Why Gazza is the most important football documentary of 2022

It’s a great time to seek out a football documentary. The content rush created by streaming platforms means that fans get more access behind the scenes than ever before.

Naturally, not all of these docs are worth watching. As Man United’s CEO of Media, Phil Lynch, pointed out in an interview last year, football clubs are media giants themselves. Ultimately, they wish to control the narrative around them.

Although the All Or Nothing series can offer insight into the preparations that go into each matchday and the pressures that come with jobs in this high-profile industry, the drama can feel manufactured. Then again, perhaps the most controversial thing about Manchester City is that Pep Guardiola occasionally raises his voice. Who knows?

YouTube video

It’s worth taking each doc series with a pinch of salt. This is the work of experienced content creators. It has been vetted by experts looking at social media fan sentiment graphs twice per day. These experts know how volatile fanbases can be, and thus, they want to appease even their most trigger-happy tweeters. Of course, it doesn’t always work. The nature of Twitter is for the darkest side of anonymity to peek out.

Radical fandom

Police recently called out to Harry Maguire’s house after the United defender received bomb threats. The perpetrator warned him that he had 72 hours to leave United or three explosives would detonate. In the end, no explosives were found, but it was an unsettling reminder of how much hate is directed at footballers.

Fans are entitled to feel frustrated with a player’s performance or his continued selection. But they should remember that, particularly when it comes to big English clubs, they are ultimately consumers, not stakeholders. If voicing their displeasure isn’t enough, the best way that they can enforce change is by removing their support, not mutating it into extremism. The theoretical selling point of sport is that you don’t know how a game will end. But this drama is too much for some fans who would be better off sticking with superhero movies that guarantee a happy ending.

The person or people who concocted the bomb plot against Maguire no longer saw him as a human being. They inhabit a space where he is reduced to a meme, a series of moments or soundbites. Disliking Maguire the footballer and caring about Maguire the person aren’t mutually exclusive. He’s a scapegoat for online trolls whose incentive isn’t entirely clear. Perhaps getting retweets from like-minded social media users is a priority for them; the validation they can’t obtain in reality.

A history of hate campaigns

It’s somewhat reminiscent of a hate campaign against another high-profile English footballer, albeit one which had clearer incentives. I thought I knew the story of Paul Gascoigne, but then I watched Gazza, a new documentary that recently aired on the BBC, and I realised I was wrong. Gascoigne is a flawed man, but he was also preyed upon by the media in an unprecedented way. Tabloid vultures like Piers Morgan relished his ruin and actively orchestrated the decimation of his life to sell papers.

SPORF recently spoke to Sampson Collins, the director of Gazza, about his motivations for making the documentary. I was thrilled to discuss a tale that I view as pertinent to the age of social media. It is a doc that compels viewers to look at how they treat their entertainers and whether that treatment crosses a line.

YouTube video

It feels especially relevant this week. With the English football season coming to a close and the fortunes of clubs around the country decided, there have been celebrations across the land. It has led to an alarming rise in pitch invasions and, with them, violent episodes. Billy Sharp suffered an unprovoked attack from a cretin who unleashed a sprinting headbutt upon him. An Everton fan got a deserved boot for putting his camera in Patrick Vieira’s face and calling him a ‘twat’.

This behaviour is unacceptable. Fans need to remind themselves that the people they see on the telly don’t exist for their amusement. Watching Gazza would be a good start. Read on to learn more about the most important football documentary of 2022.

Note: Keeping with the theme of transparency regarding media practices, the interview is broken up into sections to improve readability. There you go.

An interview with Sampson Collins

Sporf: The documentary challenged my view of Gascoigne. I’m from Ireland. And I had always kind of viewed Gascoigne as sort of a clownish figure. I know that’s how he is viewed by many people in the UK. I didn’t have a ton of sympathy for him prior to watching the documentary, even though I knew the direction in which his life went; probably because I thought that it was largely self-inflicted. The documentary shows that the majority of his downfall was out of his control. Was the aim of the doc primarily to challenge the view that I and maybe other people had?

