appears interested – they turn to Bassett, who’s inexplicably managed to win a trophy with Norwich City. The rest of the story follows his exploits with England as he seeks to get the best out of a group of misfit players who may feel awfully familiar.
There’s the flash playboy (modelled on David Beckham), the boring shy one (Giggs), a hot-headed centre back (Stuart Pearce and Vinnie Jones), a talented midfielder from the north-east who likes a drink (Gascoigne), and so on. Though they do their best to mess up qualification, they’re handed an unlikely reprieve when Luxembourg record a shock win against Turkey. Suddenly England are on the way to the World Cup in Brazil, which of course means they need to record a tune.
Long before their song ‘Whole Again’ (released in January 2021, the same month that Sven took charge of England) was adopted and adapted by Three Lions fans for Gareth Southgate, Atomic Kitten would cameo in this film as the pop group chosen to record the World Cup track. Titled ‘It’s On My Head Son, Not Off My Head Son’ and written by Keith Allen, with daughter Lily making an uncredited appearance on lead vocals due to the illness of Atomic Kitten Natasha Hamilton, it retains the nonsense feel of a proper tournament song by containing lines such as “we look cool in espadrilles.”
Atomic Kitten weren’t the only ones making cameos either. Sporting personalities including the likes of Sue Barker, Dickie Bird, Gabby Logan, Barry Venison, Brian Moore, Clive Tyldesley, Martin Tyler and Alan Green all made appearances. As did, incredibly, Pele. They would join an already eclectic cast: supporting Ricky Tomlinson were Bradley Walsh, Phil Jupitus and Martin Bashir, with numerous personalities from the cast of Sky One’s Dream Team playing the footballers in the squad.
While Mike Bassett opened at number three at the UK box office behind AI: Artificial Intelligence and Moulin Rouge!, making a very respectable £3.6m across its lifetime gross, and also spawned a spin-off TV series four years later, it’s most fondly remembered by its ultras – rather than a wider audience – for the memorable one-liners, moments, and scenes it delivered.
From Benson and Hedges being included in the squad (their names taken from the back of a cigarette packet) to the airport fight between the home nations to the recitation of Rudyard Kipling’s If, topped off with Bassett’s immortal declaration of his formation for the Argentina game, there’s so much to enjoy in this underseen mockumentary. It’s never had a Blu-ray release, but it’s possible to get hold of its sole DVD outing, which comes with quite a few extra features too.
If you’ve never had the pleasure, here’s a compilation of some of the film’s most memorable moments…
Oh and by the way, if that Ramirez didn’t win player of the tournament, there’s no justice.
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