Belfast Telegraph

'Being: Liverpool' must not whitewash the Reds if it is to be meaningful TV

By Sam Wallace

The initial reaction to the concept of Being: Liverpool, the Channel Five documentary series that advertises itself as a behind-the-scenes look was to wince for a club that, in its golden era, was a byword for discretion.

Liverpool always appointed the right managers and nearly always bought the right players but in those days a Tory was more likely to be elected in the city's Walton constituency before the members of the boot room generation opened up.

Times have changed. On Friday the second episode was broadcast. The arguments over whether the cameras should come into an institution that once seemed like the repository of the secrets of success in English football are over. The question is now what kind of documentary will emerge over the remaining four episodes.

Liverpool is the first club to take the plunge and there are plenty of others in the Premier League asking whether they should do the same. The show is based upon the success of the Hard Knocks series in the United States about NFL franchises and there is a good chance that Liverpool will not be the last English club to sign up.

In English football's commercial battlegrounds of North America and Asia, a willingness to break the old rules the game holds dear, including the one that says you do not film the manager's team-talks, is regarded as an innovative move. Television companies have been trying for years to persuade clubs to embark on the same kind of projects, with little success.

Manchester United did so with Beyond the Promised Land, made 12 years ago when they were European champions and featuring Roy Keane walking out of a staff-v-players quiz in a huff. There was some blatant and excruciating publicity for Vodafone, then the shirt sponsors,and comprising just one programme it was nothing like as extensive as the current Liverpool series.

The Being: Liverpool highlights so far include Ian Ayre, the club's managing director, riding his Harley Davidson motorcycle – used twice now as a teaser, which suggests the director is well aware of its potential value. In Friday's episode the principal owner John W Henry struck up a conversation with two players in the dressing room before a pre-season friendly at Fenway Stadium, and then paused to ask them anxiously: "Do you know who I am?"

Football people will recoil at the cameras filming Brendan Rodgers' pre-match team-talks, on pre-season tour. Television can be unkind in those circumstances but, fortunately for Rodgers, he has a nice command of the language. We have seen him issue a low-level bollocking to Raheem Sterling and warn Jonjo Shelvey not to get carried away when tackling – advice that, with hindsight, seems to have gone unheeded.

Otherwise, most of the insight has come from the set-piece interviews with Steven Gerrard. His point that, unlike when he broke through, most supporters now have a good knowledge of the club's academy players long before they make the first team was a perceptive observation on making the grade in elite modern football.

For Being: Liverpool to succeed as an exercise in journalism, it will have to detail the difficult moments of which, as with any club, there will be many. Early days yet, but there needs to be something more substantial than narrator Clive Owen's overwrought attempts to breathe significance into a pre-season friendly against Toronto FC. Kenny Dalglish's sacking, for example, merited only a few seconds.

This is where so many in-house club television channels fall down. They are comfortable reporting on success but they shut down when it comes to the awkward aspects of a club's life: defeats, arguments, sackings – inevitably the most interesting bits. Keane's famous MUTV interview in 2005 that led to his departure from United? Sadly still yet to be broadcast and probably languishing in a safe in Old Trafford.

Unfortunately, the cameras left Liverpool before the club's awkward transfer deadline day at the end of August but they were around for the defeat to West Bromwich Albion. If they had captured the reaction to that, the circumstances around Andy Carroll's departure, and possibly even that of Jay Spearing, who featured significantly in Friday's episode, then they might have the basis for something insightful. It would be unfair to judge it definitively yet, but two episodes in the dead hand of the censor seems to weigh heavy.

Graham Taylor's famous The Impossible Job documentary was done with his blessing. He accepted that the story needed to be told raw and unfiltered and while it was unflattering to him above all – failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals was not in the plan – no one could deny that he was brave enough to let the cameras tell it like it was.

There have been others. Most recently The Four-Year Plan about Queen's Park Rangers' 2010-11 promotion season and Orient: Club for a Fiver in 1995 (stand-out line: "You've had two good performances and you think you're Bertie Big- bollocks"). Also in the YouTube archive is City!, featuring Manchester City's 1980-81 season, a stand-out classic of the genre, featuring a calamitous Malcolm Allison delivering his confusing team-talks while bare-chested.

That programme was made in a much more innocent age, years before clubs or institutions became paranoid about image, largely because there was no money in such a concept then. In City! there is no talk in the directors' box of pre-season friendlies in Kuala Lumpur or sponsorship deals for "office equipment partners", just lots of men sporting comb-overs and smoking cigars.

So too the Taylor documentary of 1994, in which he was filmed telling David Platt he was no longer the England captain on a bench at Sampdoria's training ground, an extraordinary proposition now. Being: Liverpool is a product of football's modern era, where image is everything and no one gets to film the inside of Lucas Leiva's house without some pretty robust assurances that they will stay on-message.

It does not necessarily follow that honesty must lead to humiliation in a documentary. Not everyone will come across as David Brent, although, to be fair, Ayre's Harley moment is one short step away from plonking a pair of Cuban heels on the desk. Having made the momentous decision to allow the cameras in, it would be a missed opportunity if the club panicked and demanded the whole thing looked like a corporate video.

If the documentary tries to smooth over the difficult moments then its credibility will be damaged. Supporters will see through it too and by that one means the domestic contingent, not the less-discerning disciples in football's emerging markets. If Being: Liverpool wants to be groundbreaking then it goes without saying it cannot be a whitewash.

In City!, made in 1980, the late John Bond is filmed being interviewed by the board following Allison's sacking. Bond says: "I'm not going to have players – excuse the expression – pissing about and flouting the image of Manchester City. I don't think that's right." That was all the thought they gave to image 32 years ago. Nowadays it is more complicated, but the astute viewer can still tell when the wool is being pulled over their eyes.

Belfast Telegraph


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