by Michael Moruzzi
As a teenager of 1990’s England, I look back on this decade as a mixed bag. Nostalgia has an uncanny habit of ignoring the crap. In 1994 the selection for the Mercury Prize included Pulp (His and Hers), Blur (Parklife), and The Prodigy (Music for the Jilted Generation); these are all records that I liked, but they were beaten by M People’s ‘Elegant Slumming’. It was a strange time, and it was at this point that the TV show Fantasy Football first aired on BBC, having been successfully piloted on radio.
Despite its name, the show was only loosely associated with the new fantasy football craze that had been introduced to England in the early 1990’s. The basic concept was to get various celebrity guests to pick a fantasy team and appear on the show to talk about football with the hosts, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner. I was familiar with Baddiel’s work on the Mary Whitehouse Experience, but Skinner was new to me. Although I never really liked Skinner’s style, the pair had formed a natural double act. The show’s other ever-present character was Statto – an extreme stereotype of the fan who retains a seemingly impossible level of football knowledge without deriving any obvious pleasure from the game.
As for the guests, it was very much a mid-90’s club. Nick Hornby, obviously; Paula Yates, appearing with Dean Holdsworth as her assistant manager; Mandy Smith, unintentionally provoking laughter from the studio audience when suggesting her husband, Pat Van Den Hauwe, was a ‘really good player’; Sean Bean revealing his ‘undred percent blade tattoo; and Terry Christian, wallowing in United’s new found success. However, one that sticks in the mind was a terrifying episode involving John Motson attempting to flirt with Karen Brady, who was visibly unimpressed.
Of course, the guests were important, but the show is also remembered for the hosts’ sketches sending up popular figures and satirising football. It was early days for the empire, but the significance of Sky’s monopoly and its effect on England’s old football institutions was not lost on Skinner and Baddiel. In an early segment, ITV’s faded glory was lampooned in a segment titled “Saint and Greavsie talk about the Endsleigh league as if it’s important” (as with all segments, its title was sung to the tune of England’s 1970 World Cup anthem, Back Home). This resulted in one of my favourite sketches with Saint (played by Skinner) and Greavsie (Baddiel) acting out a Fiddler on the Roof parody, lamenting the loss of top flight football from their broadcast, singing, “If we had the Premier League… I’d admit that Ricky Otto’s crap”. As a football reference, you can’t get much more mid-90’s than Ricky Otto. I guess you had to be there.
The show’s longest running and most successful segment was undoubtedly ‘Phoenix from the Flames’, in which the hosts would recreate famous moments from football history in less salubrious settings, such as a park or municipal sports centre, but always featuring a cameo from the key participant. Amazingly, this concept managed to attract some incredible names from world football, such as Mario Kempes and Carlos Alberto. The Brazilian recreated his legendary 1970 world cup final goal with a cast that included Jeff Astle’s wife as Pele, and the Italian opposition depicted by numerous stereotypes including an opera singer; ice cream vendor; James Richardson reading the Gazzetta; and finally, a thief on a Vespa who swipes Mrs Astle’s handbag.
The programme’s initial run ended in 1996. At the height of their popularity Baddiel and Skinner scored an even bigger hit, recording England’s Euro ‘96 anthem, Three Lions, with Ian Broudie of the Lightening Seeds (another inexplicably successful 90’s band). The duo returned briefly for the ‘98 World Cup, but their act was starting to look tired and the show was not seen again until a brief reprisal during Euro 2004. Of course, others have tried to capitalise on its successful formula. I watched a few minutes of James Corden’s World Cup show – a few minutes I will never get back. Sky tapped into a younger fan culture with Soccer AM, but the “Oi! Oi!” nature of its humour wasn’t for me.
Fantasy Football, whilst hardly a beacon of mature, sophisticated behaviour, had an appealing mix of self-deprecation, sarcasm, cynicism and warm nostalgia. Its relevance declined towards the end of the decade, but at its peak the show occupied a period in English football during the transition from old to new.