Here go Jossy's Giants /
Football's just a branch of science /
Head the ball now, Jossy calls /
In 1986, British children's television was graced by one of the most iconic football shows of all time. While the nineties would produce such utter dross as Renford Rejects and Hurricanes, the former an extremely annoying programme on Nickelodeon and the latter a show which featured characters almost entirely based on national and ethnic stereotypes, the eighties gave us the pinnacle of children's football programming in the form of Jossy's Giants. The show centres on waggish Geordie Jossy Blair, a former Newcastle United prospect who, having seen his own career cut short by injury, is convinced to manage a local youth side called the Glipton Grasshoppers, who are basically shite. Nonetheless, with a bit of elbow grease, a change of attitude and plenty of cheeky Geordie humour, he turns them into a respectable side with a bright future in the beautiful game.
Filmed in and around Stalybridge with the cast drawn from local Sunday league boys' teams, Jossy's Giants is perhaps the most conceptually mundane programme ever made in Britain. Indeed, it is so humdrum, so utterly run-of-the-mill, that after watching several episodes it conversely starts to feel like something sublime. Jossy's Giants is a work of art, a show so ordinary that it ought to be considered a masterpiece of unadulterated realism. Written by Sid Waddell, otherwise known as the 'Voice of Darts', it is the football fever dream of a middle-aged sports commentator from Northumberland, and a condensed amalgamation of everything British that is also notionally working class.
So, from the off, Jossy's Giants takes the viewer on a journey through a kaleidoscope of everyday British culture. Here are the Glipton Grasshoppers, quick-witted kids with broad Mancunian accents, makeshift football kits and the ingrained gallows humour that comes from being born into a country in disastrous industrial decline. They are getting absolutely battered by a group of far bigger northern lads, while their fatalistic coach, Albert Hanson, moans resignedly on the sidelines. At half-time, they eat crisps and almost have a punch up. One of them has a Cockney dad with big sideburns, who naturally turns out to be a bit of a knob.
It is to this workaday backdrop that Jossy Blair arrives, cheerfully singing a Geordie folk song. His coarse criticisms – "I've seen nothing so daft since a' got a clockwork duck fa' Christmas" – make an impression on the insubordinate Grasshoppers, and so he plants the seed of their success. He soon agrees to become their coach, taking miserable old Albert on as his assistant manager. So a fruitful partnership blossoms, and the previously half-hearted Grasshoppers become the 'Giants' that Jossy knows, deep down, they have the talent to be.
Over the course of two series, Jossy and co. get into numerous scrapes and engage in various hijinks. Jossy runs a sportswear shop which is in crippling debt, largely because of his terrible gambling addiction, which is nonchalantly passed off as a love of betting on the 'gee-gees'. The kids help him to manage his addiction, not by taking him to counselling like some sort of southern namby pamby, but by giving him calculated betting tips and cash in hand for his managerial services. The Cockney dad turns out to be a bookie who is willing to offer Jossy credit, so he can gamble to his heart's content while also propping up his failing business. It's all very Thatcher's Britain, what with the air of meagre economic survival that hangs over the show and the fact that everyone stays good-humoured regardless.
It's these adult themes and authentic touches which make Jossy's Giants so much better than the pale imitations which came afterwards, and indeed the vast majority of latter-day children's programming, whether football-centric or otherwise. Jossy instills his young wards with a sense of collective responsibility, while also setting them a terrible example in many ways, not least in his extremely rigid interpretation of masculinity. "I'm sorry love, but where I come from, the fellas don't use cosmetics!" he tells Tracey Gaunt, the main female character in the show, when she gives him some cologne as a gift. Jossy is a chronic gambler with a rough wit and a faintly homophobic take on life but, still, nobody could accuse him of cosseting the kids with an overly idealistic world view, nor of failing to prepare them for the realities of the era.
With the Giants improving game by game under Jossy's watchful eye, they develop a passionate rivalry with a local side, the Ecclestone Express, managed by a man called 'Dazzling' Dave Sharkey. There are glorious victories, unsporting setbacks, and unconvincing cameos from Bobby Charlton and Bryan Robson. Episodes follow a general formula which, although transparent, is part of the programme's mundane appeal. Some point of mild jeopardy arises, the Giants play a jerkily edited football match, and everything works out more or less for the best. Jossy's Giants reflects life in that sense, though without the really difficult stuff like loss, and grief, and insurmountable meaninglessness. It is a children's show, after all.
Ultimately, though, the lasting nostalgia for Jossy's Giants is down to the fact that the programme is charming. It has its drawbacks, it is fundamentally 'of its time', but it captures something of British life which is endearing even if it is routine. Unlike the Renford Rejects, which was defined by that lunatic exuberance which characterises the most irritating children's programmes, or Hurricanes, which presented 'soccer' as a superhero sport for casual racists, Jossy's Giants depicted the experience of playing football in a way which rang refreshingly true. The kids in Jossy's Giants weren't simpering idiots, they were savvy lads who could just as easily have been caught smoking half a pack of fags behind the changing rooms as getting up to innocent monkey business. They were class-aware piss takers full of rebellion and mischief, and they captured the hearts and minds of a generation as a result.
As such, when we assess the legacy of Jossy's Giants, it's hard not to feel that the show went too soon. Limited to only two series, it ceased production in 1987, only a year and 10 episodes after it began. Some of the kids went on to have minor acting careers, mainly making appearances on Corrie, which seems somehow fitting. Had the fictional footballers of the Glipton Giants grown up to be adults, they would no doubt have found themselves down the local equivalent of the Rovers Return on Friday nights, reminiscing about the glories of their youth while sinking pint after pint of Tetley's Cask.
As for Jossy himself, who knows what would have become of the Geordie maestro. He would probably have had to fake his death eventually, just to escape his various creditors. Sadly, Sid Waddell is no longer around to write a spin-off in which his protagonist flees to the Costa Blanca and inadvertently lays the foundations for an all-conquering Spanish national team. Instead, we will have to make do with our memories of Jossy, and celebrate him as a fictional football coach who is remembered with great fondness to this day.