Like a phoenix from the flames – or perhaps like a Steven Gerrard-led Liverpool side following a fists-clenched half-time team talk – Fantasy Football League (Sky Max) staged a triumphant comeback. Just nostalgic enough. Just new enough. Many happy returns.
Frank Skinner and David Baddiel’s BBC Two cult classic was in its pomp during the mid-1990s, when it spawned inescapable terrace anthem Three Lions and, along with Chris Evans’s TFI Friday, came to epitomise laddish Nineties TV. It made summer comebacks on ITV for World Cup '98 and Euro 2004 but has been off our screens since. Eighteen years of hurt never stopped us dreaming.
Times have changed, naturally. Not just in terms of tastes – the original’s bawdy humour was rather unreconstructed, with Skinner and Baddiel since apologising for their racist bullying of Nottingham Forest striker Jason Lee under the guise of “banter” – but football’s cultural landscape has transformed beyond all recognition. Social media, YouTube channels and fan podcasts have arrived during the interim. TV shows and radio phone-ins have proliferated. Football “bants” is a crowded market nowadays. Would there still be space for two blokes sitting on a sofa?
On this evidence, yes. New co-hosts Matt Lucas (a devoted Arsenal fan) and Ellis James (Swansea City) came off the bench for an ambitious 16-week run, filmed the night before transmission to ensure topicality. Cannily, this was the same format with different faces: sweary, surprisingly un-PC, true to the old spirit. Clips of the original were cleverly woven into the freewheeling, irreverent comedy.
The third wheel used to be nerdy whipping boy Angus “Statto” Loughran. Now it is up-and-coming comic Andrew Mensah (a Crystal Palace supporter but only because his cousin, Eberechi Eze, plays for them), who oversees the celebrity fantasy league and introduces viral clips. Mensah made for a lively addition, cracking edgy gags about taking the knee and teasing Lucas for his blackface misdemeanours on Little Britain.
Each week, a pair of guest managers join the larks and talk through their fantasy selections. Later in the series, we’re promised actor Brian Cox (currently languishing bottom of the league), athlete Mo Farah (top of the table), comedian Jennifer Saunders, presenters Rachel Riley and Gabby Logan, and newsreader Trevor McDonald. Try building that random bunch into a six-a-side team. Kicking things off were comedian Russell Howard (don’t be fooled by the West Country accent, he’s a Liverpool fan) and actress Sally Lindsay (Manchester City). She told an anecdote about her City-supporting father leaving the 2012 match against QPR in a huff, minutes before the famous “Agüerooooo!” title-winning goal.
With one eye on old viewers, this reboot retained most of the fondly remembered elements. The set was still a mock-up of a grotty flat, littered with football memorabilia and a coffee table draped in a Subbuteo mat. Segments included “The Big Hello”, “A Few Things We've Noticed from Watching Football” (basically Harry Hill’s TV Burp for football coverage) and the much-loved “Phoenix from the Flames”, recreating moments from footballing history. Here it was Darren Bent’s infamous beachball goal, an excuse for all manner of fancy dress.
In the absence of the late West Brom striker Jeff Astle (Skinner’s hero), James brought out his own idol, Swansea City’s Lee Trundle, for a rousing climactic sing-song. Targets of running jokes included Nottingham Forest's bloated squad, Tony Adams's Strictly stint and Harry Maguire generally.
Skinner and Baddiel were best friends and former flatmates. The new hosts didn’t have quite the same rapport but their chemistry should develop as the series progresses. Softly spoken, dry-witted James especially was a revelation. It was just a shame there were no nods to the women’s game, especially after a week with no top-flight men’s football.
It’s the second BBC Two comedic cast-off to be rescued by Sky Max recently, following panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks. This misty-eyed revival was much more successful, getting its season off to a highly promising start. Football’s coming home. So is Fantasy Football League.