Sampson Collins: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I think, Gazza, he’s so famous. His life has been lived in the tabloids, so many headlines. It’s one of those stories that everybody thinks they know. But when you dig a little bit deeper, there is an opportunity to reframe that for people. It’s great to hear that it’s had that effect on you. I mean, I think it’s clear that this isn’t a hagiography. We’re saying this person is flawless. But it is an opportunity to look at the extraordinary cultural moment in time.

It’s a perfect storm that created this story. Someone who was so brilliant at football, with such a magnetic personality, cuts through to an entire nation. He becomes incredibly famous at the point where two tabloid press barons are squaring off in a sort of battle for celebrity. And celebrity culture, as we know it, is beginning at that point; and Gazza, to some extent, is the sort of original reality TV show. Everything that came with that in terms of where he ends up a decade later – with literally his entire life overtaken by the press and owned and surrounded in all aspects – that felt like a chance not just to reappraise his story, but also reappraise our own perception of 90’s Britain as well.

Planning a football documentary

Sporf: Yeah, it does that very well. How long have you desired to make a documentary film about Gazza, and how long have you viewed his life in this way? Or did it take a certain amount of research, be it intentional or otherwise, for you to view his downfall from this perspective?

SC: I was a Spurs fan. I mean, I got into football through Gazza, you know, as did loads of our production team. So I knew the Gazza story, and I remember thinking what a brilliant archive film it would make because of the extraordinary stuff of him arriving in Italy and how visceral that is. And then I was researching it, as you do a lot as an independent filmmaker. You do a lot of research on ideas and see if something sticks, and I was reading Cheryl Gascoigne’s book, Stronger.

You know, this was five or six years ago. And I stumbled across the proximity of certain members of the tabloid press who have gone on to become incredibly influential in their personal lives. And I just remember thinking, wow, that is a hell of a story viewed through the prism of 20 years of hindsight.

It’s completely ridiculous that these people are so close to their day-to-day lives at that point. That tells you so much because these were young journalists, at this point, on their way up in the world. And this was a world where if you, as a young journalist, had the foresight to own the Gascoigne story, it would give you a rung up the ladder. And that’s what Gazza was. He was a commodity.

At that moment, the film really began to take shape in my mind, and I was very, very lucky. I had excellent producers; Gareth Dodds, who I worked with on this from the beginning, understood and saw the same story. And then we’ve had great support from Western Edge Pictures. The challenge was to marry the sporting biography with this story of something bigger, something that tells the story of what was happening in Britain at that time and how Gazza was ultimately a victim of that.

Credit: Credit – ITV Sport Archive

Celebrity culture in Britain

Sporf: Do you think Gazza was the first such victim of this kind? You mentioned the battle between two tabloid giants. It was at its most ferocious at that time, and celebrity culture existed before then. But do you think that Gazza was the first type of victim in the way there was a feeding frenzy on his life? And do you think that many have followed thereafter in football or sports specifically? A few come to mind. What are the most prominent examples that you can think of?

SC: Yeah, I’d say [Princess] Diana was obviously a victim of this at that time. George Best was probably the major sporting celebrity before that, but it was a different culture at that point. So you would say that it’s probably more pervasive, his own demons that led to his downfall. Whereas with Gazza, you know, it feels like what we’ve been able to show is that there’s a reasonable sense that there were lots of other forces at play to affect his trajectory beyond his own weaknesses. In terms of other sports stars, I think the thing is the world has begun to change in the period after this. Think about this, this film is set pre-internet. It’s set pre-Twitter, social media. I think the first Big Brother was in 99, so the year after our film finishes.

