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Broadcast on BBC2, the David Baddiel and Frank Skinner football-entertainment show 'Fantasy Football League' coincided with booms in what we came to call 'Lad Culture' and football's marketability beyond its working class core. This probably came to its zenith with Euro 96. By this point, England had a football team and a manager that people generally liked, the Premiership had exciting foreign talent but still enough relatable English players of the old skool and attending a match was not the physically hazardous business it had been in the 1980s. The era of the Baby Bentley/Spit-Roasting 19-year-old multimillionaire sociopath footballer of today's popular imagination had not yet begun, and while football was slickly and successfully whoring itself to sell any product you like, it hadn't yet achieved the all-pervasive corporate cynicism of the ensuing couple of decades.
Rather like the biggest band of the mid-1990s, Oasis, FFL had a swagger and a rough-and-ready around the edges charm that hid an intuitive intelligence. The format had initially been based on the idea of fantasy football, getting celebrities to talk about their teams and picks, but later evolved into a chaotic but often successful chat show and sketch show.
It only ran for two years and three series from early 1994 to mid-1996. In the popular imagination, it seems to have been much longer, its impact perhaps echoing long after it had finished. There were other David and Frank incarnations for various special occasions but the original and the best was a relatively short-lived affair.
While we were told at the time that there was a revival of lad culture, many of us couldn't quite see how the new lad culture was any different from old lad culture, centred as it was and still is around drinking, women and sport. FFL was, at the time, seen as an expression of this; an off-shoot of the Loaded generation but the one thing that strikes us as we re-watch it now is just how un-laddish it really is. It's more nerdy and childish than alpha male and happily so.
The attitude to the football notably lacks bitterness. There was still some love towards the pro footballer in 1994-1996 and there was much less preciousness about it all. Even when showing this fantastic 'tackle' by Eric Cantona the presenters do what many of us do: they laugh at it. There was no use of the word 'horror,' no furrowed brows, wringing hands or fear of a Twitterstorm for 'endorsing' cruelty or violence.
There's no doubt that some of the features are cringeworthy and the whole Statto thing grates after a while. Three series was probably enough of it but it was fun and it was pretty original. Only 'Standing Room Only' with the estimable but now disappeared Shelley Webb and him off of Brooky touched the same territory. Given football's ubiquity, it seems strange that there haven't been more entertainment shows based around the nation's sport. The Saturday morning yelping of 'Soccer AM', the bantz of 'They Think It's All Over' and 'A League Of Their Own' have only tangentially attempted to take up the mantle of football entertainment, and with varying degrees of success.
Like a lot of successful TV shows, we reckon that the slightly shambolic, studenty vibe of FFL made it look a hell of a lot easier than it actually was, and that's testament to the excellence of David Baddiel and, especially, Frank Skinner. The WBA fan occupies a unique place for us in managing to be genuinely funny, filthy and somewhat risk-taking while occupying the same comic mainstream as the likes of Michael McIntyre and John Bishop. It took two very talented comedians to create FFL, which may be why, in the intervening years, so few other examples of funny football programmes have emerged.
John Nicholson and Alan Tyers
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