The Pass (and five of the best films about football)
Playwright John Donnelly has been earning a reputation for himself in London's West End in recent years, penning a series of well-received plays such as Bond and The Knowledge, as well as venturing into writing for television on series such as Glue and Dennis Kelly's superb thriller-drama Utopia. His most recent play, The Pass, tackles the twin issues of homosexuality and homophobia in football, centred around two players whose bond goes beyond being mere teammates.
Last year saw Donnelly's play brought to the big screen, with Donnelly providing the script and newcomer Ben A. Williams directing. Russell Tovey, who also appeared in the stage production, stars alongside Arinzé Kene, with the rest of the film's small but talented cast being filled out by Inspector George Gently's Lisa McGrillis, The Village's Nico Mirallegro and The Legend of Tarzan's Rory J. Saper.
The film centres around Jason (Tovey) and Ade (Kene), two promising young footballers who are products of the youth academy at a London football club. Much like the play the film is based on, this is essentially split into three acts. In the first of these we find Jason and Ade in a hotel room on the eve of their debut for the first team, a Champions League match in Romania. Too excited to sleep, the pair act pretty much as you'd expect, winding each other up, wrestling with each other, discussing their future prospects in the team and even watching a sex tape featuring one of their teammates. But then there's an unexpected moment of sexual tension and the pair kiss each other, a moment that will alter the outcome of the lives and careers for years to come.
The second act takes place several years later, with Jason now an established first-teamer and enjoying his professional life, but apparently living in denial over his sexuality. He is married with a child, but evidently deeply unhappy despite his material wealth and dogged by rumours about his sexuality, which he combats by walking into a honey trap and making a sex tape with a Spanish lap dancer. Ade meanwhile has decided that life as a gay man is incompatible with life as a professional footballer, hanging up his boots and coming out of the closet. In the third act we see the pair meet again, with Jason by now a footballing icon, but still visibly unhappy that he is essentially living a lie and the pair discuss their choices, as well as the implications on their lives and careers.
Tovey and Kene both deliver outstanding performances in a film that never quite shakes off its stage roots, but nevertheless it's a long overdue take on the attitudes towards homosexuality in sport, particularly in the macho culture that surrounds football. Ultimately, The Pass is as much a film about courage and regret as it is about either being a footballer or being gay, so while it doesn't quite scale up to the big screen as well as some stage productions might, it's still an absorbing and sometimes heartbreaking insight into male relationships of the type that is all too rare in the cinema.
You can find the trailer for The Pass below, beneath that we've picked five of the best football-themed dramas you're likely to see...
Looking for Eric
Ken Loach has directed many great films over the course of a distinguished career, but this 2009 film is perhaps one of his most underrated. The film stars Steve Evetts as a postman named Eric Bishop, an employee of the local sorting office in Manchester and a lifelong Manchester United fan whose life is unravelling. His stepsons pay no attention to his advice and are getting mixed up with some shady characters, while his daughter is refusing him access to his newly-born granddaughter until he reconciles with his ex-wife, who seems even less keen on the idea of reconciliation than he does. To help with life's stresses he begins attending group therapy and finds an unlikely source of advice and inspiration in the form of Eric Cantona, who appears to him as an apparition and guides him through life's challenges. Wonderfully written by Paul Laverty and featuring a genuinely brilliant performance from the ex-Man Utd. forward, this is a film that is funny and moving in equal measure.
The Damned United
Brian Clough needs little introduction for any football fan: the famously outspoken Clough became one of the English game's most improbably successful managers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, guiding Derby County and then Nottingham Forest to the summit of the football league before leading the latter to back-to-back wins in the European Cup. But in between those two immensely successful stints at the Midlands-based clubs he endured a brief and entirely regrettable tenure as the manager of Leeds United, then a major footballing power under the guidance of Don Revie, who had become something of a nemesis for Clough following an FA Cup game between their respective clubs.
When Revie departed for an equally ill-fated run as manager of the England team, Clough was appointed as his replacement and began a tumultuous 44-day stint in charge by telling his new club's players that they'd never won anything without cheating. Michael Sheen is excellent in the lead role, as is Timothy Spall in the role of Clough's longtime assistant Peter Taylor, and even if you're not a fan of any of the clubs involved this is still highly entertaining viewing.
Several of Nick Hornby's novels have been adapted for the big screen over the years, including High Fidelity and About a Boy, but Fever Pitch has the honour of having been adapted twice for the cinema and while there's a certain charm to the later version, released in 2005 and starring Drew Barrymore alongside Jimmy Fallon, it's not a patch on the 1997 version directed by David Evans. Colin Firth stars as a lifelong Arsenal fan, obsessed with the fortunes of his football club to the extent that it's interfering with attempts to court a new girlfriend, Sarah (played by Ruth Gemmill). His fortunes in love mirror those of Arsenal's on the pitch, leading to a season finale that could either end in triumph or disaster.
Firth might seem an unlikely choice for a role about an obsessive football fan, but he delivers the goods with aplomb here and this is a proper feel-good rom-com that's equally enjoyable for men and women alike.
This charming British film from Brassed Off director Mark Herman revolves around the exploits of two young Newcastle United fans and their attempts to raise enough money to achieve their dream of buying season tickets for the club they both love. Being from poor families, this entails a series of half-baked schemes including trawling scrap metal from a river, stealing (from a pound shop) and even nicking Alan Shearer's car. Shearer himself makes a cameo in the film – a fairly embarrassing one, if we're honest – but the film is carried almost entirely by its two young leads, Chris Beattie and Greg Mclane, both of whom are very impressive. Funny, heartwarming and often fairly outrageous, this film is great fun.
Escape to Victory
Yes, we've all seen it a thousand times because it's on TV every Christmas for reasons nobody can adequately explain, but it's still a classic. For anyone who hasn't seen it, this is basically The Great Escape, but with football. Michael Caine stars as John Colby, a former West Ham player and one of a group of POWs under German captivity during WWII,. Colby is tasked with assembling and training a team of other allied POWs for an exhibition match with the German national team, essentially a Nazi propaganda exercise in which the Germans must win by any means necessary, even if that means cheating. Which it does. But the cunning allies have a plan to use the game as an opportunity to escape from the German's clutches and stage a daring escape during half time via a tunnel dug underneath the stadium.
With the team losing at half time and taking a proper kicking from the Germans, the team inexplicably pass up their chance to escape in favour of returning to the pitch and giving Fritz a jolly good hiding. Yes, it's completely daft, but it's also lots of fun and alongside Caine is a cast that includes Max von Sydow and a young Sylvester Stallone, as well as several footballing luminaries such as Pele and Bobby Moore. More than anything else though, this is the film that caused schoolchildren all over the country to spend thousands of hours trying to recreate that Osvaldo Ardiles trick, which is reason enough to include it on our list.