Screen Test: Danny Baker’s The Game

For the When Saturday Comes Screen Test column, revisiting Danny Baker’s Sunday League football TV show The Game, originally shown in 1991 and subsequently released on DVD.

The appearance of Danny Baker on a video cover inevitably suggests a compilation of football funnies, but, while it does contain its fair share of own goals and gaffes, The Game is a very different proposition. Originally broadcast in ITV’s LWT regions in 1991 (pre-dating the first Own Goals and Gaffs [sic] video from 1992), this is a six-episode TV show focussing on Sunday League football – specifically East London Sunday Football League Division Four.

“A real sport played by real people,” is the tagline, and the format is suitably straightforward. Each episode contains match highlights and pre- and post-match interviews with the pub drinkers and polytechnic students who play for teams such as The Cock Hotel and Livingstone Academicals. Baker presents from a scaffolding gantry above Hackney Marshes, alongside local pundit Terry Franklin (“the George Graham of the Sunday Leagues”).

There are laughs to be had, and Baker is characteristically sharp with the one-liners, but on the whole he plays it pretty straight. The beauty of The Game is that it treats Sunday League football with as much respect as Match of the Day affords the Premier League. The result is an engagingly honest portrait of football played at its lowest level for nothing more than the love of the game.

All the colour of Sunday League is here. There are hungover players and forgotten boots, potato-patch pitches and taped-up goal-nets, half-time cigarettes and full-time cans of lager, and plenty of effing, jeffing and handbags. A match is called off when the ref doesn’t turn up, and at least one ball ends up under a passing London bus. There are great characters, too, including hefty Young Prince “B” striker Jamie Sykes, who struggles to squeeze into his kit, and celebrates his goals like a stampeding elephant. Another star of the show is plain-speaking referee Eric “Shut It” Samuels, who officiates from behind huge tinted spectacles, and halts games to offer tactical advice to losing teams.

As tends to happen in football at any level, an absorbing narrative emerges, and it’s difficult to avoid becoming hooked as the league competition and the division’s Dick Coppock Cup near their respective climaxes. There may be relatively little quality or skill on display, but on this evidence quality and skill are grossly overrated. The deciding matches featured in The Game are as entertaining as anything you’re likely to see on MOTD, and the Dick Coppock Cup Final – featuring an own goal, a sending-off, penalties, several appalling refereeing decisions, and a winner scored by a very large postman – is a genuinely thrilling watch.

“People say it’s only Sunday morning football, but we look forward to it all week,” says Gascoyne Os manager Terry Rees ahead of one featured game. “We come out and play in rain and sleet and snow and everything else. It really means a lot to us.” It’s the participants’ infectious enthusiasm for football that makes The Game such a winning idea for a TV show. And, given that ITV are light on football rights for next season, it’s an idea that seems fit to be revived.

Published in the September 2015 issue of When Saturday Comes.

Danny Baker’s The Game [DVD]

Published by Paul Brown

Writes about football and history. Four Four Two, When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard, The Guardian etc. Latest book: The Ruhleben Football Association. Twitter: @paulbrownUK

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