The cult of the Goal! films came full circle when Brazilian forward Kenedy was presented as a Newcastle United player in the January transfer window of 2017. Having signed on loan from Chelsea, the youngster was asked how much he knew about the club. “I know a bit about the history of some players and I also watched a movie called Goal! – it was good.”
Other Newcastle players past and present have cited the film’s influence in interviews. Current midfielder Isaac Hayden lists it as one of his favourites growing up, while it was one of the reasons Toon legend Jonas Gutierrez had heard of the club before moving to St James’s Park. “It makes people want to play for Newcastle,” Papiss Cisse said when he watched it a year after joining the Magpies.
Then life imitated art when Miguel Almiron signed for a club record £21 million fee from Atlanta United. A young Latin American player making a dream move from the US to the Premier League and trying to win over the Geordie faithful in the process was always likely to draw comparisons with Santiago Muñez, the star of the trilogy.
For those who are lost, Goal! follows the story of Muñez, an amateur Mexican footballer living in Los Angeles who dreams of making it as a professional. He gets his chance when an ex-Newcastle player spots him playing for his local team and sets up a trial for him at his old club. With cameos from a number of real players including Alan Shearer, the first film centres around his attempts to prove himself in English football and adapt to life in the north-east while dealing with all the pitfalls a young footballer usually faces.
It is a film which evokes fond memories for football fans of this generation, for whom Santiago Muñez has become a byword for the best player Newcastle never had. The final scene sees him lining up a free-kick in the dying minutes against Liverpool in front of a packed-out St James’s Park, knowing a goal will be enough to secure Champions League qualification. It is a far cry from where Newcastle find themselves now, in the bottom half of the Premier League with a threadbare squad and a manager forced to prioritise defence over attack.
Would Santiago Muñez be able to save Newcastle in their current situation?
“No, of course not,” laughs Mike Jefferies, the film’s producer. “It’s heart-breaking in one sense because I think all football fans outside of Sunderland want Newcastle United to be healthy and competitive. The people of Newcastle are fantastic and always going to St James’ Park is a fantastic experience. So the fact that they’re not top four or top six year after year is a source of heartbreak, really. It’s a travesty.”
The story behind Goal! is almost as dramatic as the plot itself. As a diehard Liverpool fan who even fronted a bid to purchase the club in 2004, Jefferies was determined to write a football story for the big screen. But he was resigned to producing the film with arch-rivals Manchester United, having pitched it to his boyhood club with no success. That was before a last-minute bid from Newcastle’s chairman Freddy Shepherd came in as Jefferies was driving home from one of Man United’s preseason games on their tour of the US.
The story behind Goal! is almost as dramatic as the plot itself
“I was about half an hour from home when the phone rang, and this voice said, ‘Is that Michael Jefferies?’ It was an unknown number, and he says, ‘It’s Freddy Shepherd’ and I was like ‘Yeah, pull the other one’. He goes ‘No, no, no, I’m here in America, in Las Vegas with [Newcastle vice- chairman] Douglas Hall. We’ve been hearing about your movie and understand you’re getting very close to making the film with Manchester United – is that true?’ And he says, ‘I’ve got three words for you: fook Man United.'”
Shepherd and Hall said they would fly to Los Angeles to meet him and see if the north-east club could “gazump Man United”. Meanwhile sports pages in the UK speculated that Newcastle’s directors were in California to finalise the sale of midfielder Kieron Dyer to the Manchester club. Jefferies jumped at the chance to make the film with a club who weren’t Man United, but the producer was also drawn to the club’s attacking ethos and the north-east’s unique football culture.
“Newcastle’s heritage, and our perception of the Newcastle football club’s heritage and values, has always been positive. I think all football fans like Newcastle United, particularly after what [Kevin] Keegan did there with the philosophy to go and score five goals and it doesn’t matter if you let four in, as long as you get the three points.”
Jefferies tells a number of stories about filming the trilogy which seem unbelievable — part of the reason why he is writing a book on his experience. In the case of the sequel, where Santiago Muñez makes a big- money move to join Real Madrid, it led to some surreal encounters, including flying on the team jet to Barcelona for El Clasico. Jefferies also recalls the moment he had to explain the project to the Galacticos in a hotel.
“There’s a knock on the door and it’s David Beckham. I sit down and talk to him for about an hour and a half about what we’re planning to do and how we’ll be involving the Real Madrid players. He left, 20 minutes later there was a knock on the door and it was [Zinedine] Zidane. He came in with his manager or agent and I did the same thing, just yapped to him. And then he left, then 20 minutes later there’s a knock on the door and it’s Raul. And it was that type of access.”
There were massive challenges in the making of the films, though, not least the fact that Santiago Muñez couldn’t play football. Or rather Kuno Becker, the actor who played him, couldn’t. Jefferies remembers leaving him with Freddy Shepherd’s son Kenneth on his first evening in Newcastle, who took him to play football with his friends.
“I’m coming back from my dinner meeting in London to my hotel and Kenneth calls me. He says ‘Are you joking? This kid is never playing the lead actor in Goal!, you’re kidding me, right?’ So I didn’t sleep that night and got the first flight, I think 6am or something, from Heathrow up to Newcastle. I went straight to the training ground, and I texted [Kuno] telling him to put his kit on, to bring his boots, and that we were going to have a knockabout: him, me, [then-Newcastle coaches] Graeme Souness and Dean Saunders.”
That led to a “kind of twilight zone” moment for Jefferies as he got ready for a kick-about with Souness, his all-time Liverpool idol.
“We spread out in a square and Graeme boots the ball over to me, and, thank god, for once in my life I managed to trap it on my chest, bring it down and play this not embarrassing ball for Dean Saunders. I’m just getting over the elation of that when Dean passes a very gentle ball to Kuno, who misses it. And then turns around and chases after the ball.
“And when he gets to the ball, what does he do? If you’re comfortable playing football, you’d put your foot on the ball, turn around and hoof it back to one of the three. He picked it up. At that point, I just wanted to go to the toilet. I knew we were in a lot of trouble.”
By far the biggest challenge, however, was the one which all sports films face: how to replicate the real drama we see on our screens every weekend. Jefferies thinks that is a big part of the reason why there has been a dearth of fictional, big-budget football films in the 15 years since the first Goal! film was released.
“We get so much drama through the football we get 45 weeks of every year on TV, seven days a week,” he says. “How do you overcome all the technical challenges and make something that’s compelling and is going to get bums on seats? To compete with that is very, very challenging.
“And I think that’s probably one of the reasons that people that have looked at football in Hollywood or entities like Netflix or whoever, have thought ‘nah’ and have decided, in the case of Netflix or Amazon, to invest in fly-on-the-wall documentaries, to further exploit the drama that you get from the real deal rather than coming up with something fictitious.”
Despite all that, Jefferies is proud of what he achieved with the Goal! saga, and the fact that players and fans still reference the first film 15 years later points to its enduring appeal.
Jefferies is proud of what he achieved with the Goal! saga
“At the end of the day I think it’s a pretty good film,” he says. “It was never going to win an Oscar and we had a limited budget – we could have done a lot more with 300 million than 30 million in terms of special effects and making everything look believable. But there’s only so much you can do with the money that you have.
“When I meet people and they learn that I have anything to do with Goal!, they’re always very nice about it. I’m sure Sunderland fans don’t enjoy it very much, and you can always throw rocks, but I think it’s a sweet film.”
Pictured: Kuno Becker (left) and Mike Jefferies (right). Image courtesy of Mike Jefferies