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9 September 2020

Amazon’s new Tottenham documentary reveals just how dull life as a top footballer can be

The club's powerful yet reclusive chairman, Daniel Levy, is by far the most arresting character to watch. 

By Jonathan Liew

The most surprising element of All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur, Amazon’s new exclusive behind-the-scenes documentary, is what it tells us about the daily existence of a professional footballer. Specifically: how unspeakably dull it looks. The enduring motif of the programme, which launched to great fanfare on 31 August, is not the dressing room confrontations, or the fraught transfer negotiations, or even the games themselves.

Rather, it’s the bits in between that stay with you. Interminable shots of Harry Kane glumly eating. Various midfielders getting their muscles rubbed. Players weaving around plastic obstacles in training gear. There’s far too much boring medical process: X-rays of ligament damage, men covered in electrodes walking very slowly on a treadmill. Occasionally the effect is less eye-popping, edge-of-your-seat sporting documentary and more promotional video for private healthcare.

Perhaps this is the point. Perhaps the footballer’s life is kept deliberately banal to keep their body sharp and their mind untaxed for the 90 minutes a week that really matters. Even so, on the evidence of the first six episodes (the final three will be released on 14 September) you can’t help feeling that somehow everyone – Amazon, Tottenham and the viewer – emerges a little short-changed.

It was Amazon’s misfortune that the season they chose to film ended up as one of the least distinguished in Tottenham’s recent history. Previous campaigns have brought title challenges, cup finals, unforgettable triumphs. This season brought mid-table mediocrity, three months of lockdown and some of the most stultifying football seen at the club in a decade. And so ultimately this is just an ordinary tale about whether a wealthy football club will end up finishing sixth or seventh in the Premier League.

What the programme lacks in peril it attempts to make up in star wattage. This is perhaps the biggest difference between the football documentaries that have surfaced in recent years and their earthier counterparts from the 1990s. Whether it was the exasperated Sunderland manager Peter Reid in Premier Passions (1998), the foul-mouthed coach John Sitton in Orient: Club for a Fiver (1995), or the beleaguered England manager Graham Taylor in An Impossible Job (1994), these shows’ appeal used to be in their depictions of ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

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Over subsequent decades, as the money poured in and footballers retreated out of our towns and cities and into their fame-encrusted gated communities, two processes occurred. Not only did our physical access become rarer and more privileged, but the way we saw the players changed too. They became figures of weird, lurid, otherworldly fascination, these outrageously wealthy young people with worries and pressures and haircuts beyond our wildest dreams. We stopped empathising and started gawping.

And so the modern football documentary owes less to its warts-and-all predecessors and more to celebrity attention traps such as Keeping Up with the Kardashians. They all have a Hollywood narrator and a superfluous colon – Clive Owen (Being: Liverpool), Russell Crowe (Take Us Home: Leeds United), Ben Kingsley (All Or Nothing: Manchester City), and in this case Tom Hardy. Above all, they share a basic absence of curiosity: a steadfast belief that simply being there, with the cameras on, is enough.

What transpires is thus more an elaborate branding exercise than a meaningful attempt to explain the interior workings of the world’s most lucrative sport. In this sense, the sacking of Mauricio Pochettino and his replacement with José Mourinho in episode one is the ideal plot development. The arch showman Mourinho quickly becomes perfect gawping material; the sulking, brooding, swearing star of the show. “This is the difference between a team of c***s and a team of good guys,” he declares at half-time during a crucial fixture against Manchester City. “The good guys, they never win. So… be a c***!”

The most arresting character, though, is not Mourinho but his boss, the club chairman Daniel Levy. Bald, vaguely discomfiting and utterly in thrall to his evil henchman, Levy is the comedy villain of the piece: all the power and none of the charm, like Dr Evil with an MBA. Levy has been a reserved and reclusive figure for much of his two decades at the club, and here we discover why. “Fans genuinely just have no comprehension of how hard it is to physically do a transfer,” he says, which should endear him to the long-suffering men and women who pay his bonuses.

For all the curated artifice, there remains a certain void at the core of All or Nothing that renders it both a faithful and unfaithful document of the game as a whole. You can see it in those monotonous scenes set on the training ground or in the physio’s room: the sheer banality of life in the world’s most exciting sport. This is why football has always translated so awkwardly into packaged entertainment. A lot of the time, it’s not very interesting. Sometimes the narrative arc doesn’t exist. Sometimes, inevitably, you’ll end up trying to wring emotional capital out of a scruffy 2-1 home win against Norwich.

But these are the qualities that make sport what it is. Unlike a glossy Hollywood film or scripted reality show, football can’t be entertaining all the time. It existed before the cameras started rolling and will exist long after they have been packed away. The boredom, the wasted afternoons, the 0-0 draws, the long training sessions, the tedious medical protocol: sit through it all, and maybe if you’re lucky you’ll get your rewards. That’s what football teaches us. Come to think of it, it’s what life teaches us too.