Off the ball

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The big, feck-off steel gates glide open at the bleep of a button activated from inside the turbo-charged sports car, and the man whose god-given talent has bought this palace - a mock tudor mansion set in 100 manicured acres - roars off to work.

How has the man got to be so successful (and his wife so excessful)? In the opening episode of ITV’s first major drama of 2002 tomorrow night - the one the network hopes will return it to top of the league in the ratings - he doesn’t once appear in his work clothes, in the company of his ten colleagues. Have you guessed what he does for a living yet? The answer is contained in the title: Footballers’ Wives. But, over the next eight weeks of this series, you’ve got as much chance of seeing a ball being kicked as Forres Mechanics have of winning the Scottish Cup (they got knocked out on Saturday).

So, besides footballers in sumptuous homes and flash cars, you’ll be treated to footballers in designer clothes, in Jacuzzis, in tabloids (front page and back), dodging groupies - and playing away in nightclub toilets. There’s been a reported sighting of a round, white object - a ball - halfway through the fourth episode, but it’s unconfirmed.

"I’m a complete ignoramus about football," admits Brian Park, the drama’s Scots-born executive producer, who also brought us the equally schlocky Bad Girls. "I grew up in Aberdeen and my father took me to Pittodrie only once, but the wind that whips in off the North Sea was enough to put me off the game for life."

But does it matter that we don’t see these footballers play much football? After all, their real-life counterparts have transcended the sport to the extent we’ve almost forgotten what they’re famous for. Pop star, soap star or soccer star - it’s not important. What matters is they’re hot enough to be in Heat every week. David Beckham is a right-sided midfielder for Manchester United ... oh, and he’s also captain of the England side.

But he makes more headlines as Goldenballs than he ever does with a ball at his feet, such as the other day, when he went shopping for bloomers by Agent Provocateur - a present for his wife Victoria, the pop singer.

Only a cynic or someone who hates Man United would speculate that this public appearance, and countless others, had the whiff of clever PR about it - a photo-opportunity aimed at keeping his profile super-high. But what is not in doubt is that there’s just one other person who can come close to matching that profile - his inside half.

Football may very well be the new rock’n’roll, but Posh and Becks are the new royalty, and the couple’s excursions to the Milan fashion show are accorded the status of state visits. It comes as no surprise to discover that Footballers’ Wives features its own version of the loved-up twosome with the competing careers, Kyle and Chardonnay - only in the series she’s a topless model.

"Posh and Becks are too nauseatingly normal and nice to be good subjects for a drama in themselves," says Park. Susie Amy, who plays Chardonnay, adds: "Most viewers would rather watch footballers and their wives fighting, having affairs and splashing their money about."

But there are similarities between the pairings. For instance, Chardonnay develops an eating disorder. "She and Kyle also get married in the showbiz wedding of the millennium," adds Park. "On thrones."

But Posh and Chardonnay are the exceptions to the rule about footballers’ wives. Before they came along, wives were seen and not heard. Amid the whiff of pies, Bovril and pressbox clichs, they brought some welcome fragrance to the grandstands - but they were viewed as accessories.

Another who has broken with tradition is Shelley Webb, wife of Neil, the former Nottingham Forest and England star, but also a history graduate who became a broadcaster and wrote a book, called Footballers’ Wives, which slide-tackled the myth that she and her kind were all bimbos.

Park makes no apology for the fact that, Chardonnay apart, the wives in his series are "totally beholden to their husbands’ talents". The most beautiful, blonde and bored of the bunch is dubbed a "parasite" by her man as he smashes an example of their home’s bad art against the glass dining table in a rage. But Webb paints a different picture: she tells of strong women of independent mind, who nurse and cosset but also scold, like fellow Forest wife Karen Wrigley, after her husband Steven was ordered by Brian Clough to run through a field of stinging nettles at training: "What do you mean you had to do it?"

Another wife, Kelly Woan, bemoans the lack of respect accorded footballers’ wives. "As far as most people are concerned, we’re accessories. They don’t take us seriously, and can’t believe that we met and fell in love with our men just like any other women."

Real footballers’ wives will hate Footballers’ Wives the drama - it’s not a flattering portrait. And Sir Alex Ferguson won’t like what it says about players, Beckham’s gaffer being the manager most at odds with the footballer-as-celebrity cult. After Ferguson dropped Beckham recently, the veteran football journalist James Lawton remarked: "The celebration of the player has simply gone beyond rationality."

At least George Best, the Beckham of his day, made the pretence in a famous old documentary of spending the odd night at home, and was even glimpsed fiddling with his macram.

The celebration of footballers has got even sillier since Shelley Webb wrote her book, and she has sympathy for players and, of course, their wives. "They have no privacy now," she says. "I remember David Platt telling us how he was having dinner with his wife in a restaurant when he was asked for his autograph. That was OK, but then this guy came back with his camcorder and actually filmed the rest of the meal. Footballers are like pop stars now - Posh and Becks must feel like prisoners in their own homes."

But what homes they are. Brian Park may not know his Arsene Wenger from his elbow, but he can do schlock. He says: "A friend who worked on Through The Keyhole once told me the production team always guessed the house that belonged to a footballer because of the lack of books about the place. I remembered that when we were making this series."

And Susie Amy believes the drama will score with viewers precisely because it isn’t flattering about its subjects. "I don’t think the public want to see footballers and their wives in a positive way," she says. Somewhere along the way, the game has got lost - but only the true fan will be sick as a parrot about that.

Footballers’ Wives, ITV, tomorrow, 9pm

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