This is an odd selection for MUBI. I’ve not noticed the platform tuning in for sporting occasions before and on this occasion they are a couple of weeks too late as we are at the knockout stage of the World Cup in Qatar. The film’s title is slightly misleading because the actor playing the great Brazilian Sócrates is on screen for only a few minutes. It’s 1985 and Northern Ireland are on the point of qualifying to play at the World Cup finals in Mexico in 1986. It is the third time they have managed this feat as the smallest country to qualify (up to that date) with a population of just over 1.5 million in 1985-6.
Sócrates played his last match for Brazil at the 1986 finals during the knockout stages. He was at the end of his career but he had been a major figure in world football and his was the name known by most football fans in the North of Ireland. This film is a fairly conventional sports drama which has a documentary-like structure, following events from the qualifying stages to Northern Ireland’s exit after losing the final group game to Brazil. The director James Erskine specialises in sports documentaries as far as I can see.
Overall this is an enjoyable film which fully engaged me, but it helps if you are familiar with Northern Ireland and with UK football during the 1980s. For those less familiar, the narrative might seem a little bitty. This is because there are several individual stories within the structure of the team’s qualification and then travel to the World Cup and participation in the group stage. The individuals picked out in the Northern Ireland team are the coach, Billy Bingham, the players Sammy McIlroy, Pat Jennings, Norman Whiteside and especially David Campbell. Campbell was the ‘new boy’ in the team. Although born just outside Derry, his father had moved the family to Letterkenny over the border in the Republic and this means that he frequently crossed the border before moving to England to play football. At this point he was on the books of First Division Nottingham Forest. There is also a narrative organised around the football commentator Jackie Fullerton and his cameraman. Perhaps most important in some ways is the fan perspective. The family selected for this purpose throws the focus on Tommy (Art Parkinson) who celebrates his 10th birthday during the narrative. I think his family includes a Protestant dad and Catholic mum and therefore the family represent the two communities coming together to support the national team despite the fact that the armed conflict is still present on the streets of Belfast and the checkpoints across the country.
Jackie Fullerton is a real person, now retired as a sports commentator and is here played by Conleth Hill. In using his presence in Mexico, Erskine is able to cover a range of issues about the team and their time in first their New Mexico training camp and later Guadalajara where they play their group games. There is drama in the squad with the team captain flying home for personal reasons. The manager also has problems attempting to maintain a curfew. One of the strong threads in the narrative is the attempt to represent the unity in the team. This is picked up in the sequences when all the players, Catholic and Protestant attend the local church. The sectarian divide is also addressed via Tommy’s dad who is a crane operator at Harland and Wolff, the shipyard accused of giving preference to Protestant workers. But here he is simply a loving father (played by Richard Dormer) who manages to show his son how Belfast looks from the highest vantage point of the shipyard.
Shot in a ‘Scope ratio by Joel Devlin, who mostly seems to have worked on TV material with occasional film features, the framings have been altered to accommodate a fair amount of archive TV footage, both of the British Army on the streets of Belfast and clips of the ‘real’ Northern Ireland team in local TV sports coverage. Written by Erskine and Marie Jones the whole production is a local enterprise apart from the casting of John Hannah as Billy Bingham. As a high profile actor in TV and UK and Hollywood films, I assume Hannah was cast to help the financing of the film. Hannah is Scottish and he was criticised for his accent but I’ve seen him explaining that Bingham, who spent a long time in England, did not have a pronounced accent. It is an important role in the narrative and I think Hannah’s performance works well.
Researching the production of this film, I’m not sure why I missed its release in 2015. It was clearly an important film in Northern Ireland, even as a low-budget film and it was covered in the local media. It is a conventional sporting ‘underdog’ narrative and it struggles with representing footballers when actors can’t quite manage the athleticism. But this is a problem for all football films. I was reminded of The Damned United (2009) which had the same problem with 1970s footballers. But this Northern Ireland film made me feel really old because I remembered Billy Bingham (who died this year, aged 90) as a player for Everton in the early 1960s. Still I’m glad I got to see this. I remember watching the 1958 World Cup in Sweden on TV as a small boy when Peter McParland of Aston Villa scored only one goal less than the young Pele and helped Northern Ireland into the knockout stage of the tournament. The team needs a few more McParlands now.