The Jaws of Victory

The Netflix documentary, The Jaws of Victory, is a must watch for all football fans. The episode forms part of the series entitled “Losers”, although any Torquay fan would question that since it does not portray the team losing. The programme tells the story of how Torquay Utd came to avoid automatic relegation out of the football league on the last day of the season in 1987. Along the way we are treated to a programme replete with classic quotes and some musings on the nature of winning and losing.

The Jaws of Victory boasts an impressive dramatis personae. Netflix has gathered together many of the original players as well as other protagonists. We hear from Kenny Allen (Goalkeeper), Jim McNichol (Right Back, Captain) and Paul Dobson (Striker) on the playing front. There is also time for Dave Thomas of The Herald Express, Stuart Morgan (Former Manager), a humble fan, John Harris (Former Police Constable) and of course Bryn the Police dog.

The scene is set with Torquay Utd painted as a humble small town club. Long time followers of the club will have marvelled over the years at how many words the media manage to find to describe such clubs. Many times we have read about minnows, strugglers, battlers etc. Dave Thomas tries in vain to talk up Torquay by reference to the English Riviera and to nameless individuals reputed to have compared it favourably with its cousin the French Riviera. The downtrodden fan however, brings us back to earth with a bump, saying “Anybody who goes to a football match expecting Torquay to win is an idiot I think…you must hope for the best and fear for the worst when you follow Torquay”. Perhaps the most profound comment however, returning to our theme of the nature of winning and losing, is when it is said that there have been more downs than ups, but in a way that makes the ups feel all the better.

So the scene is set. It is the last day of the season in 1987. The team that finishes bottom will be relegated. At the time that could well mean the end of a club. Torquay were playing Crewe who were considered a good team and who were already safe. Torquay would need to get something from the game. Conditions were not very conducive however with the pitch described as bone hard, just like a desert and the temperature boiling hot. Despite what you may read in the travel guides these are not the usual climatic conditions on the English Riviera.

The match did not start well for Torquay and they found themselves 2-0 down by half time. They pulled 1 goal back in the 2nd half to give themselves some semblance of hope. With 8 or 9 minutes to play Captain Jim McNichol chased the ball down as it ran out of play and approached at 90 degrees to Police Constable Harris and Bryn the police dog. They were standing on the sidelines as the Plainmoor crowd got increasingly restless and fearful of relegation. The titular Jaws of Victory belonged to Bryn and soon clamped on to the right back’s thigh causing a nasty gash and ultimately a requirement for 17 stitches. In the heat of battle however, and bearing in mind Torquay had already used their then regulation 1 substitute, Jim had to play on once he was bandaged up. The 4 minute delay whilst these events played out allowed the Gulls to be clear as to exactly what was required of them as Lincoln lost and Torquay knew for sure that a draw would be sufficient to save them. The game re-started and as we entered the 3rd of the extra 4 minutes Paul Dobson struck to equalise and shortly thereafter the final whistle blew and all hell broke loose.

In the aftermath of the game we heard from Dave Thomas that a miracle had been delivered and the players and fans alike partied. The club Chairman met Bryn the dog and his handler and gave him a bone as a reward and a Gulls scarf to help him understand what team he should be supporting! It was generally accepted that the dog had helped Torquay stay up, rather than Paul Dobson. Torquay had survived “by the skin of their teeth” and so started a theme of Torquay as football’s great escape artists that would see further episodes, although to date no repeats starring canine protagonists. We heard from Kenny Allen that if you are a follower of a big football club you need to get real and learn a bit about football history. It certainly seems that the day on which Torquay were saved by a police dog went down in football folklore and this Netflix instalment can only help to cement its position.

Ultimately this was a feel good story. Maybe it was feel good like Lassie or The Littlest Hobo in days gone by, the dogs that saved the day and made everyone feel good about themselves when there was a happy ending every week. I suspect however that it is something more than that. If winning was the be all and end all then everyone would support Manchester City or Utd, and many do of course. But why support a battling club like Torquay? It has often been said that you don’t learn anything from winning but you learn from losing. You go back to the drawing board again and again until you can compete and ultimately win. The victory of the person who knows what it is to fail is perhaps all the sweeter. It is not taken for granted and it is hard fought. This documentary is timely then in 2019 as Torquay Utd team look to have turned a corner with current Manager Gary Johnson weeks away from possibly achieving promotion back to the 5th tier of English football. Torquay fans are dreaming then of a return to the football league. When you survive there is always the chance of doing better next year. Torquay survived in 1987 and they have done well this year..so bring on next season!

