‘Proper cringeworthy’: What it’s like to be a player in a behind the scenes doc
You don’t have to look far for a Netflix documentary on football these days, but there was a time when Ron Atkinson was ahead of the game.
Back in 2006, ‘Big Ron Manager’ was broadcast on Sky One, with Atkinson parachuted in to League Two club Peterborough United as a “football troubleshooter” for a fee of around £100,000.
The series, narrated by Jeff Stelling, featured a warts-and-all look behind the scenes at a professional football club who were pushing for promotion under new manager Steve Bleasdale and were then owned by the colourful Barry Fry.
While modern-day documentaries have provided insight in to life at the likes of Manchester City and Tottenham, as well as Sunderland, this was a show with a purpose, with Sky having put up the cash for Atkinson to get involved with Peterborough in a genuine working role.
Peterborough were actually the second choice for the experiment – the cameras had been in at Swindon Town for four weeks before being asked to leave by the management.
Lower league football at the time was still recovering from the fallout of ITV Digital, and Fry was candid with the reality of the finances at London Road, admitting that taking the cash for the documentary staved off the threat of administration, at least for the time being.
Although financially the show helped, it didn’t have the desired effect on the pitch, as Posh’s play-off push ended with a whimper, while manager Bleasdale walked out two games before the end of the season.
TELLY GOLD: 'Big Ron Manager' from 2006. The pressure's mounting on rookie boss Steve Bleasdale. Disruption in the dressing room, a dwindling promotion push. Just when he thinks it can't get any worse, disaster strikes…
… his star player's got a runny bum. pic.twitter.com/l4krXg5hKu
— It’s A Funny Old Game (@sid_lambert) June 19, 2018
But what’s it like as a player to have the cameras following your every move and then watching it back?
“It was proper cringeworthy,” says Paul Carden, who provided some humour in the very first episode, describing their first trip after Atkinson’s arrival like a school day out.
“We were told the club was doing it for a big lump of money coming in and told to do what we do, and whenever we were needed to do interviews, that it was part of what was ultimately going to be paying us. It wasn’t that intrusive, though it looks like they were in your face all the time.
“There seemed to be people everywhere. There were voices all over the place. There were a lot of different opinions.
“For the team talk, there would be three or four people giving you instructions, which is fine if they’re coming from the same place, but at times you felt people were speaking for the sake of it.
“Baz had a vested interest, Ron was there to be part of his show, and Bleo (Bleasdale) was in the middle of it all, trying to act like a manager. It was a bit all over the place. Who was in charge? Who was running the team?
“Bleo walks out and Barry Fry gives a speech, a bit of a dressing down. That looks terrible. It felt like Bleo was the entertainments manager. He ran Monday to Friday, and then when matchday came, people came in and said we needed to do this and that.”
TELLY GOLD: ‘Big Ron Manager’ from 2006. After Steve Bleasdale’s shock resignation, Ron steps in to take his first training session. The boys throw themselves into it, so much so that Ron has to curb their enthusiasm:
💬 “Easy, lads. It ain’t Vietnam…”pic.twitter.com/LxYb0gUXwE
— It’s A Funny Old Game (@sid_lambert) June 25, 2018
Though the documentary didn’t have the desired effect on the pitch – Posh ended up finishing a disappointing ninth – it did spark the interest of property businessman Darragh MacAnthony, who later became club chairman and eventually owner, helping them reach the Championship in 2009.
“I think looking back, it was the catalyst that got the club back going again. For all its faults, and for all the faults it showed, it wasn’t actually a disaster it was a masterstroke by Baz for what panned out.
“At that time, it was big news. There had never really been a documentary on the day to day of a professional football club. Because of that and the drama it caused, it was like a real life Dream Team, I suppose it’s like the Eastenders of football and with Big Ron coming in it was like the Kardashians, fly on the wall.
“I saw the footage of Bleo walking out of the dressing room, and for a football fan or person in general it is quite interesting viewing.”
Peterborough had been relegated the previous season but had a strong team that included Carden, Mark Tyler, Dean Holden, Danny Crow, Phil Bolland and a young Sean St Ledger, who went on to establish himself as a solid Championship centre-half at Preston as well as earning 37 caps for the Republic of Ireland.
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They were going relatively well prior to Atkinson’s arrival, and some questioned whether it had derailed their promotion bid.
“I don’t think it was because of the show, I think it was how it was handled,” Carden says. “I didn’t feel like it affected me, I just felt that we had a really strong squad that massively underachieved, and we should have finished up there that season.
“Some lads used it as an excuse for under-par performances, and there were a few things that made it look like a circus. Bleo got caught up in the emotion of it all.”
Carden was involved in one of the flashpoints of the series, a coming together in the dressing room with team-mate Mark Arber after a defeat to Oxford.
“I think anybody who’s involved in football knows certain dressing rooms can be that way,” he says. “It wasn’t even a fight, just a squaring up, it was nothing major.
“We played Oxford and got pumped by them and I’d had a pop at Arbs after he got caught out, I hadn’t played well myself and you come in and you’ve had an argument on the pitch and it spills into the dressing room. We spoke on Sunday and had a meeting on Monday and it was put to bed.
“If you’ve got lads who care and want the right result you have demands and when you fall below your standards people do the same. Everywhere I went after that people were, ‘Oh my god what was that like?’ and asking questions about Big Ron and if it was set up.”
TELLY GOLD: “Big Ron Manager” from 2006.
Fed-up Peterborough owner Barry Fry takes over team selection from rookie boss Steve Bleasdale, who resigns in the dressing room an hour before kick-off.
It’s left to a stunned Bazza to rouse the troops…
— It’s A Funny Old Game (@sid_lambert) May 20, 2019
Big Ron Manager was Atkinson’s first proper return to football after his departure from his role as a commentator with ITV following a racist remark about Chelsea defender Marcel Desailly.
His managerial career had taken in a high-profile spell at Manchester United, where he won two FA Cups, while he also tasted League Cup success at Sheffield Wednesday and Aston Villa.
A short-lived stint at doomed Nottingham Forest ended in relegation from the Premier League and his retirement from football management came soon after.
“Ron was approachable and wanted to help everybody. You just didn’t know how much was him being himself as a manager or coach, and how much was scripted or staged,” Carden says.
“He would give me certain tips, and he’s worked with top players, you’re not going to turn your nose up at that. I saw him a few years later when I was at Cambridge and we had a laugh about it – to this day he can’t get his head around why Bleo walked!”
Now a manager himself at Northern Premier League side Warrington Town, would Carden ever let the cameras in at a club he’s in charge of?
“I don’t think it was the documentary as such, I think it was having someone else coming in and having an input. I wouldn’t have that. I wouldn’t mind having the footage behind the scenes for people who subscribe if it makes a bit of money, but ours was very in your face, every part of every session was recorded.”
By James Gordon