A look at the rise in popularity for season-long football documentaries over lockdown.
Did you know Netflix released a documentary covering Juventus’ 2017-18 season? Because I didn’t. In fact, when I try to peer into my football memory, I can’t remember a whole lot about “the Old Lady” from that year. They probably dominated Serie A (they did), like they have for the whole decade. Maybe they won the Coppa Italia, but they certainly didn’t win the Champions League. So when we ask ourselves why almost no one has seen Netflix’s “First Team Juventus”, it's probably because no one wanted to.
As of late, there would appear to be an increase in successful season-long football documentaries. The charge has mostly been led by Amazon, with them expanding their “All or Nothing” NFL documentaries to now cover football clubs such as Manchester City, and more recently Tottenham Hotspur. They then used this platform to launch similar season-long series on more historical clubs like Leeds United and Sunderland. The real question is whether or not this success of season-long football documentaries can continue, and will they play a part in the future of our football entertainment?
To start with, what makes them so successful and different? Anyone who thinks that this is the first time an organisation has had the miraculous idea to film a season-long football documentary would be wrong; individual clubs have been doing it for years, just in a different way. I remember when I worked in a long stay NHS ward in Edinburgh, one of the patients who was a Rangers fan always had a stack of DVDs sitting beside the TV in his room. Each of these discs documented a different successful season for “The Gers” from years past. I would occasionally watch them over his shoulder, but they never really interested me. Not necessarily because I don’t support Rangers, but because the narrative structure was lacking, the interviews were one-dimensional, and there was a lack of any real insider footage. People only really bought these sorts of DVDs if they had an invested passion in that specific club.
The change from club-made to studio-made is the one of the reasons that we’ve seen such a difference in success from these new documentaries. The production standards are so much higher, with professional producers and top-class directors being in charge - in comparison to just whoever a club could scramble together. These outsiders having such an influence on what is shown, combined with the focus of the target audience from just club fans to the general populace, allow for a far more engaging and inclusive experience. When it is filmed not with the agenda of the club, but by external parties, you are able to get a far more intimate look at what goes on behind the scenes.
Also, a dedicated fan doesn’t need to be told about the club’s history, but to a new viewer, the world-building of what the club stands for is just as important as the hard results of matches. When I watched the first 10 minutes of the “Take Us Home: Leeds United”, I was introduced not only to the history of the club, but the chairman, the players, and most importantly the fans. They were each fleshed out for me, with their hopes, motives, and differing personalities made clear. This created a narrative that made me want to root for the team as a whole as I watched each episode - even despite me being a Manchester United fan.
To be clear though, the most important thing that I think is needed for a good football documentary is for it to actually be interesting, and this means that the club needs to actually have an interesting season. That’s the real reason why none of us have watched the Juventus documentary… because why would we? Even amongst the Amazon catalogue, it's clear that Sunderland’s entry is by far the one people care the least about. That’s probably because not only do we not enjoy boring things, but very few fans would revel in watching such a significant club go into freefall.
In comparison, what you get from the other documentaries is a little bit of magic. With Leeds, you get the joy of watching the revolutionary Bielsa transform the fortunes of a club cursed to the Championship, despite clearly belonging in the top division (as well as some fun scandals around “Spygate” and the sportsman-like giving away of a goal). With Manchester City, you can watch a tactical mastermind in the form of Pep Guardiola guide the club to a record-breaking Premier League season resulting in them being champions. And with Tottenham, you get… Mourinho, who somehow all by himself manages to eclipse all recent football documentaries by just being one of the most interesting individuals ever.However, while each of these documentaries are incredibly interesting, something key to realise is that it was all just chance. When Amazon made contracts to film these clubs, they had no idea whether or not they would have successful seasons, if there would be any drama, or if the people they focused on would actually make for sympathetic characters. If anyone could have possibly had the omniscient foresight to have the cameras rolling for Leicester City’s title winning season, they’d have made a killing - but if they recorded the team two years later it probably would’ve made for some dull viewing.
So if you ask me whether or not season-long documentaries are going to continue being successful in our future as football fans, I’d have to give you a big “maybe”. There definitely will be more of them out there, and filming teams will probably become more common - but at the end of the day, recording these things is all a game of chance. If you get lucky, you get some excellent viewing. If you don’t, then you might as well consider your time wasted because no-one wants to watch a team just come 12th. The only thing I do know is; if it has José, it’ll probably be great.