A football show for kids, featuring brilliant music and loads of barely-believable guest stars, Renford Rejects was bloody marvellous.
As far as fictional football teams go, Renford Rejects weren’t the most successful or glamorous. In fact, their performances were largely incompetent, ill-disciplined and borderline embarrassing.
Yet there was something endearing about the misfits from Nickleodeon’s turn of the Millennium teen sitcom and their five-a-side odyssey. Across four series they explored the meaning of hope, friendship, fame and despair through the prism of football.
All turned away from trials for their high school team in the first episode for various reasons – being a girl (Robin Walker), being too mouthy (Jason Summerbee), trying too many overhead kicks (Bruno Di Gradi), and saving precisely no shots because he can’t see the ball (Ben Phillips) – they decide to enter the five-a-side league instead.
The flash but ineffective Ronnie Supra, who has to be persuaded not to wear sunglasses on the pitch, was recruited as the fifth member.
They are coached by the talented Stewart Jackson, who would have made the school team but for an injury inflicted by Terry Stoker – resident bully and son of the school PE teacher.
Stoker even sabotages their league entry, lumbering them with the Rejects tag. It’s something they come to embrace in their rivalry with the brutally effective Razors.
— edward coppck (@darfpunk) March 27, 2018
For Martin Delaney, who played the Reject’s roguish captain Jason Summerbee, it was an incredible experience. One of his earliest acting jobs, it’s still mentioned to him almost 20 years on.
“It’s a weird one,” he says. “Even though I’ve been doing bits and pieces elsewhere, it’s still the one that everyone gives me shit about, which is always quite good fun.
“I think it’s because it ran for so long, I forget how long they kept showing it for at Nickelodeon so it spanned a real generation or so.
“I remember when we were making it, going out in London. I was about 17 when it first started. I was just sneaking into pubs with my baby face and I remember going in and talking to blokes in their 30s who used to watch it. And then kids were obviously watching it over a long period.”
Much of the action unfolds through the lens of classmate and wannabe sports reporter Vinnie Rodrigues. It was an interesting conceit for chronicling the Rejects’ journey.
With post-match interviews, packages dedicated to each player, and highlights of their latest defeat, their whims are indulged. Studio-based insights were delivered by Bob Wilson and Jim Rosenthal.
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Originally broadcast from 1998 to 2001, Renford Rejects became something of a cult hit with its mix of absurdism, teen drama and high-profile celebrity cameos. Tucked away on Nickleodeon were some of football’s biggest names.
Across the course of four series, Harry Redknapp, John Terry, Ian Rush and Stan Bowles all made appearances. Members of the 1966 World Cup-winning squad even featured twice as the surprisingly talented Renford Old Boys.
The first time they turned up, the Rejects expected a walkover against the creaking bones of the unknown veterans.
A tough game is decided by Jason’s dishonesty. Geoff Hurst strikes the crossbar, with the ball bouncing almost straight down in a replica of his controversial second goal against West Germany.
Jason claims it didn’t cross the line and scores the winner with a snide Hand of God finish. While the joke would have eluded many kids watching, it was something for parents to enjoy.
“They deliberately had guest stars that were appealing to an older audience, like with the ’66 team,” Delaney says.
“There probably weren’t many kids at Nickleodeon who would know who those guys were at all, or get that joke, but they knew that if they got the kids then they were going to get the adults too.
“Guest stars like that were put into the show for the adults really. I think that was a really clever kind of trick.”
It wasn’t just former players getting involved either. One episode saw Gianfranco Zola and Martin Keown, still active in the Premier League, join the Rejects and Razors respectively.
Recruited for a special charity match, they encapsulate the qualities of the two teams – continental flair and romanticism on one hand, and steely English resolve on the other. Yet the players go against their personas, with Zola nobbling opponents and Keown dancing through defences.
Gianfranco Zola at his best. What a player! pic.twitter.com/0kTpAHRhK7
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) October 6, 2016
It’s a sign of how much more seriously football takes itself, that it’s so hard to imagine their modern day equivalents – Laurent Koscielny and Eden Hazard, say – taking part in something similar. Keown was a Double winner and current England international at the time.
Accustomed to marking Alan Shearer, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and others with infamous physicality, he came up against the Rejects’ Bruno di Gradi instead.
A remarkably ordinary teenager with a broad Birmingham accent, Barry Grade invented a persona for himself to alleviate the mundanity of suburban life.
Intoxicated by the idea of Italian football, he claims to be from Naples despite never having left the country. Starting each morning with a cappuccino and a copy of Gazzetta dello Sport, he is a product of the mid-90s fascination with Serie A and Football Italia.
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Like the rest of the Rejects, Bruno di Gradi is a caricature, a collection of broad clichés that somehow works.
Ben Phillips is the poet and philosophical goalkeeper racked by existential doubt, wearing shirts adorned by quotes from Camus and Cantona.
Stewart Jackson is the football scholar and strategist, preaching high-minded ideals to his uninterested charges using a tactics board and talk of the ‘Brazilian permutation’. Jason Summerbee is brash, gobby and dim, often the butt of other’s jokes.
It was the first time that Nickelodeon, which had successfully broadcast programmes such as Sister Sister, Kenan and Kel and Sabrina the Teenage Witch to a British audience, had developed a homegrown show. Led by American producers, it was a curious beast.
The Manic Street Preachers’ Australia was a memorable theme tune, and the soundtrack had iconic 90s songs from Massive Attack, Fun Lovin’ Criminals and others.
“I remember Steve Bawol, our executive producer, saying he wanted to make a cartoon with actors, so there was sometimes a surreal quality to it,” says Delaney. “It was sold as a kids’ drama but it was really more than that.
“It was quite British, but at the same time it was quite unusual to follow a bunch of losers. The idea that you were falling in love with, or enjoying watching, a bunch of guys who were essentially failing in other people’s eyes. That’s quite British I think, supporting the underdog. I think in that sense it had a little bit of heart and it was quite silly.”
Cast members got to spend their summers playing football at Willesden Sports Centre in North London, joking around with other young actors and meeting some impressive guest stars. Some fitness training and basic football skills were required, but in many ways it was a dream job.
And while most of the Renford Rejects have since fallen out of acting, some have gone on to bigger things.
James Corden was a nameless bully in one episode and has apparently done alright for himself, while Delaney has also had some Hollywood success in serious films, far removed from the light-hearted nature of his early work.
— Joe 🇬🇧 (@ThatDerbyLad) June 6, 2017
“There’s not many of us that still really act and I’ve been lucky enough, touch wood, to get some interesting projects,” Delaney says.
“Bizarrely, you couldn’t really write it, but to do a little bit in a film with Clint Eastwood and then Katherine Bigalow – I was in Zero Dark Thirty and Now You See Me 2, all these kind of American projects. It’s a weird place to come from.
“I remember people tweeted me when Zero Dark Thirty was out, and it was up for the Oscars. I was out in America and people were tweeting me like, ‘I can’t believe Jason from Renford Rejects is getting a run out in an Oscar-nominated film.’
All of the episodes are up on YouTube, but Delaney can’t bring himself to watch them. “I’ve not really had a look back, but my girlfriend did recently and was laughing about it, telling me I don’t look much different. Still a little chubby kid with dimples.”
By Sean Cole