A whole new ball game: enter the bizarre world of Athletico Mince

·8-min read

If you were starting a podcast, and your intention was to choose a subject matter that alienates as many people as it attracts, you would be hard-pressed to beat football. To some, the beautiful game is a thrilling weekly clash of the titans; to others, an endless parade of stats, inexplicable fortunes and stultifying punditry. Athletico Mince is the hen’s teeth of football podcasts, in that it has managed to cross that picket line: its listenership comprises equal numbers of football fans and non-fans alike. The reasons for this are simple: no other football podcast is co-hosted by comedy legend and near-as-damn-it national treasure Bob Mortimer, and Athletico Mince is the only football podcast that isn’t actually about football at all.

“I was looking at the logo for the podcast and I realised it’s still got two fucking footballs on it,” says its co-creator and co-host Andy Dawson. “Why have we not had them removed? Because it is not a football thing!” He’s right: it wouldn’t be unfair to say that no one has ever listened to Athletico Mince to learn anything about football. There is no analysis, or debate about a team’s form or a player’s performance. “I can remember giving an opinion on the first or second podcast about [former Manchester City midfielder] Yaya Touré,” says Mortimer. “And I heard myself doing it, and I thought: ‘You wanker’. And from then it changed pretty quickly.” “By episode five, it had become what it is now,” adds Dawson. “It’s got people from the world of football in it, but they don’t do ‘football stuff’.”

What Mince became is a freewheeling barrage of made-up stories, songs and idle, occasionally football-related blather. You don’t need a dullard’s knowledge of the Premier League to appreciate Mortimer’s alternate reality in which a dimbulb Harry Kane is the leader of a secret boys’ gang called the White Hearts (group mantra: “FEEL THE FEROCIOUS HEAT!”), or Dawson’s depiction of the former England manager Roy Hodgson as a vaguely terrifying Warhammer obsessive. Another ex-England boss, Steve McClaren, is besotted with his pet snake Caspar and what he calls his “hair island”. Mortimer’s lovable Peter Beardsley rambles in tragicomic monologues about his wife, who’s only with him because of his willingness to cook her a litany of egg-based repasts. Then you have a belligerently competitive Jeremy Corbyn, ambushing Dawson as he goes about his business, or Mortimer’s unlikely encounters with the amorous alderman of Stockton-on-Tees. Neither of those last two, or much of Mince for that matter, have anything to do with football. Football is little more than the broadest possible peg on which to hang a load of glorious nonsense.

Today, the pair are speaking from backstage at a sold-out live show in Liverpool, shortly after the podcast’s dual milestones of its 100th episode and fourth birthday (Covid-19 forced them to postpone further dates in London and Cardiff). In terms of popularity – some 30 million listeners since 2016 – and longevity, it is evident that they hit upon something. “The best feedback we get, for me, is when people say: ‘I don’t really follow football,’ or: ‘I hate football but I really love this podcast, even though I don’t understand who the characters are,’” says Dawson.

Football fans are also hardly starved of alternative, blokes-yelling-at-blokes football-opinion pods, although there was little danger of Mince ever ending up as one of those. “The thing I despise most,” says Mortimer, not quite as seriously as it may appear in print, “is fucking opinions. Honestly, man, it’s such a waste of a person’s time. There’s opinions frickin’ everywhere today, isn’t there? And people seem to think that it’s something you’d be interested in. ‘Oh, I’ve got an opinion, people might be interested in that.’”

It was, however, Dawson’s judicious deployment of such opinions that led to the two of them crossing paths in the first place. “Bob just started following me on Twitter,” says Dawson, whose strident tweets as @ProfanitySwan had garnered him a sizable following. “There was a conversation about a portable plastic greenhouse that I’d bought, that I was really proud of. And Bob just appeared in my mentions telling me it was a load of shit, and that it would blow down in the first slight breeze that came along, and that I was an idiot.” On the surface, Dawson and Mortimer do seem to come at Twitter from irreconcilably different directions: Dawson the keyboard warrior, Mortimer more inclined to offer whimsical cat names for sale, such as “Floating Tiger Hidden Moorhen”, or “Buttery Paul”. But the two became regular features in each other’s timelines. “Andy can be funny on Twitter,” says Mortimer. “But, sadly, he likes getting into barneys. But it’s Andy’s Twitter, innit? He can do what he wants!”

Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing
Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing. Photograph: Parisa Taghizadeh/PA

It didn’t take long for the idea of doing a podcast to arise. “The first night we met up and went for a few drinks, I think I just suggested it,” says Dawson. “And then Bob had his heart operation.” Dawson is referring to the triple heart bypass Mortimer underwent in 2015 that led to Mortimer saying “yes” to things he might previously have considered putting off, such as appearing on Would I Lie to You?, going fishing with Paul Whitehouse, or doing a football podcast with a mate he met arguing about greenhouses on Twitter. “It seemed like a good idea to do it after he was recovering from that, because it was simple,” says Dawson. “I’d never worked with anyone of Bob’s stature before. We ended up kind of just winging it.”

“Best way to do it, innit,” says Mortimer. “People tend to think too much about comedy.”

It also gave Mortimer a much-needed outlet. “My long-term comedy partner Jim [Moir, AKA Vic Reeves] has no interest in football whatsoever,” he says, “so it never creeps into any of our shows or anything. And I’d always wanted to do something with football. Jim’s always had a lot of interests, and I think he got a bit guilty because he’s always done historical documentaries, or he does an awful lot with his painting, Coronation Street, the lot. And I never really bothered, to be honest. I just liked working with Jim. I don’t really like working on my own. I like that this is football, because it doesn’t feel rude to Jim. ”

Both Mortimer and Dawson have plenty going on outside of Mince. Mortimer has enjoyed viral fame with his yuppyish Train Guy, a character strikingly similar to the podcast’s own Barry Homeowner (“I think they’re different, but they’re probably the same, aren’t they?”), while Dawson co-presents another football podcast, Top Flight Time Machine, with Sam Delaney. Even so, the curious, cultish, oddball world of Athletico Mince is something that only Bob and Andy, together, can create.

“People say they’ll work with someone and they’ll find out the person they work with is a Mince fan, and then they feel as though that’s a little thing that they’ve got,” says Dawson. “It’s getting bigger and bigger, but it’s still got that niche outsider thing about it.” Although anyone wishing to hop aboard the good train Mince at this point is advised to go back and get stuck in early. There are a lot of in-jokes to catch up on.

Or, says Mortimer, putting it succinctly: “If you came to see it live and you’ve never heard Athletico Mince before, it would be deeply shit.”

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Football Weekly
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Guardian football writer Rob Smyth is a regular on a show that celebrates short shorts, players with moustaches and matches with Cold War subtexts. Recent subjects include a throwback to the days when European Championships took place in even-numbered years with a breakdown of Euro ’88, and a solid 80 minutes on Rangers’ 1992/93 campaign.

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