With little live sport on the horizon, our writers – working from home – reveal their favourite sporting documentaries to get you through the virus lockdown.
The Battered Bastards Of Baseball (Netflix)
Set from 1973, this is the story of how Kurt Russell’s father, Bing, created the Portland Mavericks, one of the best minor league teams in the USA over five years.
It was brought to life by the energy and vision of Russell, a journeyman actor, and by an advertisement in the Sporting News, inviting anyone who could hold a baseball to try out for the Mavericks.
Killer Inside: The Mind Of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)
This is a deep dive into the background of the murderer Aaron Hernandez, one half of the twin-threat, tight end duo with Rob Gronkowski for the New England Patriots from 2010 to 2013.
The cold-blooded murders were partly explained by his troubled childhood and an autopsy that revealed advanced CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) from multiple concussions.
Tom v Time (Facebook)
Already widely-acknowledged as the GOAT (greatest of all time) in the National Football League, Tom Brady has moved from competing against the likes of Peyton Manning to battling against the unbeatable enemy – father time.
This is a carefully produced eye into what he is doing to stay playing until his mid-40s.
Once Brothers (ESPN 30 for 30 series)
A stark reminder of what happens when sport and politics mix. The Yugoslavian basketball team was ready to take over the world and two of their stars – Vlade Divac (a Serb) and Drazen Petrovic (a Croatian) make it all the way to the NBA.
Friends at the start of their careers in the US, the Yugoslav wars drive them apart with Petrovic dying in a car accident before they even had the chance to reconcile.
A story of war, friendship and regret.
Drive to Survive (Netflix)
As much as the two series' on Netflix trace the story of the 2018 and 2019 seasons, ‘Drive to Survive’ is as much an exploration of the at times fragile egos in Formula One - a sport awash with money, rivalries and tragedy.
Each episode follows a particular topic rather than just the narrative of the season.
Not just for petrol heads.
Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)
The journey of Aaron Hernandez from high school phenomenon to NFL star to convicted murderer has been well documented on podcast but the Netflix documentary is worth your time.
With audio from his calls from prison, contemporaneous interviews with team-mates as the story was breaking and questions about his personal and private life, Killer Inside charts how Hernandez journeyed from playing in the Super Bowl to his tragic end.
Red Army (YouTube Movies)
You don’t need to be a fan of ice hockey, or even understand a sport which can often be about angry Russians, Americans and Canadians beating each other up on an ice rink, to appreciate this documentary.
The story of how the USSR ruled ice hockey for a long spell late in the Cold War, it says more about history and politics than the sport.
McCarthy’s Park (YouTube)
Recent Amazon-commissioned documentaries on Liverpool and Manchester City claim to be ‘access all areas’ but this account, of Mick McCarthy’s first (unsuccessful) campaign as Ireland manager, really was warts-and-all, access that would never be granted (or broadcast) today.
Highlights include an expletive-filled row between Ireland kit-man Johnny Fallon and Jason McAteer during a training-ground game, the player unhappy with the kit-man’s decisions as ref of a mere practice game.
A young McCarthy (he was only 36!), a baby-faced Shay Given and a more innocent Ireland as the nation struggled to exit the Charlton years.
An Impossible Job (YouTube)
The 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign is more memorable for Irish fans than English ones, because we qualified and they didn’t, and Channel 4 were given remarkable access to England manager Graham Taylor for the campaign.
For those who watched it live at the time, a second glance on YouTube has the phrases coming right back: Hit Les. Can we not knock it? Do I not like that?
The on-screen disintegration of a proud man under intolerable pressure as England flopped.
Senna (Google Play/Netflix)
My absolute number one. Always found the Brazilian a compelling figure ever since seeing him arrive at Mondello Park as a promising teenager and go toe-to-toe in a Formula Ford with the great Joey Greenan.
This documentary takes an incredibly intimate look at his ultimately fatal relationship with Formula One, with quite incredible drivers’ briefing footage of that fateful weekend at Imola in ’94.
The paradox of Ayrton Senna makes for gripping viewing. A man whose religious faith made opponents suspect he believed he was invincible when, in fact, this film clearly captures someone wrestling with human fear.
Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)
Only watched this three-part documentary recently and it is jaw-dropping. It explores the former professional footballer’s secret life, culminating in a murder conviction that led to his imprisonment and tracing a line of suspicion that he might have been involved in a multiple of others.
After eventually taking his own life while in jail, an autopsy reveals something that – while never making this complex figure remotely likeable – offers a potential glimpse of understanding what it might have been that made him a murderer.
Not a basketball fan so knew little of Allen Iverson – ‘NBA legend’ of the late 1990s and early ’00s – before watching this documentary. Again it offers context for an outwardly feckless, arrogant personality who comes across as a beautiful athlete, but with serious personality issues.
Someone we are told who had to become ‘man of the house’ in a difficult home aged just 12.
