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Danny Baker's 'The Game': the best football programme you've never watched

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Depending on how old you are, Danny Baker’s place in your football consciousness might include one or more of the following: 1) his thinking man’s football-blooper video franchise, 2) his intermittent stints on 606, asking delirious away fans to turn their radio down in the background, or 3) simply being the aimlessly bitter voice of the rather vague Against Modern Football movement.

The Own Goals and Gaffs-era Baker is the one we should all cherish; a man taking gleeful but respectful delight in just how pathetic football can sometimes look. In that spirit, one of his criminally underappreciated programmes deserves to be revisited – perhaps even remade. Danny Baker’s The Game, a six-part peek into the world of Sunday League football, was broadcast back in 1991, shortly before the professional game was ushered into a whole new era.

The setting for Baker’s low-key celebration of people paying £5 to play football, badly, was inevitably Hackney Marshes. Every Sunday, for decades, hundreds of footballers – and a handful of unquestionable non-footballers – have trudged to the spiritual home of the amateur game: no fewer than 88 pitches’ worth of people who all think boxing the opposition in when they have a throw-in is the height of tactical sophistication.

The focus of The Game was Division Four of the East London Sunday League (supposedly the longest-running competition of its kind in Europe) which shared this vast Lee Valley expanse with other venerable competitions like the Hackney & Leyton League that continues to flourish today. One of the opening shots of episode one lets us know what we’re in for straight away: lots and lots of shell suits.

Baker immediately starts riffing from pitchside, his voice dripping with enthusiasm and urging you to do the same. Who cares about the imminent advent of the Premier League and England plumbing new depths under Graham Taylor because football’s brilliant. And that’s what separates Baker’s early-’90s oeuvre from the Soccer AM banter dynasty that succeeded it – sheer, unwavering sincerity.

The format for the six episodes was simple enough: pre-match boozing; extended highlights of an umpteen-goal thriller; some post-match video analysis in the decrepit changing rooms and, finally, the Incidents of the Week segment, consisting of shaky camcorder footage from Greater London’s various amateur leagues. The programme aired on ITV in London and the south-east on a Friday night, appropriately just after closing time.

The featured teams were an exquisite cross-section of the Sunday League experience. The hapless Cock Hotel (Played 16, Won 0, but still hopeful of surviving relegation thanks to Tesco’s withdrawal from the league) had just appointed a new manager, builder John Smythe, whose qualifications for the job extended to merely being in the pub at the time.

Meanwhile, Baker also keeps tabs on mid-table Young Prince B (whose star striker Jamie Sykes happily talks about his recent six-game ban for chasing a opponent round the pitch in revenge for a stray elbow), the promotion-hunting Coborn and the wide-eyed, softly-spoken students of Livingstone Academicals. Hopes of a cup run are raised and dashed in the Dick Coppock Cup (all of Hackney’s cup competitions are named after a prehistoric councillor called Dick or a league treasurer named Albert) which was open only to the Fourth Division, such is the traditional commitment to giving clubs the best value as possible for their annual fees.

Each week’s showpiece game is covered as if they were first up on Match of the Day itself, with the line-ups listed on screen (every team featuring at least two brothers, the traditional key to scraping together a full Sunday League XI) and Baker sat alongside some amateur league veteran atop a gantry made of scaffolding erected next to Pitch 88.

Inescapably, the clichés come thick and fast. The Marshes’ playing surfaces are mostly able to take a battering from the elements during the week and still scrub up well on a Sunday, but pitch allocation has always been something of a lottery.

Once the puddles, hangovers and team-selection dilemmas are ticked off, the only thing separating us from Sunday League Bingo is the outstandingly out-of-shape substitute wearing odd socks.

The various players and managers Baker encounters aren’t quite as one-dimensional. After all, having taken a video camera and the promise of a late-night broadcast slot on LWT into an East End boozer, the chances are that he’d find one or two Absolute Characters. As a side dish, we also discover that 1991 was a promising time to be in possession of wet-look curtains and/or an MA-1 bomber jacket.

The Cock Hotel’s next opponents represent the Coborn Arms, a pub in Bow which – according to one disgruntled former regular’s internet review, has since gone all gastro and  “looks like a bloody tea rooms where old women eat cake.” Back in pre-smoking ban 1991, though, and it’s the distinctly masculine venue for the team briefing. Eric and Darren are the subs this week, and they’re playing three at the back. Continental. We’re also introduced to top scorer and top geezer John Priestaff, who looks like every professional darts player of all time mashed together.

"I’ll tell you what, right, last time I went out and got drunk on a Saturday night, we had a game against Tesco's and I scored six against them – and I had a terrible hangover. So every time we have an important game, I go out on a Saturday night and get well slaughtered… and I'm alright in the mornin’!"

Priestaff offers a detailed breakdown of his pre-match ritual, followed by the sort of laugh that instructs you in no uncertain terms that you should laugh with him.

(These characters still remain here and there 25 years later, although with a modern twist: my old Hackney Marshes side Athletico Angels boasted Alvydas, a Lithuanian goalkeeper who looked like the lesser-known third Klitschko brother and cheerfully downed a 700ml bottle of WKD Blue before each game, without fail.)

The referees – essentially a collection of the oldest men in Hackney still prepared to wear tiny shorts in broad daylight – are led by the caustic Eric “Shut It!” Samuels, amateur football’s master of game management.

As dated as the peripheral scenes are, the football itself is almost timeless – these games could have been taking place in 1991 or 2001, with only the length of the shorts and a general Thatcherian hue of understated misery giving the game away. The kits are invariably made by SPALL (I’ve only ever seen it in capitals), long before ProStar got their foot in the bulk-order door and then Nike and Adidas finally brought their range of templates to the common man.

Watching each match’s highlights is to be waiting patiently for someone, anyone to make a clean contact with the ball. On the rare occasion that a boot (oh hello, now-defunct manufacturer Quaser!) does get decent purchase, the ball falls invitingly for the passing P3 bus.

The level of footballing violence is set at Highly Acceptable throughout and Young Prince B’s Chris Mostyn – passed fit after getting married the previous day – soon emerges as the most impressive offender, with this brutal foul that takes place with the same unfussy efficiency as getting a quick tenner out of a cash machine...

...and then this similarly cold-blooded hack, which apparently kills the Thomas Neale FC no.10 instantly.

(Also note the ever-popular method of Hackney Marshes dissent, which is simply to shout “WHAT” at the referee.)

The most perfect moment, though, belongs to the Cock Hotel’s happily terrible defender Phil Conquest, who makes absolutely no mistake inside his own six-yard box.

Pure, unadulterated pub football then, but the links between the boozer and the boot room were deeper than just the clichés. As London pubs began to close at an accelerating rate, their resident football teams folded too.

The East London Sunday League shrunk accordingly, from four divisions to two and then almost out of existence – despite the best efforts of the ageing but dedicated league officials – until they eventually merged with the distinctly less glamorous London City Airport League last summer.

One can only guess where the John Priestaffs and Phil Conquests of The Game are these days, but Danny Baker – life president of the football purists – is still going strong.

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