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Escape from Alcatraz ..or something

In a curious echo of Christmases past I watched Escape from Alcatraz this Christmas. The echo was down to the fact that the prison escape and prison literature (prison lit) genre has featured pretty heavily in previous Christmases, albeit largely in the form of The Great Escape. I am not entirely sure what the attraction of the genre is, but it seems to exert a gravitational pull of sorts. In fact now I come to think about it I have also been listening to Folsom Untold, which is an Audible documentary-style account of the Johnny Cash album recorded live at a prison gig. I have also always been a fan of The Shawshank Redemption; another prison break film, based on the Stephen King short story. My recent renewed interest is due to upcoming plans to visit San Francisco and hopefully Alcatraz. Again, rather strangely, on my last visit to the U.S.A I read the Stephen King short story collection which included the story which provided the inspiration for Shawshank. This all gives rise to many questions including what is the attraction of prison lit, why is it American dominated and why indulge at Christmas? Before briefly considering all of this I will endeavour to summarise the titular film for the uninitiated.

Escape from Alcatraz is the true story of 3 inmates who attempt to escape from what was considered the most secure prison in the world. Clint Eastwood (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; Dirty Harry) plays Frank Morris, the leader of the group and Patrick McGoohan (The Prisoner) plays the vindictive prison warden. The real life escape in 1962 precipitated the closure of the facility in 1963. The film depicts Morris and his cohorts plotting and preparing their escape. They dig through their cell walls, using a canteen-acquired spoon adapted into a mini shovel. As they explore the possible exit route beyond their cell walls they leave behind papier-mache dummies to make it look like they remain fast asleep, like well behaved prisoners. One of the most memorable scenes occurs when it looks as if their plan is going to be rumbled as a prison officer is looking long and hard at Morris’ papier-mache alter ego as if he has worked out it is not real. In a dramatic scene, which nevertheless requires you to willingly suspend disbelief, we see the officer enter the cell and shake Morris only to find the real Morris has now returned to his cell and he innocently asks what’s up in a bleary eyed manner. The denouement shows Morris et al decide to proceed with their escape plan a little early due to the unwanted attentions of another prisoner who’s threats to kill Morris risk derailing the whole plan. In the event 1 of the escape party does not have the heart for it on the night but the other 3 seemingly make good their escape through the hole in the cell wall, onto the roof, down the side of the building, over a barbed wire fence and into the treacherous waters with the aid of a makeshift raft.

The next morning a massive manhunt ensues. No bodies are found but McGoohan is keen not to be the Warden in post when Alcatraz loses its reputation for never having any succesful escapees. To this end he insists the men must have drowned. The film suggests otherwise however, and in a moment of poetic licence we see the Warden picking up a chrysanthem from the water’s edge on nearby Angel Island, after being told the plant is not indigenous to the island. This is significant as Morris had befriended a character in Alcatraz called Doc who was an artist with an interest in growing chrysanthemums. The clear implication is that the escapees had made it to Angel Island. In reality no conclusive evidence ever surfaced to indicate whether Morris and co survived or not. In 1979 an FBI report concluded that the men were likely to have drowned in the freezing waters of San Francisco Bay. The film hints at the suggestion that that would be a self serving finding for the authorities keen to maintain the perfect reputation of the correctional facility. The fact that Alcatraz was shut down in 1963, 1 year after the escape, is less suggestive of confidence in the prison.

Although they did not watch this film with me, I suspect I may have planted a seed so that my kids are also in danger of catching the prison lit bug. I mentioned to them that Alcatraz must surely have been the inspiration for their hero J K Rowling’s Azkaban. Come to mention it it is probably not their first foray into the field either as I have also subjected them to Porrridge re runs.

As for why prison lit has an eduring attraction I suspect it comes down to (excuse the pun) escapism. Most of us have not experienced incarceration and so it offers an incite into a different world. I am not sure if the genre is any more American dominated than any other aspect of media. Certainly mainstream movies remain American dominated. In my case I have probably been more interested in the American incarnations of prison lit but this is really just a specific expression of a generalised interest in all things Americana. Why indulge at Christmas? The cynics among us might suggest a link to escaping relatives with whom we may otherwise be drawn into seasonal disharmony. I would suggest however that Christmas is itself the ultimate in escapism in that it takes us away from the humdrum elements that may lurk in our everyday lives. Seen in this light watching a prison flick at Christmas makes perfect sense!

Until the next time, I’ll be off to find the river.