I think Gazza was pretty unique in terms of the moment he arrived and the sheer ferocity of his fame. Because you think about like, I mean, I know you’re Irish, but from an English perspective, England got to the World Cup semi-finals again in 2018. But I don’t think the public came anywhere close to connecting with a member of that team. Even Euro 2021 or 2020, or whatever you call it. That’s what made Gazza so extraordinary, was his personality.

I’m struggling to think of, like, say, Wayne Rooney. You know, people don’t fall in love with his sparkling wit. It’s true; he’s a funny guy. But you know, it’s not the same. I can’t really think… I mean, can you think of many British sporting personalities who have had that level of cut-through on, like, a human level, beyond a sporting level over that time? Flintoff? Maybe Andrew Flintoff? You know, I can’t…

Sporf: No, I can’t really. I mean, Grealish has been the kind of poster boy for English football in the last maybe two, three years. But again, it’s nothing in comparison to…

SC: …I couldn’t tell you anything about Jack Grealish’s life apart from the fact that he got done for sort of drinking in lockdown. You know, that was about it. Whereas Gazza is so synonymous with being British as well. It’s a portrait of Britain in that Gazza’s a lovable Geordie who comes down south and gets patronised; he’s made to do stuff with Newcastle Brown Ale and a Mars bar, you know. When you’re looking back at it, it’s so revealing about the way that Britain treats its own.

Sporf: Yeah, yeah, the class divide. I wanted to ask, and I think that everything that you’re showing is so clear, and you’re interviewing a lot of the journalists from around that time who are owning up to their own behaviour and their own part in this man’s ruin. But have you had any pushback at all from journalists around that time? Or anyone who says it ‘wasn’t exactly like that’ or anything along those lines?

SC: Nothing substantive. I think you’ve probably seen that we’ve had some comments on social media from particular people featured in the film. But I think that we were clear that this is all really well documented. Actually, a lot of the stories that are in the film have been written in journalists’ books. And it’s a question, actually, of just sort of drawing that narrative together. And I think that I’ll be clear, no one was doubting that hacking was taking place at particular times. There have been huge amounts of payouts.

What we have tried to do is frame a moral and social scandal. The new piece of information here is really the proximity to which the tabloids came to Gazza’s actual personal life, Paul and Cheryl Gascoigne’s personal life. Their daily involvement, the befriending and how this raised questions. We’re trying to let the audience draw their own conclusions about what is appropriate and what it must have felt like to be them at this time, in the middle of the maelstrom, not knowing who to trust.

Credit: Mirrorpix / NCJ Archive

Harry Maguire and social media hate

Sporf: I’m caught in two minds about the time we live in. I feel that people are quite media literate in the sense that like they know when a certain publication is targeting a player. So like the targeting of Gazza and the campaign against him, I feel as though there would be maybe some pushback against it if it happened now to someone else. But then, at the same time, I think of social media and how it’s amplified the hatred that players can receive.

And I think of Harry Maguire as a prominent example where the media treatment of him, I think, is relatively fair. They generally criticise his performances, they don’t make it too personal. But the criticism of his performances opens the floodgates to all of these other people chiming in like hype men at the back of an angry crowd, getting personal and saying like, you know, ‘oh, and there’s this about him and that about him’ and so on. Do you think it’s become easier to be a football star or a sports star?

SC: It’s different. It’s just very different. I mean, I think it all comes back to us. There’s a massive responsibility on the public. We bought the papers in the 90s. And, you know, [for] football fans, a lot of the people piling into these guys now, I think one of the messages would be to try and actually think of these people as human beings. I mean, there is a point, you know, with Harry Maguire. I don’t know what it would be like to be Harry Maguire right now. But I would probably feel quite alone and quite upset. And if that manifests itself, some people can cope with that better than others. I think what we shared with Paul Gascoigne is that he didn’t have the stability to cope with the things that had happened to him. That meant that he was more likely to make destructive decisions.

