Making ‘An Impossible Job’: FourFourTwo's inside story from the men involved
Oslo, June 2, 1993. One of the bleakest moments in the England football team’s recent history is about to get bleaker.
The national side trail 2-0 at half-time to Egil Olsen’s Norwegian long-ball merchants. World Cup qualification has slipped further from England manager Graham Taylor’s grasp. His duo of lieutenants, Phil Neal and Lawrie McMenemy, sit either side of him staring blankly into space.
A camera positioned on the ground points up at their faces, capturing their anguish and despair. Catching his own reflection in the lens, McMenemy uncharacteristically loses his cool: “Graham, you need to get rid of that for a start,” he snaps, pointing an accusational finger at the camera. “You’ll f***ing hang yourself!” Taylor bristles, hissing back at him: “Lawrie, don’t you f***ing worry about it.”
This squabble was supposed to open what became the most controversial football documentary ever made but, thanks to the intervention of Taylor in the editing process, is one of several sequences that remain unseen by the public.
A camera crew had been following the England team for four months, Taylor having granted them unprecedented access to the inner workings of the national set-up. They would go on to capture one of England’s most ill-fated campaigns as Taylor’s side lurched from one disaster to another, cataloguing every argument, every slice of implausible bad luck, every gem of training ground banter and every tragicomic moment of heartbreak along the way.
When it was first aired on Channel 4 in January 1994 under the title The Impossible Job, viewers and critics alike didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. From the jaw-dropping abundance of swearing, to the apparent idiocy of the coaching staff, to the plethora of Taylorisms that quickly passed into the national lexicon (such as the rhetorical “Can we not knock it?!” and the baffling “Do I not like that?!”), it had the whole nation engrossed.
Although many assumed him to have been the victim of a TV stitch-up, Taylor himself had been complicit in almost every detail of the project. And, 17 years later, he remained unrepentant: “I don’t regret it. In a way I’m proud,” he told FourFourTwo. “It was truthful, honest, soul-bearing and there was no hiding from anything. We didn’t try to dress anything up.”
You can say that again…
In 1992, Neil Duncanson, head of a fledgling production company called Chrysalis Sport, was trying to develop a list show entitled The Worst Job In The World. One of the jobs on the list was that of England manager and Taylor had expressed an interest in taking part. An abject showing at the 1992 European Championship had led to parts of the media and public turning against him. Taylor saw the documentary as a possible solution.
“I was two years into the job and I had started to learn how different it was to club management,” he said. “I thought it was important that people saw the reality. And, of course, I felt sure we would qualify for the World Cup at the time.”
Television channels weren’t interested in The Worst Job In The World but, with access to the England coach already secured, Chrysalis decided to focus the idea solely on him. “Graham had misgivings and said, ‘What if it goes wrong?’” recalled Duncanson. “I was honest and told him that win or lose, we’d film it regardless. And fair play to him, he agreed.”
Still no TV channels showed an interest in the idea, but such was the belief within Chrysalis, the company decided to self-fund the project with a view to selling it on completion. Director Ken McGill was dispatched to England’s training ground to begin filming in earnest. “It was pretty boring, sanitised stuff to begin with,” he recalls. “Footage of the players training followed by very formal interviews with Taylor. I’m not a fan of that sort of thing: it didn’t reveal much and I knew we needed more.”
Slowly, McGill’s three-man film crew (him plus a sound recordist and cameraman) earned Taylor’s trust. “We were unobtrusive and tried not to ask for too much too soon,” he explains. “It was prior to the San Marino home game that we asked him if he’d be prepared to wear a radio microphone.”
The small, wireless recording device would allow the crew to capture Taylor at all times, even on the touchline during matches. There would be no pre-arranged questions, no guarded answers, just a raw rendition of what life as England boss was all about. “Without the mics you wouldn’t have really got any insight,” said Taylor. “I understood the need for them to get that sort of access. If we were going to make a film I wanted it to be honest.”
In the summer of 1993, McGill’s team asked Taylor if they could accompany the squad for their back-to-back away fixtures in Poland and Norway. “That was my chance to duck out of the whole thing,” Taylor admitted. “I could have said, ‘Let’s call it a day here, don’t spend any more.’ But by this stage I knew the press were aware of this film being made. I felt that if I withdrew from the filming it would be reported that I had lost confidence in qualifying.”
McGill is unconvinced that the press were as aware as Taylor supposed. “I was actually amazed by how little curiosity came from the press pack,” he revealed. “We were following Graham everywhere and so were they. I would have thought they’d have asked me what I was doing at some stage. But they never did.”
Rob Shepherd, who was reporting on the Three Lions for Today newspaper, agreed: “We weren’t really aware of the documentary being made. They [the film crew] were like wallpaper: we didn’t know they were there. They got genuine reactions because no one was playing up to the cameras.”
The trip allowed the cameras greater access to the players themselves, snatching unguarded conversations on the team bus, at the training ground and in the changing room. In these scenes, the players seem mostly oblivious to the camera’s presence. It’s intimate stuff – and at times feels voyeuristic. At one point Ian Wright looks uncomfortably at the camera and asks, tellingly, “Where’s this going out then? Will my mum see it?”
Taylor insists the players were given a choice about appearing in the documentary. “From the outset, I told each of the players that they didn’t have to be involved if they didn’t want to be,” he told FFT. “None of them said they had a problem with it, not to my face anyway. But I made sure we took out any bits that might have reflected badly on them. The film was supposed to be about me and I made sure the players always had the option to walk away from the cameras.”
Carlton Palmer disagreed. “Nobody knew about a documentary being made,” insisted the telescopic-legged midfielder, who at one point is seen impersonating the manager, telling Paul Gascoigne to his face that he won’t be selected because “you’ve got good feet but a f***ed up knee, a f***ed up brain and a f***ed up belly”.
“I don’t remember him giving us an option about whether we could appear and I didn’t know he was miked-up in training,” added Palmer. “I have a lot of time for Graham but I think everything that goes on between a manager and his players should stay private.”
Les Ferdinand, who joined the England squad two games into the campaign, shared this view: “I saw him being miked-up before training but didn’t know why,” he said. “Being new, I never asked. I only found out about it after the qualifiers. There’s an unwritten rule in football that what goes on in training sessions and changing rooms stays there. If you’re making a film and everyone knows it’s happening, then all well and good. But I certainly didn’t know about this one.”
Next: “It destroyed me as a person. I’d managed clubs and done well but after that documentary the knives came out for me. I was never trusted with any clubs after that.”