ON THE BALL BEANY
by Anwar Brett
Sean Bean is best-loved in Britain as the rough diamond Sharpe. He's a world-wide star after playing the villainous 006 in GoldenEye opposite Pierce Brosnan. But in his next role, Bean gets to play a part very close to his heart... as a footballer for Sheffield United in the new film When Saturday Comes.
On the face of it Sean Bean has had the most schizophrenic of careers. All the films he has made that gave him exposure to international audiences - the likes of Patriot Games, The Field and GoldenEye - have cast him as a slavering bad guy.
But to British audiences he is the latest working class actor made good, following in the tradition established by Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Richard Harris and Peter O'Toole. Sharpe, his ever popular small screen incarnation, is the very epitome of that ethos.
His latest role as Jimmy Muir, pub team star footballer turned Sheffield United pro, in When Saturday Comes, should send the message home with the precision of a sweetly hit Gazza free kick.
And after years of graft on stage, television and in film Bean deserves no less. He is currently one of the busiest actors around moving from his Sharpe duties in the Crimea to Hollywood and then back to his native Sheffield.
Even when Pierce Brosnan's Bond debut was unveiled to the world's press last January Bean stole the show, with a fleeting photo-call before a helicopter could whisk him back to his spiritual home - Bramall Lane.
"That was an extraordinary day," he smiles, still hardly able to believe his luck. "I went straight from meeting the Press in Watford back to Sheffield United to get changed into my kit. It was just like being James Bond himself.
"Making GoldenEye was the biggest thing I've been involved in, but it was incredible thrill to pull on that shirt and play in front of the crowd. It wasn't a full crowd, but it was still several thousand. Running out onto the pitch at Bramall Lane is one of the most exhilarating experiences I've ever known.
"When I was at the RSC I appeared before 14 or 1500, but nobody shouts at you there. I've never experienced anything like playing in front of the Kop at Sheffield and I don't think I'll ever experience anything like it again. It took me a long time to come down off that buzz."
A sporting drama, with a romantic sub plot involving Emily Lloyd and her ludicrous Oirish accent, When Saturday Comes follows the familiar path of a young prospect who gets a second chance to prove his football skills, then appears to have lost his chance but finally comes good.
And as with any sporting movie the result is less important than the way in which the game is played, especially as there has never been a football movie that has proved entirely satisfactory for fans of the beautiful game.
So with the setting and style the filmmakers have wisely aimed more for This Sporting Life than Escape to Victory. Bean is pleased with the comparison.
"This Sporting Life is one of my favourite films, so it's nice to be mentioned in the same breath," he nods.
"But when we were preparing the film we found that a lot of people won't touch films about football because they've seen them done before and I don't think they've had a great amount of success.
"A lot of directors say that they wouldn't touch a football film because you can't reproduce the actual matches very well, you can't get any sort of atmosphere. So as well as putting a few fancy moves together we concentrated on communicating the spirit of the game.
"Anyway, we couldn't afford 14 cameras like they had on Escape to Victory. With only five weeks of shooting in the middle of winter, we were pretty hard pressed by the weather and we had to get it together pretty quickly."
In the final scenes Jimmy makes good and faces the might of Manchester United, but much earlier in the film Jimmy is a rough diamond in need of the personal attention of a dedicated coach.
"When I went up there and started filming it, I found parallels with the life I used to lead in Sheffield growing up and that - and sometimes fantasy gets wrapped up with reality, because it's very close to home, very close to me. And maybe it could have been another road I took.
"To be honest I wasn't that brilliant at football. I could knock it about a bit, but it's not anything that I could have pursued professionally. But going up there and playing the part of a footballer is the next best thing. I think I chose the right thing anyway because by now I'd be finished as a footballer. I'd have had to have opened a boozer."
As with any movie the story was shot out of sequence requiring Bean to remember just how good or bad he was in any given scene.
"It wasn't a problem" he acknowledges modestly. "I just tried to be good all the time because I knew I was going to be crap.
"But when I was training with Sheffield United (the then manager) Dave Bassett just treated me the same as everybody else. He'd be shouting and bawling telling me what to do: 'come on Beany, lift your feet'."
In one particularly crucial scene Bean is required to take a vital penalty, a tough enough prospect in any match, but even worse when the scene depends on it and the ball has to go flying into a certain spot. And worse when the filming is done in a half-time mock-up game when Sheffield United are entertaining Manchester United at home in the cup, so the action appears to have Bean's Muir up against the likes of Cantona and Giggs.
"I kept slotting the penalties in the bottom left hand corner, and I was alright at that but then I was told I had to get it in the top right corner, within a six-inch square.
"I kept hitting the bar, and every time I missed the crowd would go 'WOOOOO' as if I'd just clipped the post. Sometimes I'd missed by about six foot! It's an amazing experience. But the crowd really got behind me and sang along and cheered me on, every time I scored a penalty. Which weren't very often!
"That ten minutes were an incredible moment in my life. It took me a long time to come down after that, just from the high I got from being on there, taking penalties in front of your home crowd in the kit of the club that you've supported all your life. I had to have about ten pints of lager to bring me back down to normality."
At least his wife is understanding of a husband who has "100% BLADE", Sheffield United's nickname, tattooed on his arm. Best known for her role as Aveline in Bread, and a co- star in When Saturday Comes, Melanie Hill recognises the fulfilment of a boyhood fantasy for her husband in pulling on the red and white and running out with his beloved United.
"I love the team and want them to do well," she insists, "but sometimes I get really annoyed because if Sean's got a day off he has to go and see them.
"When I was on stage in Bournemouth doing Bread he once left me with a temperature of 105 to go and watch them. He put a bowl beside me, got me a clean towel and then left.
"But it's the only time he really relaxes, when he goes up with his mates and watches them play. Even when we got married we only had one day's honeymoon because United were playing the next day."
"It was a bit of a football honeymoon," admits Bean. "But it was a crucial stage, 1990, when we got promotion and it was all the games towards the end. You can't miss one because it's too important. You've got to get your priorities right."
Above all his wife is glad to have finished the film unscathed, for if her experience is anything to go by then the plight of a fan's wife is infinitely preferable to being married to a player.
"I was covered in bruises during filming," she sighs. "While Sean was making the film he obviously kept dreaming about playing for Sheffield United because he would kick me out of bed and think he'd scored."
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