Sullivan emerging from Dad’s shadow
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