Subsequently jailed – supposedly in the wrong – between high school and college, Iverson never quite seems at peace, no matter the glory, wealth and celebrity that comes his way. Fascinating watch.
Free Solo (Amazon Prime)
FORGET the inevitable genre quibbles, please… I’ve known mountaineering is a sport since watching those Chris Bonington ads for Bovril as a kid! Free Solo does, however, seem to transcend sport just as its star, Alex Honnold, seems to transcend life. A moral for these troubled times, perhaps.
Kicking & Screaming
A combination of personal passions here – the beautiful game and Auntie Beeb’s unique voice (which could only be voiced by James Bolam, Alan Bennett or Stephen Fry (Bennett and Fry were otherwise engaged). Six perfect vignettes, chronicling from birth to what many might feel was the end of innocence.
When We Were Kings
Not so much a sports documentary but almost a quasi-chronicle of the 20th century, weaving sport through politics, art and culture – west and east, white and black – with contributions from literary heavyweights, movie icons. And James Brown. Oh, and did we mention Ali, the greatest, and one of his iconic fights? It’s all here.
Once Brothers (ESPN 30 for 30/Daily Motion)
One of the most poignant documentaries of the aforementioned ESPN series, the tale of the broken friendship between Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic, two stars of the Yugoslavia team that prevailed in the 1990 world championships. Divac and Petrovic were close, having made the leap to the NBA in America in tandem with their national team success.
But everything was about to be changed by the wars which broke up the old Yugoslavia into Balkan states. Divac was a Serbian. Petrovic was a Croat. Divac was vilified in Croatia for the public act of pushing off a fan who came onto the court with a Croatian flag in the aftermath of their tournament winning celebration.
At the 1992 Olympics, Petrovic led Croatia into the final with America’s Dream Team while Divac’s nation was banned from the Olympics.
The one-time room-mates stopped speaking to each other and the tension was evident when they met. Tragedy prevented them from rebuilding their relationship.
McCarthy’s Park (RTÉ/YouTube)
When Mick McCarthy was appointed Ireland manager, he allowed a documentary crew to follow him around during his first campaign, the attempt to reach the 1998 World Cup finals in France.
The access went beyond McCarthy as we even get footage of Bernard O’Byrne leading an FAI meeting on the manager’s contract, but the central theme of the show is watching the relatively inexperienced boss speak frankly about the pressures of a topsy-turvy qualification race.
There’s that loss in Macedonia, and early tensions with Roy Keane and the press and pundits.
‘Is it Beglin and Giles?’ asks a triumphant McCarthy, wondering who is in the RTÉ studio as he walks off the pitch following the win that seals a play-off clash with Belgium, a tie that ultimately ends in bitter disappointment.
It’s an illuminating insight.
Maradona in Mexico (Netflix)
On paper, it seemed like a risky union. Mexican club Dorados are based in Sinaloa, a region primarily known for its prominent place in the drug trade (watchers of Narcos will know this already) so bringing in Diego Maradona as manager lent itself to scepticism and easy punchlines.
The Netflix documentary chronicling his time there isn’t quite as slapstick or madcap as you might expect and instead profiles a slightly more reflective Maradona. Granted there is the odd explosion now and then, but it offers a portrait that varies somewhat from the caricature.
The Two Escobars (30 for 30)
ONE of the best of the original tranche of 30 for 30 documentaries made by ESPN, The Two Escobars tells the story of what was known as ‘narco-soccer’, the term derived from a period in Colombia’s history when the drug barons used football clubs to launder their money.
The narrative revolves around Pablo Escobar (he of cocaine cartel infamy) and his non-related namesake, Andrés Escobar.
The latter, a centre-half for the Colombian national team, was murdered in a car-park shortly after the 1994 World Cup, for defending the own goal he ‘scored’ against the United States.
The Short Game (Netflix)
COME for the precocious golf prodigies. Stay for the overbearing parents living vicariously through said precocious golf prodigies.
There’s Allan Kournivoka, a then seven-year old, who conducts media interviews like a tour veteran.
And Amari Avery, dubbed ‘Tigress’ by her father, who insisted she was the next greatest golfer who ever lived. He was her caddy, one who took personal insult to her underperformance devoid of the self-awareness to realise he was contributing to it.
It made for great television.
THERE was probably no bad time to make a documentary about Paidí Ó Sé, but his first season as Westmeath manager in which they beat Dublin and a Mick O’Dwyer-managed Laois to claim the only Leinster title in the county’s history was probably as good a season as anyway.
Includes his famous “f***ed over the line like a loaf of bread” speech – second only to Al Pacino’s ‘inches’ soliloquy in Any Given Sunday in the pantheon of inspirational sporting team talks.
