Sul­li­van emerg­ing from Dad’s shadow

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Alan Ty­ers

Timely, given the start of the Women’s Su­per League sea­son at the week­end, that the fly-on-the-wall doc­u­men­tary se­ries about West Ham’s women’s team re­turned last night.

The first sea­son was called Bri­tain’s Youngest Foot­ball Boss and took as its sub­ject the tit­u­lar Jack Sul­li­van, who cer­tainly did on oc­ca­sion make a bit of a tit­u­lar of him­self. As the sec­ond edi­tion be­gins, the pro­gramme has been re­branded as Squad Goals: the change of ti­tle de­notes a shift of an­gle, with the fo­cus now more on the en­sem­ble rather than Jack.

Per­haps I am go­ing soft, but I have found my­self warm­ing to the young master, who is the son of the West Ham co-owner David and was made man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the women’s team three sea­sons ago. One as­sumes he is serv­ing an ap­pren­tice­ship ahead of run­ning more fi­nan­cially in­te­gral parts of a fam­ily em­pire said to be worth north of a bil­lion quid.

David made his for­tune via pornog­ra­phy, news­pa­per pub­lish­ing and then prop­erty, three in­dus­tries not for the faint of heart or queasy of stom­ach, and comes over as an ex­tremely shrewd and tough man. The ques­tion of how, or if, a self-made bil­lion­aire can teach a child born into lux­ury to be half as ef­fec­tive as they them­selves have been is an en­dur­ingly in­trigu­ing hu­man drama: whether Jack will be an Ed­ward VIII to David’s Ge­orge V, a Louis the Pious to Dad’s Charle­magne, or a Ken­dall Roy to

Suc­ces­sion’s Lo­gan re­mains to be seen and is, ad­mit­tedly, out­side the re­mit of this six-part re­al­ity show.

That the film­mak­ers cap­ture Jack mak­ing a pig’s ear of park­ing his sports car at the train­ing ground and hav­ing to clam­ber out of the pas­sen­ger side, or not want­ing to be filmed typ­ing on his lap­top in case he gets his spell­ing wrong, sug­gests one point of view. I per­son­ally found my­self rather root­ing for him, and for the team.

Ei­ther way, Jack has un­ques­tion­ably ma­tured over the course of the run and is a pas­sion­ate and watch­able ad­vo­cate for the Ham­mers and women’s foot­ball in gen­eral. They were pro­moted a cou­ple of sea­sons ago, and fin­ished seventh in the 2018-19 sea­son, reach­ing the Cup fi­nal but get­ting their lunch handed to them by Manch­ester City at Wem­b­ley.

Squad Goals tracks their for­tunes through­out the 2019-20 sea­son, which was cur­tailed by Covid-19: a real shame for the women’s game, stalling as it did the surge of in­ter­est and mo­men­tum of the 2019 World Cup. Jack ex­plains that there is not the money in women’s foot­ball to al­low for the test­ing and lo­gis­ti­cal pro­to­cols that al­lowed the men’s Premier League to get back. If that re­ally is the case: how de­press­ing, how short-sighted to penny-pinch in this way. The par­tic­i­pants in this are sto­ical about the lock­down, but one senses the can­cel­la­tion felt like an aban­don­ment and an un­der­min­ing.

In so much as I can tell, they ap­pear to be a tal­ented squad be­dev­illed by in­con­sis­tency and, de­spite the best ef­forts of yeop­er­son cen­tre-half Gilly Flaherty, the Ber­mond­sey-born club cap­tain who has a nice line in ex­ple­tive-heavy team talks about pas­sion and play­ing for the jersey, there is per­haps a ten­dency for heads to drop. A mix­ture of hon­est-to-good­ness do­mes­tic tri­ers leav­ened with the odd for­eigner who does not treat the ball like a live grenade, and maybe do not even bother with the golf (as Harry Red­knapp once put it about your con­ti­nen­tals), the group are part of a rich English foot­balling doc­u­men­tary tra­di­tion.

What is dif­fer­ent to sim­i­lar shows about male foot­ballers is the re­lata­bil­ity: home­sick young­sters, puppy love, friend­ships and fallings-out, play­ers get­ting to 30 wor­ry­ing if they can ever ob­tain a mort­gage.

Over­all, the se­ries has a lot less flounc­ing and histri­on­ics than the other be­hind-the-scenes se­ries that is on at the mo­ment. Whether head coach Matt Beard can work some Mour­inho-type magic on the group re­mains un­clear – they fin­ish the sea­son in eighth place – but as a piece of pro­mo­tional ma­te­rial for the club and the sport in gen­eral, there was much to like and cel­e­brate here.

Fam­ily af­fair: West Ham’s women are be­ing guided by man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Jack Sul­li­van (be­low), son of co-owner David

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