Football documentaries are all the range at the moment. Sunderland ‘Til I Die proved once again to be a hit upon the release of its second series on Netflix last month, while Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund, Juventus and Leeds United are among other teams to have allowed cameras behind the scenes in recent years. But back in 2013, Reading filmed the final 10 weeks of their Premier League season for an hour-long documentary entitled #BuildEvolveSucceed.
The project was the brainchild of Reading’s Head of Communications Craig Mortimer-Zhika, known for his overly positive PR, including stunts such as the whole squad holding up images of the injured Jem Karacan at a team photo-shoot. It’s a shame we never actually get to see Mortimer-Zhika in the documentary, as he certainly would have had an entertainment factor.
#BuildEvolveSucceed was adopted as the club’s mission statement at some point during 2012/13 in much the same way that Alan Pardew couldn’t get enough of ‘Tenacity, Spirit, Flair’. Putting together three mildly positive words is a tried-and-tested method for a club slogan that plays on your emotions, but more often than not it ends up being tweeted back to you sarcastically. ‘Build, evolve, succeed’ was even not-so-subtly worked into interviews by the club’s hierarchy, as if they thought no one would notice. Why it was chosen as the title for a documentary capturing one win in 10 games and eventual relegation is anyone’s guess.
The documentary starts with Reading’s 2-1 loss at home to Aston Villa in March 2013, and I’m reminded that this was a period when we were forced to play Stuart Taylor in goal. The final whistle blows and we see shots of a suited Jason Roberts walk down the tunnel dejected, Jobi McAnuff with his head in his hands and Brian McDermott receiving a phone call. I presume we’re meant to think it’s this phone call that brings his time as a manager to an end, as the news is confirmed over the next shot of a raining Mad Stad car park. Pathetic fallacy at its finest.
The first we see of McDermott’s replacement, Nigel Adkins, is a big cheesy grin as he spots the camera for the first time. Adkins’ relentless positivity went hand in hand with that of Mortimer-Zhika, and this combination arguably drives a largely upbeat watch despite Reading continuing to lose games.
When you find yourself in a hotel room with Jobi McAnuff and Adrian Mariappa, a lift with Adam Le Fondre and Noel Hunt is inviting you into his house, all on a handheld camcorder, you have to double check it isn’t the start of some sort of eccentric Royals porn film. Hope Akpan admitting “every night before I go to bed I make love to the foam roller” doesn’t help matters.
Few men have had a greater positive impact on Reading Football Club than Sir John Madejski, but his presence in the documentary is an altogether confusing one - much like that time he was at Jaap Stam’s unveiling press conference for no apparent reason other than to criticise the decision to sack Brian McDermott. Madejski tags along on the team bus like some sort of mascot, and when he is interviewed in his penthouse at the stadium, he is having his portrait painted. Pictures of him with the likes of Prince Charles and Tony Blair adorn the furnishings. “We can’t cherry pick players from all around the globe, that’s far too much of an expensive past time,” says Sir John. Royston Drenthe and Danny Williams would arrive from Alania Vladikavkaz and Hoffenheim respectively just three months later on extortionate salaries.
Orchestral music starts playing as Reading take to the field against QPR. It feels like the start of a spine-tingling montage, building up to a wonder goal or winning moment. Instead, the climax is the confirmation of relegation.
That said, it’s not all bad. We’re given a brief insight into Eamonn Dolan’s spell as caretaker manager, and you really are given the impression that when he spoke, everyone listened. He is a calming presence as the documentary captures all manner of things around him. His voice is warm yet passionate; if only he could have narrated the whole thing.
The segment on BBC Radio Berkshire is also interesting, with the documentary probably providing more access into the workings of the radio station than the club itself. We join Tim Dellor and Mick Gooding for the days in and around the Norwich City away game, and you can only laugh at the definitely not scripted: “Night, night Mick, see you tomorrow”, “Night, night Tim” as Friday turns into Saturday.
A particular highlight of mine was Steven Gerrard telling Alex McCarthy: “Big man, that was unreal” after the goalkeeper’s heroics in the 0-0 draw with Liverpool. Meanwhile, throughout the documentary we’re reminded of the fantastic characters that team had - Noel Hunt, Adam Le Fondre, Jobi McAnuff, Jason Roberts - and how intelligently they all speak. Even Akpan, despite his foam roller fantasy, has a certain Scouse charm.
We also hear from Anton Zingarevich on four separate occasions, and it’s easy to forget how amicably he came across. He speaks encouragingly about his plans for the football club and aims to get promotion back to the Premier League at the first time of asking. As far as I can tell, it is his last interview before deserting Berkshire a few months later, leaving the Royals in financial chaos in the process.
So what happened to #BuildEvolveSucceed?
The hashtag was last used by the club’s Twitter account on 20 April 2014, as the admin exclaimed they were “still buzzing” about the previous day’s victory in the Under-21 Premier League Cup final. But the motto had long since gone out of fashion, as supporters began using it only in the ironic sense.
It was always going to be a struggle making it stick when very little building, evolving or succeeding was actually happening. The Royals would finish seventh in their first season back in the Championship, invading the pitch on the final day in celebration. That summer, the club very nearly went out of business, and several key players such as Le Fondre, McAnuff, McCarthy and Morrison all departed. In the six years that followed, financial peril has never been far away, the turnover of players and managers has been vast, and the team have spent the majority of their time in the bottom half of the division.
It’s worth remembering that the documentary was made in-house by the club’s media team, so what we see has been carefully selected. It covers a lot without really telling us anything at all. The only time we hear the views of supporters is pre-match at Craven Cottage for about 30 seconds. But again, they say what the club want them to say, reinforcing the positive message: “It’s disappointing but not the end of the world. The future could be very bright”. “It’s good fun being up here, but I love the Championship as well.”
Most of what the players themselves say could easily be found in an ordinary media interview. The only glimpse of their personal lives we get is when Noel Hunt is interviewed in his own house. During this segment, he discusses the potential job losses at the club that could be caused by relegation. Nothing more is mentioned of it, and we hear from no one behind the scenes - in retail, ticketing, marketing, at the training ground - who it actually affects.
It’s those stories that make a football club documentary. Really, it’s those stories that make a football club. In Sunderland ‘Til I Die, it’s club chef Joyce that proves a hit with viewers. Meanwhile, we follow supporters from their homes to the play-off final and build a real affinity with them. We find out what lies at the heart of their fandom.
Can that be achieved in a club-made documentary such as #BuildEvolveSucceed? Probably not, and it leaves you a little confused on who the feature was actually made for. Fans get somewhat of an insight into the team, but ultimately you’re left feeling that it promises a lot but delivers very little. Not a bad metaphor for the club itself.