Cinema's maverick sports coaches
Brian Clough had a unique management style – but there are plenty of cinema sports coaches who make him seem positively orthodox. David Jenkins and Adam Lee Davies pick the best
The Natural (1984)
Sport: BaseballTeam: New York KnightsCoach: Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley)Irascible, ornery and as down-home as Granny’s plum cobbler, Brimley’s Pop Fisher steals the show from Roberts Redford and Duvall in this, the ‘Gatsby’ of American sports movies. A conflation of every gnarly but benign big-screen whistle-and-cones merchant, Fisher’s conspicuously hands-off approach eschews such modish conceits as training or teamtalks in favour of inspiring/belittling his charges with a vast array of impenetrable barnyard epithets.
Sport: FootballTeam: ‘Manchester United’Coach: Mr Sugden (Brian Glover)Pudgy Northern thesp Glover wowed audiences in his debut role as the draconian games master Mr Sugden in Ken Loach’s lyrical retelling of Barry Hines’s ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’. You could hardly call Sugden an inspiring coach, what with his flexible approach to the rule book, the relentless bullying of his smaller/fatter team-mates and a penchant for off-the-ball tackles.
Slap Shot (1977)
Sport: Ice hockeyTeam: Charlestown ChiefsPlayer-coach: Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman)Though player-managers have long been a fixture in football, baseball and, until recently, basketball, their film equivalents remain a rare breed. Kurt Russell excelled as coach/quarterback of the Taft Rockets in the redneck ribaldry of ‘The Best of Times’ (1986) and big-boned manchild Will Ferrell’s turn as slam-dunking soul saviour Jackie Moon in last year’s ‘Semi-Pro’ flattered to deceive, but Paul Newman’s stewardship of the Charlestown Chiefs has them beat hands down.
Wildcats (1989)Sport: American footballTeam: Central High WildcatsCoach: Molly McGrath (Goldie Hawn)This production line ‘women can too!’ laffer from 1989 sees the ever-lovable Hawn walk the mud-’n’ blood-spattered path from good-natured maternal doormat to ball-busting hell vixen as Coach McGrath. The story of a diminutive white woman/shrew who leaps at the chance of managing a team of hulking black ruffians may seem unlikely, but how else is cinema supposed to teach racial and gender tolerance in sport?
Downhill Racer (1969)Sport: SkiingTeam: 1968 US Winter Olympic Ski TeamCoach: Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman)Gene Hackman’s gruff but indulgent Olympic coach has his work cut out instilling the value of teamwork to brash, dislikable, driven young hotshot Robert Redford in Michael Ritchie’s brooding examination of the price of success and the true ends of ambition. There’s a refreshing absence of the ‘hugging and learning’ that cruds up so many sports dramas, and though Redford hurtles toward his gold medal win, a more Pyrrhic victory is hard to imagine…
Escape to Victory (1981)
Sport: FootballTeam: Allied Forces PoW Select XICoach: Cpt John Colby (Michael Caine)Multinational squads are commonplace these days, but not long ago the prospect of a US goalie, an Argentine playmaker and John Wark lining up alongside Pelé would have left many English fans scratching their heads. Hats off then to Michael Caine’s shouty British Army captain for drawing together a cosmopolitan team of PoWs for a tricky away fixture against a team of ruthlessly efficient Nazis.
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)
Sport: DodgeballTeam: Average JoesCoach: Patches O’Houlihan (Rip Torn)When a team of ragbag dodgeball minnows (captained by Vince Vaughn) catch a 1950s-style training video presented by clean-cut dodgeball poster-boy Patches O’Houlihan, they inevitably draft him in to bolster their ailing side. Little did they know that Patches is now an irascible, wheelchair-bound transient whose teaching methods involve lobbing socket wrenches at members of the petrified team.
Author: David Jenkins and Adam Lee Davies
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