ROG: The Ronan O’Gara documentary (Vimeo)
Dave Berry’s study of former Munster, Ireland and Lions out-half Ronan O’Gara may be a few years old now, but it remains one of the most fascinating glimpses into the mind and life of an always compelling figure in Irish sport as he finishes up as a player and sets out on his coaching career.
Last Chance U (Netflix)
We can’t vouch for the latest season when the series moves to a new school and a new cast of characters, but this fly-on-the-wall study of the American football programme at East Mississippi Community College offers drama, humour and a superb cast of characters.
Zozimus (RTÉ Player)
This short, atmospheric documentary captures the Dublin derby between Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers in all its glory. From the pre-match nerves, early tension, joyful celebration and tearful consolation, the emotions of 90 minutes in one of Irish sport’s most intense fixtures is beautifully captured.
Blood On The Carpet – The Split in Darts (YouTube)
How the original BDO won the battle but very much lost the war as darts went from must-see-TV to almost invisible in the space of a few years, this 2001 documentary speaks to those involved in a story of stubbornness, betrayal and strike breakers. Twenty years on, history favours the players but this is a superb insight into how it came to this point.
OJ: Made in America (30 for 30)
A five-part ESPN documentary examining the brutal murder of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman and the subsequent trial and acquittal of OJ Simpson. The documentary delves into race and celebrity culture in America with such depth that it needs to be re-watched just to take everything in.
An astonishing piece of work which won an Oscar for Best Feature in 2017.
The Test (Amazon Prime)
Sometimes documentaries hit the jackpot in their timing and this series currently running on Amazon Prime is a perfect example as they were there for the greatest scandal is Australian cricket history.
The fall-out from the 2018 ‘Sandpapergate’ ball-tampering fiasco during the tour of South Africa is laid bare as is the steps the team took in trying to repair its reputation. From coaching insights, to vulnerable players and coming back from rock bottom, the cricket itself is almost incidental.
A Year ’Til Sunday (YouTube)
Original proof that even the GAA can do authentic fly-on-the-dressing-room wall documentaries. Pat Comer, veteran Galway sub ’keeper in 1998, got lucky when allowed to bring his camera into the inner sanctum . . . and for it all to coincide with Galway’s first Sam Maguire in 32 years. Talk about perfect timing!
Worth watching again just for the team meeting where John O’Mahony quotes the late Eugene McGee’s Irish Independent depiction of Galway as “Fancy Dans” and concludes with the line: “There’s only one f***ing answer for that!” Indeed.
Players Of The Faithful
First aired over the Christmas of 2018, this relives the most famous ambush in GAA history – the day Offaly super-sub Séamus Darby shattered Kerry’s five-in-a-row.
A familiar story but no less captivating for it, helping to explain how a small county like Offaly could punch above its weight so spectacularly.
Subsequent events add to the poignancy: a few months later saw the sad passing of Eugene McGee, Offaly’s manager in ’82 and a key contributor here. And a few months later still, Dublin had done the five.
The Battered Bastards Of Baseball (Netflix)
First confession? Baseball bores me senseless. Second confession? Kurt Russell the actor leaves me cold. Third confession? The story that brings baseball and Russell together isn’t remotely boring.
It tells of how Bing Russell, Kurt’s dad and himself a journeyman actor, returns to his first love as owner of the Portland Mavericks, an independent minor league baseball team in Oregon.
With a motley crew of grizzly underdogs, has-beens and never-will-be major leaguers (including a young Kurt), the ‘Mavs’ took on the establishment for five seasons and won over the hearts of Portland.
Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)
The life of Aaron Hernandez, former New England Patriots tight end, will both shock and grip you. One of the best footballers of his generation, Hernandez had it all before he spiralled wildly out of control in a tale of murder, prison and tragedy.
His harrowing story is littered with tragedy.
Keane and Vieira – Best of Enemies (YouTube)
Back in 2013, ITV made a fascinating documentary on Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira’s ferocious rivalry, which is now available to watch in two parts on YouTube.
Based on interviews with both of the legendary midfielders, the old footage serves as a reminder of how much the game has change in the years since.
Anthony Foley: Munsterman (RTÉ Player)
A poignant look back at the life and career of the late Anthony Foley, who was a vital part of Munster Rugby’s DNA. Featuring interviews with the province’s most well-known faces, this is the work of Ross Whitaker, who has made a series of stunning Irish sporting documentaries, which are all worth watching.
Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows (YouTube)
A year in the life of wrestling superstar Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart coincided with one of the most controversial moments in sports entertainment history with the ‘The Montreal Screwjob’ at the 1997 Survivor Series which is still talked about to this day.
This is a captivating insight into the inner working of professional wrestling and the extraordinary characters involved.
The kind of cinematic brilliance that requires no prior knowledge of Formula One racing or the legendary driver Ayrton Senna to be spellbound by its contents.
Senna was taken too soon at the age of 34 following a crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix but his unquenchable thirst for excellence will live forever.