Now, if Harry Maguire, which I’m sure he’s not going to, went and did something very destructive now, and the tabloids wrote about that, and how he’s feeling now led him to make a bad decision, which the tabloid then wrote about, which then caused more chaos from the terraces, which then led to him feeling worse… That’s the vicious circle that we talked about in Gazza in terms of what Gazza had to deal with. And that comes back to that person, that individual, at its centre, being made to feel like that. And however those stories are being generated, it still comes back to that one individual and the fact that we’re all human. For anybody in those extraordinary positions, whether it is Gazza or Harry Maguire, it would be incredibly difficult to cope with that.

Sporf: Yeah. Regarding media coverage of, let’s say, Maguire, and his performances, do you think there is an element of accountability and responsibility when it comes to how his performances are covered if he’s playing badly every week? Does someone have to talk about it every single week? Or can they ignore it because they know that the knock-on effect is that it is leading to a load of criticism and piling an enormous amount of pressure on him from the wider public? Do you think journalists should consider that type of knock-on effect even though what they’re doing is criticising him in a professional capacity?

SC: So I think that is so difficult because really you would imagine that, not that I’m particularly qualified to talk about this, but you would imagine that there would be other reasons beyond professional for Harry Maguire to be perceived by the fan base that way as well. That can be something as simple as the way someone looks or the way someone runs. Or we say that politically with how Ed Miliband gets photographed eating a bacon roll in the wrong way.

It’s difficult. I think that there are inescapable facts about the modern game. One is that it is covered 24/7 by people who are desperate to make a name for themselves. You’ve got professional critics, you’ve got podcasters, you’ve got tweeters; everybody has an opinion. That is an extremely challenging thing. And the second thing, which is irrefutable, is that as a young footballer, now you have to find a way to deal with that. You have to find a way to put the right things around you, whether it’s not reading the press or whatever it might be, you’ve got to learn to cope with it because unless Elon Musk destroys Twitter… It’s difficult to see it changing and getting any better. And I think that is a really unfortunate fact of life.

You know, it must be hell to be a young sportsman now. But, at least now, the world is technically wiser in terms of the people whose job is to look after them. You’d say that they earn a lot of money, which at least allows them to pay for the right support around themselves, and you hope that they find a way to enjoy their careers rather than just living on a match-to-match basis of abuse.

Taking time off

Sporf: I think about Rashford as another example of a player who’s had a difficult season. Watching him play, you can almost see that his body language has changed. His shoulders often look slumped. He seems a bit depressed even, you know, and this is the consensus from fans after games. Sometimes you read comments saying things like, ‘Rashford needs to retire, man’ and all this kind of stuff; very knee jerk reactions.

It makes me think of Pep Guardiola, and when he finished up at Barca, he took a sabbatical. And when he first took the sabbatical, I remember that the coverage of it was that it was strange that he’s going on a break, you know. Like he’s going on a gap year, as though he’s in college or something. That was how it was covered, as opposed to taking time after burning out to an extent.

And I thought about Rashford, and I thought about Maguire, and I thought why should it be so alien to players as well that they should be allowed to take – not necessarily a year off – but some kind of sabbatical for recovery. In any job, if you’re not feeling up to it, you’re given time off, and it’s not really the case, or it’s not normalised, at least in football at the moment. Do you ever see it being the case?

SC: It’s so difficult because of things like fitness. But when you look back at the great man managers, I remember Fergie sending Ronaldo home when he was very young at United, sending him home for a few weeks. And Guardiola rests players loads, doesn’t he. I mean, it’s complicated. With Marcus Rashford, he’s obviously done incredible things off the pitch. It’s very rare that a sportsman will have a career of 10 years of just continual up period playing at United. He had bad injuries. Look at Jadon Sancho, you know, [he] looks like the best young player in the world at Dortmund, and now looks like he’s just lost.

