Ask someone their favorite football story portrayed on the big (or small) screen and the answers you get may include Bend It Like Beckham, Goal! or the recent Netflix series The English Game.
However, you’ll have to ask a lot of people before this long-lost TV show is mentioned.
In many ways, The Manageress is typical of the time it was written – but in the same sense, it’s just as relevant today.
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In 1989 a woman was in residence at number 10 Downing Street for the first time.
That same year, Channel Four introduced us to the inconceivable idea of a woman managing a professional football club.
The Manager introduced Cherie Lunghi (who went on to star in the 2008 series of Strictly Come Dancing) as Gabriella Benson, a glamorous and successful half-Italian businesswoman, who is appointed manager of a football club in struggling second division (now known as the Championship).
In some context, this was the league above that in which Reading FC operated between 1988 and 1992.
Reading regulars who have watched all 12 episodes across two series may have recognized the plans for the football ground as being filmed at Reading’s former Elm Park ground before it was demolished in 1998.
Benson’s position was claimed largely thanks to influences wielded by his estranged father, who happens to be a member of the UEFA committee.
These days, the idea of a woman being appointed manager of one of the 92 clubs in the England Football League is an idea that many supporters would still struggle to comprehend, which is perhaps a sad accusation of the game’s little progress in this regard.
Imagine the situation more than three decades ago with the mores and attitudes of the time.
You can quickly begin to imagine how writer Stan Hey managed to turn the impossible into almost barely possible.
Through the use of a female manager of a soccer club, Hey is able to play out the various perceived archetypal attitudes associated with soccer.
That being said, the early episodes don’t necessarily focus on Benson being a woman, but rather on her being a watching stranger.
The term “real footballer” was one this program sought to test, as it perceived that anyone outside of that description was not allowed to contribute to the beautiful game.
Benson is educated, a commercial success and has no history of playing involvement – typical of the character profile that footballers of the late 80s and early 90s would do their best to avoid.
Even when she’s asked to discuss the team’s tactics and failures in a recent game, and does so eloquently, the defensive wall placed in front of her remains.
Evidenced by a line uttered by his assistant, a loyal sentry seemingly defending his turf: “People like you don’t feel the game in their hearts.”
A delicate juxtaposition between being a “what if” proposition and an “impossible” denial was the occupation of the series.
The club whose fortunes she is tasked with changing is never named (simply located “in the north”), although as we know many shots of the football ground were taken at Reading’s Elm Park.
Other protagonists included President Martin Fisher, played by Warren Clarke (who also appeared in A Clockwork Orange) and Benson’s Deputy Director Eddie Johnson, played expertly by Tom Georgeson.
Despite going against the grain with this appointment of the new manager, Clarke is actually a top notch misogynist.
Johnson is your typical long-suffering ‘football man’, stricken with the sad realization that he will never reach the top, possessing a wealth of knowledge and experience but much of it rooted in the past.
He tries to work with his new “gaffer” but eventually leaves the club to take on a managerial role for himself, before returning to try to poach one of Benson’s players for his new employers.
These two figures represent the microcosm of the footballing fraternity of the time, although arguably little has changed in that sense.
The series aimed to paint these other characters surrounding Benson’s career, including agents, in a dim light.
Players are treated a little less harshly by Hey, although it still shows them many of the offenses footballers seemed to be involved in during this era.
A general acceptance of Benson’s managerial position quickly materialized, aided by the team’s success on the pitch.
The attitudes of the time were further reflected as, as if sexism weren’t enough, instances of racism occurred, with a particularly nasty case being sections of supporters spitting on a black player who was part of their own team. .
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The manager was pretty forward-thinking, not just for putting a woman in charge of a professional football club.
First airing seven years before Arsene Wenger arrived in English football and changing the face of much of footballing standards, Benson aimed to update his players’ diets – prompting a public outcry.
Innovative free-kick moves were embraced while Benson also promoted the value of thoughtful defence, where a tackle is the last option, not the first – polarizing opinion of her assistant who was brought up on the ‘ get a hard tackle early ”school of thought.
Although it faded somewhat into obscurity, the scheme was largely successful and was renewed for a second series the following year, with the club battling for promotion to the top flight.
There was to be no fairy tale conclusion as the club failed in the final episode; Benson also discovers that some players have indulged in performance-enhancing drugs, completely against all the groundwork she had put in place.
The series was adapted for French television, titled “Miss Manager et ses footballeurs” while the German title was “Unser Boss ist eine Frau”.
The director managed to use football as a metaphor for a fractured and change-resistant society, although it must be remembered that the show’s raison d’être was pure entertainment.
Looking back, it’s interesting to think how much, and how much, has changed, and how a similar plot point would be approached in the present day.
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