Why a Documentary About the Liverpool “Spice Boys” is a Good Idea

A regular feature of the YouTube show “Stick to Football” is the preamble before the official recording starts. Here’s a brief excerpt of the 15th February edition of the show involving Gary Neville and Roy Keane—

Neville: “Why have the Liverpool players that were in that ‘Spice Boys’ team not done a Spice Boys documentary?”

Keane: “I think you’re being a bit harsh on them…I think it’s unfair, that. I really do.”

Neville and Keane were referring to the Liverpool men’s team of 1994-1998. A squad with some of the most exciting young English players of their time, who failed to win anything beyond the 1995 League Cup, and are best remembered for their pre-match sartorial choices before the 1996 FA Cup Final; adorned in cream Armani suits. They produced an insipid display, losing a turgid game 1-0 to Manchester United, and were given the derisive “Spice Boys” moniker as a result.

Liverpool FC, Spice Boys, documentary, English football, 1990s, 1990s Britain, culture wars, Premier League, celebrity, media culture
Artwork by Anita Sambol Baniček

One can understand Keane’s aversion. Such a documentary could easily turn out to be a gratuitous and cruel recounting; pointing and laughing at an era of underachievement. Comedic viewing for Manchester United and Everton fans. But a documentary on this era of Liverpool also has huge potential to be something more. Because that team made its name during a huge inflection point in English football, reflecting changes in British society.

A process which began at the 1990 men’s World Cup gathered pace with the 1992 advent of the Premier League, and reached its cultural zenith with the England men’s team at Euro ’96 — football had morphed from a “slum sport played in slum stadiums” to a significant U.K. pop cultural signpost. Speaking about this period, Arsene Wenger said, “From [19]97 onwards, England became more open to the rest of the world. London became very cosmopolitan. It coincided with the start of an evolution in the English game.”

Increased money and profile came into the sport, making its players richer than ever before. Their class mobility was accelerated, rapidly transitioning them from privation to affluence. However, this complicated the notion of football as England’s (and Scotland’s) most prominent expression of the male (and mostly white) working class, especially as working-class fans were being priced out of attending games.

To the media and wider public, this gave the impression of players becoming dislocated from the areas which raised them. Note how the animosity was directed towards players earning fortunes, but not the even wealthier men in charge who underwrote those salaries. The very unspoken but real resentment towards working-class success (especially those who lacked formal education or middle-class mannerisms) burst forth. How dare these people attain wealth for kicking a ball? The phrase, “give nurses footballers wages” would have attained meme status had such things existed back then.

We also shouldn’t overlook the increased influence of foreign players into the Premier League during this time. This coincided with increased immigration into the U.K. A feeling was brewing that our game was being polluted by foreign values. As with India and cricket, or Canada and ice-hockey, football was not only a hugely popular sport, but a way for England to converse with itself.

What do I mean by foreign values? Well, what does England see when it looks in the mirror? A stoic, unfussy, and hard-working nation, with an underdog aggression when needed. So to see a team of rich, working-class young Englishmen (youth is also treated with suspicion) wearing gaudy attire from an Italian designer, before they’ve even won anything? Who the hell do they think they are? Europeans? Hollywood movie stars? These players were branded as the worst thing one can be in English eyes: show-offs. This is where those cream suits carry such loaded meaning. They symbolised a new age of prosperity (for some), representing a time of national confidence/hubris, seeing off the remnants of the industrial heartlands, and if you couldn’t keep up with these changes, you’d be left behind. Whether this was true mattered less than whether it was believed to be true.

This doesn’t mean there weren’t things to criticise about that Liverpool side, but when talking about them, we should be clear what we were criticising. Along with fair-minded examinations of the team, there was a constant inference that they weren’t just lacking as players, but—more pertinently—as people.

The causes of Liverpool’s relative failure are in truth fairly prosaic. With John Barnes and Ian Rush ageing out of the team, they lacked sufficient experience. Jamie Redknapp had rotten luck with injuries, football was not a place equipped to help players like Stan Collymore with his mental health struggles, and they never had the most resolute defence. And of course, they were trying to topple the monolith that was Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. Restoring Liverpool back to the top was hardly an open goal. But memory will have us hold some cream suits culpable.

Football doesn’t just teach the English about being English, it also teaches them how to be “men”. And the sight of this besuited Liverpool team was an example of how Englishmen shouldn’t be. A little too soft and unmasculine, so their punishment was to be tagged with a name invoking the most famous bubblegum pop band of that era. The connotations of which were hardly subtle.

They were painted as unserious dilettantes, more concerned with their image than with winning. If they were “serious men” then it’s axiomatic that trophies would have followed. Added to that, there’s the awkward relationship the city of Liverpool has long had with the English establishment.

So a documentary on this team (done properly, in the style of a “30 for 30”) would add much needed nuance to the recollection of this era. As well as knowledgeable talking heads on football, you would also need commentary on topics such as immigration (of a piece with the increase in Premier League foreign players), economics (the U.K. was in a period of economic growth), politics (the Labour Party won power in 1997) and celebrity.

This observation from Jen Offord shows how close football and celebrity had become; “Money is part of what can be so toxic in the men’s game—it breeds resentment among fans, players become so wealthy that they are almost seen as not a real person and cannot be touched by abuse.”

Players were (some by choice) being drawn into a nexus where celebrity drew huge social currency. Paparazzi swarmed like locusts. The “upskirt” shot of famous young women became commonplace. Celebrities only existed as, to quote Dylan Moran, “things to occupy thongs.”

Our current cultural moment has given this mindset some welcome re-evaluation. Documentaries like “Framing Britney Spears” analysed how vicious the prism was that we viewed her through. The wider public, in concert with the media, consumed her for entertainment, snark and ridicule, with not a thought given to how this was affecting her. This type of treatment is also touched upon in Netflix’s recent documentary on David Beckham. And if we’re honest, we couldn’t get enough. It was standard practice for this generation of Britons. If our television screens weren’t causing us to sit in judgement of footballers, then it was in judgement of people’s clothes.

We invest so much energy and emotion in these players, yet it sits alongside an acidic contempt. All for people we don’t know, and probably never will. It hardly seems like a healthy way to conduct oneself. Indeed, is football fandom the most parasocial of relationships?

Yes, spleens may be activated with fury when our team loses, but a fair retrospective of this Liverpool side would also highlight something else; that the most common sporting experience is losing. By definition, one victor will result in multiple losers. But defeat isn’t always the result of some nebulous moral failing. Usually it’s a basic matter of a rival being a little bit better. It’s not as if the other teams weren’t also trying just as hard to win.

To remember Liverpool fairly is not just to remember the near misses, but also how they played. Committed to attack, they were involved in some thrilling football: the two 4-3 games vs Newcastle; the UEFA Cup encounter against Celtic; pretty much anytime Robbie Fowler played against Arsenal.

If we wanted a contemporary analogue, we could probably look at Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur side; a similarly exciting team based around a core of young English talent that may have frustrated through lack of silverware, but also left their fans with some magical memories.

Far be it for me to disagree with Roy Keane, but there is considerable utility in a documentary about the “Spice Boys”. But for it to work, it would have to tell us something about who we were in 1990s Britain, as much as it tells us about Liverpool FC.

Shane Thomas

Shane Thomas is an increasingly sporadic writer from South London. He will tell anyone who'll listen (and anyone who won't) that he's from the same hometown as Naomi Campbell. He was a contributor to The Women of Jenji Kohan: A Collection of Essays.