Ken Early: City and Guardiola set blueprint with All Or Nothing

Hot new commercial asset in football is that previously sacred space: the dressingroom

The official trailer for All or Nothing Manchester City, a fly-on-the-wall documentary following the fortunes of Premier League champions Manchester City FC. Video: Amazon Prime

 

Last Thursday the Spanish League announced that they will soon be playing regular Spanish League matches in the United States. For La Liga, anything that promises to open up new markets and close the commercial gap to the Premier League seems worth a try. If you have to sell off a bit of tradition or make fans give up a home game or two, that’s the price of progress.

In England the clubs are always on the lookout for ways to package up and sell off new parts of the football experience. Last season the Premier League changed its rules to allow sleeve sponsors. This season’s big innovation is the big-budget fly-on-the-wall documentary: Manchester City’s All Or Nothing, which was released by Amazon last Friday. The hot new commercial real estate in football is that previously sacred space: the dressingroom.

It’s not as though All Or Nothing is the first fly-on-the-wall film in English football history. The king of the genre is 1994’s The Impossible Job, which covered England’s failed 1994 World Cup qualification campaign. A notable recent entry was 2012’s Being: Liverpool, which followed Liverpool during the first few weeks of their unremarkable 2012-13 season.

City in the days of City! were a somewhat grittier club

This is not even the first such film involving Manchester City. That was Granada’s 1980 production City! which covered the end of Malcolm Allison’s time as City manager and his replacement by John Bond, which culminated with the FA Cup tie later that same season between Bond’s City and Allison’s new side, Crystal Palace.

City in the days of City! were a somewhat grittier club. There is no voice-over line in the new production as arresting as “[Allison] was known as the master of the West Ham Academy, until his career was cut short when he lost a lung”. But what All Or Nothing lacks in punch, it makes up for in sheer length and saturation of coverage. Eight episodes of 45-50 minutes mean this is surely one of the longest football documentaries ever made.

It’s far too long, in fact – the action gets repetitive, and the focus interviews with players reveal little more than the usual profile features you’ll see on the regular TV coverage.

There is, however, a core of fascinating new material at the heart of the film, comprising footage from City’s match-day dressingroom and pre-match team meetings. Since the person who does the vast majority of the talking in these situations is the manager, Pep Guardiola, he quickly emerges as the star of the show and is the person about whom we learn most.

If English football clubs have previously been reluctant to allow this sort of access, it’s because previous films have seldom covered their subjects in glory. An Impossible Job made Graham Taylor a laughing stock, Being: Liverpool did Brendan Rodgers’s credibility no favours. So inviting the audience to peep behind the curtain and see how Guardiola relates to his players was fraught with certain risks.

But Guardiola had already allowed the journalist Marti Perarnau to follow him and write two behind-the-scenes books on his work at Bayern Munich. So he clearly feels his work is important enough to be worth documenting. By the end of All Or Nothing, you find yourself wishing that more managers had the same mentality.

One thing seems certain: now that City have become the first club to immortalise a season in this way, creating a slickly-produced film that will burnish their brand around the world, other teams will be desperate to follow suit, especially if they think they can get paid for doing it. Sky, you expect, will be thinking about how they can make the same sort of access a condition of their next multibillion pound TV deal. Imagine how they feel about Amazon getting all this material for just £10 million, which scarcely covers what Sky pay for a single live Premier League game.

Fans who are used to thinking of the dressingroom as a sealed-off, secret space might see in that another definitive sign that the game’s gone. We all know that people behave differently when they know they are being watched. If cameras and 24-hour surveillance become the norm in dressingrooms, won’t that mean they cease to be a place where people can be themselves? Won’t they become the preserve of actors and phoneys?

No need to worry: they already are. A Guardiola team talk is a theatrical performance, as though he is determined to physically act out his message with the same passion he is demanding of the players. The face rubbing, arm waving, capering intensity of these Pep shows is the most memorable aspect of the film. Is this what even a coach as renowned as Guardiola must do to command the attention of top players?

Maybe this explains why Ferguson could spend nearly three decades in the same job

The contrast with what little footage we have of Alex Ferguson in similar situations is remarkable. Ferguson may have had a reputation for fiery and bilious invective, but in the little footage we have of him addressing his team he’s usually speaking quietly and conversationally. Maybe this explains why Ferguson could spend nearly three decades in the same job, while Guardiola tends to wear himself out and move on after three or four years. (We could draw more useful conclusions if Ferguson had left us with more footage).

Guardiola’s determination to put on a show for the players creates some scenes that are at least as rich with unintentional comedy as any of the cringe in Being: Liverpool. Yet he is unlikely to find himself mocked as Rodgers was. The key difference is victory – Guardiola’s team wins nearly every match, Rodgers’s had an awkward habit of losing.

In the end that may be the biggest problem with the show: City are too good. These films work better as chronicles of failure. The agonising moments, the times when people scramble to justify failure or foist blame on to others, tend to reveal far more than the celebrations. What wouldn’t Amazon have paid for cameras in the Manchester United dressingroom on Sunday to record the discussion after their defeat at Brighton?

Now that City have become the first big club to make the fly-on-the-wall film look like a clever way to make money and look good, rather than a shortcut to certain humiliation, the days of cameras in every dressingroom cannot be far off.

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