So Rashford is not the only player now who’s in that position. What’s changed is that now you have an army of armchair psychologists who want to believe that they know what’s best. And the other thing about the news agenda is it changes. You have to wait it out, and then someone else will do something extraordinary or good or bad, and it moves on, so you hope that Harry Maguire and Marcus Rashford and those sorts of guys are handled properly.

They have managers who say, ‘look, these are people. They’re having a tough time for whatever reason. We need to look after them.’ Eddie Howe talked about that in his press conference the other day in relation to Gazza. You would think that that has to be a part of it. And that the sort of literal need of the team on a Saturday sometimes comes second to players, and you’ll get the best out of them in the long term. But again, I’m not in a dressing room. I don’t know how that works, but you’d hope it would be a big part of it now.

Credit: The Football Association

The theme of corruption

Sporf: Yeah, certainly. I’ll get back to Gazza itself now. You covered corruption in cricket in your first feature documentary, Death of a Gentleman, which is available on Netflix. Gazza expands on that theme. It’s a different type of corruption, although there’s very real corruption in the phone-hacking element of it. So this topic is obviously very close to you. Do you intend on continuing with that theme for your next documentary or whatever you intend on doing next?

SC: I hope so. Sport is a great location for stories because it’s something that people care about, whether it’s cricket or football. And it’s obviously assumed massive cultural significance over the last 30 years. It’s always been culturally significant, but I suppose what’s changed over the last 30 or 40 years is the amount of money involved because of television and the expansion of television. And that’s what made and does make Test cricket vulnerable. And that’s what made Gazza so marketable and such a commodity because he was the key, the way to control the audience who loved him.

So, I don’t know. You always want to make films that have strong characters and tell stories that have a cultural resonance for people. If I had the opportunity to work on another subject like that, I’d be absolutely thrilled. But you never know quite what’s around the corner. I just keep my eyes open and see what is a story that speaks to me, and I think is one that will speak to other people as well.

Sporf: There’s a scene towards the end of the documentary. It’s one of the rare times that we cut back and look at Gazza while he’s younger towards the end of this period. He’s eating popcorn or something in the dugout, stuffing his face in this clownish way of acting for the cameras. I imagine that you had a lot of footage like that. It’s so sad and effective. It reminds you that he’s only a kid, and he’s at the mercy of these people who only mean to do him harm. Did you have any alternate scenes that you thought about putting in there for that same effect?

SC: I love that bit of footage. It’s one of those rare bits because we didn’t have many rushes. So that’s a lovely bit of rushes. And there’s something about it. Like, at one point, people were like, ‘You should cut that, we can save the time,’ and I was like, ‘no, I want it in’ because the whole point of it is he takes it slightly too far. Gazza just plays up for the cameras for such a long time, and that, to me, that sort of epitomises him slightly. There’s good humour, this extraordinary sort of charisma, but he just pushes it too far in search of laughs. That sort of speaks to him a bit.

There was so much great archive that we had to lose. Rangers fans would probably be really livid watching this because of the amazing goals that we had to cut out. But that wasn’t the story at that point. We had scenes where he’s just had his teeth done in London in 1989. Beautiful broad smiles, and him shooting with Vinnie Jones in 1988. Loads of fantastic footage inside the Rangers dressing room and all this stuff. But you want to capture the innocence and the naivety.

I love the fact that eating popcorn is obviously a reference to watching the movie as well, you know. Almost as if he’s just been watching everything that’s happened too. It’s a tragedy, you know. And it isn’t easy because you always want to end the film with a level of hope, but it’s like the way that Britain seems to be going at the moment.

It’s difficult to take too much positivity from it apart from the genius and the beauty of his football and his personality, the authenticity. The only thing the film can leave you with is that whatever else is going on politically or socially outside, you can cling to those moments of escapism and authenticity.

That is what sport is all about. That’s why sport is so important. It introduces you to people like Paul Gascoigne. And for a moment, you forget about everything else.

Gazza is available on Digital Download and Blu-ray & DVD.

Credit: Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment