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Fever Pitch (1997)

Life gets complicated when you love one woman and worship eleven men.

Rating: 5/10

Running Time: 105 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15


In the years since its publication, Nick Hornby’s 1992 autobiography ‘Fever Pitch’ has become something of a bible for obsessive-compulsive football fans everywhere. It’s strength isn’t in its story (it actually doesn’t have much of a plot worth speaking of), but in how it captures so accurately the thoughts and feelings of the real football supporter.

The book’s massive popularity sparked a surge of new football writing (some of it decent, much of it crappy) and, far less significantly, spawned this middle-ranking and largely forgettable romantic comedy.

The film stars a mop-topped Colin Firth as Paul Ashworth, a bored High School teacher who only truly comes to life once a week – on Saturday afternoons at 3 o’clock, when his beloved Arsenal kick-off. His very existence revolves around watching his team and – to prove it – he’s been a season ticket holder for the bulk of two championship-less decades. Suddenly though, it looks like things are about to become a lot more exciting for our Paul – not just because he’s finally got himself a girlfriend (fellow teacher Sarah, played by Ruth Gemmell), but because “The Gunners” are at the right end of the league and well on their way towards capturing that ever-elusive title.

With the exception of a few flashbacks to his childhood (where the young Paul is played by Luke Aikman), the entire film is set around the famous 1988/89 season, during which the title race between Arsenal and Liverpool went right to the final minutes of the last day of the season. It’s against this backdrop that Hornby’s self-penned screenplay attempts to play-up a romantic angle which was of little real consequence in the original text – and, unfortunately, it doesn’t really work.

The romance between Paul and Ruth is one of the least convincing I’ve seen on screen, predominantly because they don’t even appear to like – let alone love – each other. Would it have hurt to throw in a couple of scenes showing them actually enjoying their time together or, heaven forbid, simply smiling when in the same room? For Firth, the film represents a change in direction (this came at a time when most people only knew him from his portrayal of Mr Darcy in TV’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’), but he still doesn’t really manage to convincingly escape the Hugh-Grant-was-busy aura he carries around with him, and his character’s constant moaning gradually becomes a source of great annoyance. In fact, I ended up sympathising with Sarah rather than Paul and, as a bit of a football obsessive myself, I’m sure that’s not supposed to happen.

I also felt uncomfortable with the way it pays lip-service to the Hillsborough disaster (it feels as if it’s only been thrown in as an aside because, being set during season 88/89, there was no other choice), and the clumsy treatment of the issue is mirrored in pretty much all of director David Evans’ work here. On the bright side, it does have a fantastic soundtrack (hits from the period are mixed with an original score by the mighty Boo Hewerdine and Neil MacColl of The Bible fame), but even that is over-used and often intrudes upon the dialogue.

Personally, I like anything championing the message that not all football fanatics are either hooligans or brainless dolts, but ‘Fever Pitch’ is a film that can’t make up its mind whether it wants to concentrate on that message or stay with its obligations to the romantic plotline. As a result, none of what it does is convincing enough to capture the imaginations of a British sub-culture once united in their appreciation of an extraordinarily good book. Did I really just say “United”?

It's Got: Subbuteo, terracing and shell-suits! Where would we be without those three magnificent inventions?

It Needs: To explain how one of the players in the school football scenes managed to get his hands on an early-90s goalkeepers’ shirt. That’s some achievement in 1988!

DVD Extras Stills gallery and a trailer. Version reviewed: Fever Pitch (1997) also available from DVD Extras Rating: 2/10


If you’re after a true insight into what makes the British football fan tick, give this pedestrian rom-com a miss and head straight for the book.