“The point about football in Britain is that it is not just a sport people take to, like cricket or tennis or running long distances. It is inherent in the people. The way we play the game, organise it and reward it reflects the kind of community we are” – Arthur Hopcraft
Football permeates our society. It gives its followers a collective identity and participants at the highest level a notoriety matched only by Hollywood A-Listers.
But Britain’s national sport doesn’t exist in isolation. It is a microcosm of a harsh, hysterical society.
Players and managers operate in a world where intolerance is institutionalised and scrutiny is fierce.
Our voyeuristic, relentless obsession creates unrealistic expectations which can cripple those under the intense spotlight.
State of Play, based on the bestselling book by Michael Calvin, is a continuation of the acclaimed author’s fascination with the human side of a game that continues to make children of us all.
Calvin’s love of football begun almost 50 years ago at a FA Cup quarter-final between Watford and Liverpool at Vicarage Road.
Barry Endean’s flying header secured a famous 1-0 win for the Hornets in a result which triggered the breakup of Bill Shankley’s first great Liverpool team.
Calvin was a ball boy the day Watford reached their first-ever FA Cup semi-final, and that game unwittingly set in motion an illustrious career which has seen him become one of the UK’s most accomplished sportswriters.
In the formative stages of his journey, he was also inspired by a book called The Football Man by Arthur Hopcraft.
Hopcraft’s work detected the game’s heartbeat, humanised a game played by ostensibly invulnerable English matadors like Bobby Charlton and Stanley Matthews, and even predicted the formation of ‘a domestic Premier League’.
Speaking to BTSport.com, Calvin said: “What I’d like [State of Play] to be viewed as is a time capsule of football in 2019.
“[The Football Man] was that time capsule for 1968. It essentially gave us a perfect snapshot of the game.
“My aim was to make the film something that gives people an insight into the full range of issues within the game, but you humanise the issues. So you do that through the people who experience those issues.”
Modern footballers are transcendent figures. They are commercial assets, entrepreneurs and vanguards.
From playing Championship football with Southampton to becoming a four-time Champions League winner with Real Madrid, Gareth Bale’s remarkable rise is a life-affirming story of talent-triumphing-all.
But for Bale, a galactico at the world’s most celebrated club, the pressures and expectations at the elite-level mitigate the game’s child-like joy.
“We’re kind of like robots. We’re told where to be, when to be there, what time we have to eat, what time we have to go the coach. You kind of lose your life in a way,” he said.
A player who saw through the illusion is Bale’s former roommate Lewin Nyatanga.
The former Football League stalwart made his Wales debut alongside Bale at the age of 17, but he felt that football was stripping him of his humanity. He retired from the game aged 29, works as a personal trainer and hasn’t watched a game since.
However, Drewe Broughton is leading the fightback. He played for 22 clubs in a 16 year career and was exposed to relentless judgement in nomadic existence. Now a performance coach, he prepares players for brutality of game.
In an eye-opening revelation, he discloses a message sent to him from a young top-four player out on loan. “Can’t remember the last time I enjoyed playing a football match,” it read. “Feel emotionally drained from football. Can’t be bothered to even train or get out of bed.”
In the 2018-19 season 44 of the 92 managers in the league pyramid lost their job. Examples of dynastic managers are few and far between in a society where attention spans are limited and perception trumps reality.
State of Play also examines how the role of the football manager has changed in an age of unrelenting scrutiny.
A dichotomy is found between seasoned top-flight managers Sean Dyche and Sam Allardyce and a managerial novice in Frank Lampard.
Chelsea Women’s boss Emma Hayes, undaunted by the prospect of becoming the first female to coach in the men’s game, reveals she couldn’t turn down an opportunity to cross the divide.
“If my responsibility is to push a door down and open it, whether I walk through it or somebody else does that for me, that I push the conversation,” she said.
“With time as we have seen with women working in football in the media, hopefully we can desensitise the conversation to where at some point, some owner will eventually say at least I want to interview a female for this position.”
Hayes is involved in a game for which the future beckons. Barclays is to become the Women's Super League first ever title sponsor, in a deal reportedly worth in excess of £10m.
Women’s football was banned by FA for 50 years until 1971, but now it’s thriving and personalities are emerging.
While the WSL is benefitting from overdue investment, clubs in the lower echelons of the football league like Accrington Stanley aren’t reaping similar rewards.
Accrington rose from the dead after they went out of business in 1962 and present a timely reminder of the sanctity of lower-league clubs.
Their manager John Coleman (a former teacher) and assistant (a former electrician and abattoir worker) are acutely aware of the club’s role as a socio-cultural and economic beacon when fans of ultra-rich clubs are turning their backs on the unedifying opulence of the Premier League.
Football is a release for so many, but it’s a reflection of society and wider problems are often manifested within the confines of stadia.
Ryan Atkin, the first openly gay professional referee, speaks about the challenges facing a prominent player wishing to come out.
Troy Townsend, head of development at Kick It Out issues a stark reminder of the challenges that need to be confronted in the fight against racism.
In a horrifying parallel, a banana was thrown onto the pitch during a match between Arsenal and Tottenham in December 31 years after a banana was thrown at John Barnes at Everton in 1988.
Les Ferdinand, QPR’s Director of Football claims opportunities are limited for black, Asian and minority ethnic coaches due to ‘covert racism’ and that the systemic lack of diversity in boardrooms filters down.
Racism has reared its head on several occasions this season, and Tottenham and England’s Danny Rose was the recipient during a Euro 2020 qualifier in Montenegro in March.
Rose reveals that he prepares himself days before going to another country because there’s a change he might be racially abused.
Football has a responsibility to protect players from anti-social behaviour, but it also has a duty of care to retired players.
Jeff Astle died as a result of an ‘industrial disease’ from heading leather footballs aged 59. The post-mortem showed he had a brain akin to a 90-year-old.
In a poignant interview, Jeff’s daughter Dawn accuses the football authorities of ‘unforgiveable and shameful’ conduct after her father’s death.
Speaking to BTSport.com, State of Play’s producer and director Tom Boswell says he hopes the film stimulates discussion.
“It’s about getting a conversation going. We’re discussing things, we’re not making any judgement in this film, we’re just reflecting people’s thoughts and it’s for other people to discuss what we’ve put in the programme.”
He also revealed plans for a follow-up mini-series to promote content that didn’t make the final edit.
“It is quite different from the book. It’s a major adaptation,” he said.
“I think there is a plan to do a mini-series after. What tends to work best for us is the big one-hit films after a major live event, so we’re going after the Europa League and Champions League final, but as so much is on the cutting room floor, I think we’re going to do a mini-series later.”
Simon Green, head of BT Sport, said: “State of Play is both a confrontation of modern football’s flaws and a celebration of its virtues.”
State of Play features interviews with a diverse range of figures from all levels of the game including Bale, Lampard, Rose, Jadon Sancho, Hayes, Arsenal Women’s manager Joe Montemurro, Allardyce, Dyche, Thomas Hitzlsperger and Ferdinand.
If you like State of Play, you’ll love:
No Hunger in Paradise: Based on the book by Calvin, this BT Sport Film explores the academy system and the pressures and pitfalls that prevent young players from making it as a professional footballer.
- Shoulder to Shoulder: The film captures the remarkable history of the Irish national rugby union team, which despite violence, opposition and partition in Ireland, has brought together players and fans from two countries and united them on and off the rugby pitch.