Inside Britain's most dysfunctional football club: The story of Harchester United
Ten seasons. Eighteen managers. Twelve owners. Five separate instances of match fixing and bribery. No other football team can contend with the drama of Harchester United.
In 1997, tired of not being able to control the spectacle of the Premier League (yet), Sky launched a spectacular new television programme called Dream Team.
It was an ambitious programme that used a technique called rotoscoping to create live action football sequences, as well as being the first soap on British television to be centred around a football club. Over ten years it would attract a cult following, and be a springboard for actors who would go on to appear in Eastenders and Coronation Street.
If you weren't lucky enough to witness Dream Team then imagine a blend of Hollyoaks with the day-to-day running of Leeds United, with a death count that even George R.R. Martin would wince at.
Just been told all 10 series of Dream Team are on youtube. Enough of yer Game of Thrones - this is proper TV.
— Garry Carmody (@GarryCarmody) June 21, 2015
The club at the heart of it all was Harchester United; the Midlands based team that frequently hit the fictional headlines for, among other things; the club captain being shot by a sniper while lifting the FA Cup, one manager bribing Lazio fans to racially abuse his own players, and the ownership of the club being given away in a half-time raffle.
It also covered more common features of every day football; bribes, drugs bans, and match fixing.
"The show was quite prophetic," says Neil Newbon, who played the role of Harchester United’s record signing Luke Davenport - back in the days when £28m would get you an England international striker from Barcelona, rather than just about affording you Yannick Bolasie.
"We covered very outlandish stories, only for them to appear in the headlines months or sometimes only weeks later."
Newbon certainly has a point, doping and bribery have been mainstays on the back pages for years - albeit not centred on one club, and he even admits that "sometimes it felt a bit far-fetched but that is due to the large number of storylines the show needed".
— Aaron Fretwell (@Mc__Fret) May 28, 2013
While Dream Team's outlandish storylines set it apart from other football programmes, what really cemented its place in television folklore was the death count - a total of 42 cast members passed away during the programme's run on Sky One, with 26 of those being players.
With an average of 2.6 footballers being shot, poisoned, or being blow-up every season, Luke Davenport was one of the lucky few to leave Harchester United with his life intact.
"Tough break being a Premier League footballer," Newbon remarked on hearing the shocking statistics around the life expectancy in Harchester. "Any player that joined the club must have been deranged."
Sadly for Luke Davenport, his playing career came to an end after it was discovered he had a hereditary eye condition - and one of Davenport's eyes eventually had to be removed following a clash of heads with Chelsea captain John Terry.
While it may rank low on Terry's list of indiscretions, Newbon says he does not know too much about the former England defender or the game generally.
"I'm not really a football supporter," he says. "I'm grateful for anybody who takes the time out to speak to me but I hope I'm not a disappointment to fans of the show in real life."
Newbon, who most recently performed in Final Fantasy XV alongside Breaking Bad actor Aaron Paul, is the first to admit that his lack of football knowledge also extended to a lack of football ability.
"I am not a footballer," he admits. "And it was only through the guidance and patience of [Dream Team's footballing coordinator and choreographer] Andy Ansah that pulled me through the initial casting process."
Ansah, famous for bringing the phrase "unbelievable tekkers" to the public conscious, was a former footballer himself who spent a majority of his playing career with Southend United. Following an injury that brought forward his retirement, he became an actor originally joined the cast of Dream Team as a performer, but increasingly became more of an advisor to the crew.
His main role, and one that he would go on to develop in films such as Goal, was to teach actors such as Newbon the basics of making football look convincing on screen.
Newbon confesses that Ansah, and the rest of the Sky One show's technical team, pushed him further than he had been before, or since:
"As an actor I love challenges and acquiring new skill sets, and I would class myself as a physical actor, but this ranks amongst the hardest skills I have ever attempted to learn for a role."
As well as the challenge of building his footballing ability up to a high enough standard to convincingly portray an England international striker, Newbon also had the added pressure of his character being signed to Harchester United to replace fan-favourite Karl Fletcher, but he claims he didn't feel under any pressure at all:
"I wasn't really aware of the success of Karl Fletcher, apart from what people on Dream Team would tell me about him, and I didn't feel any pressure to replace another actor in terms of filling their shoes.
"The fans' reaction was mixed initially, I was approached by someone who said 'I fucking hated your character when he joined and they got rid of Fletch, but he's grown on me now' - I think in terms of a character, that is an awesome compliment."
Karl Fletcher was Harchester's star man and received the kind of fan adoration that Steven Gerrard enjoys at Anfield, or Everton fans give to Tony Hibbert. During his three separate spells at Harchester United, Fletcher scored 235 goals for the club and was twice player-manager at Harchester's stupendously named stadium the Dragon’s Lair, with one of those stints lasting a single day.
If he was a real life player, he would have stands named after him, statues built, and be part of the conversation alongside Steve Bruce as the greatest players never to receive England recognition.
Fletcher was played on screen by Terry Kiely; place his name into any search engine and you'll be met by hundreds of results questioning where the man behind Harchester's most famous son has been since the last episode aired in 2007.
Some people say he was working as a lifeguard in Richmond-upon-Thames, news reports state that in 2011 he was the sole beneficiary to a £145,000 inheritance, and there were even rumours of his death that same year thanks to a fraudulent Twitter post.
— Paul Smith (@TheePaulSmith) May 29, 2013
He does not have a Twitter account himself, nor does he appear to be active on Facebook, but the man behind Fletch is alive and well - even if he very nearly wasn't the man behind Fletch at all.
"I had a total of four auditions," Kiely says of his journey to become Karl Fletcher. "And I was originally cast to play the role of Dean Hocknell, and then another character whose name escapes me, but I guess the producers saw in me something that suggested I could be Karl Fletcher."
Kiely secured the role of Fletcher, but in the beginning there was no guarantee that the man who would go on to become Harchester United's record goalscorer would even become a permanent fixture in the Harchester United dressing room.
"I was only contracted to appear in the first five episodes," he claims. "And I ended up appearing in all ten seasons, which made me feel very proud and very flattered - I guess the writers loved Fletch as much as I loved playing him."
It wasn't just the writers, and Kiely himself, that loved Karl Fletcher - viewers of the show voted him the most popular character after all but one series had finished airing on Sky One.
"Dream Team fans are very special," Kiely says. "It has a cult following, they grew up watching it and I am very appreciative of them."
Unlike Neil Newbon, Kiely cannot recall an instance where a viewer of the programme ever gave him grief for something his character had done on screen.
— Stuart Hendry (@StuartHendry9) August 17, 2016
Kiely is a football fan and even played for Reading’s youth team when he was growing up. That said, he still doesn't believe he was the best player to have appeared in the programme; saying that honour belongs to Scott Mean, who played for both West Ham and Bournemouth before injury cut short his professional career and he turned his hand to acting in 2002.
Although he may not have been the most talented member of the cast, Kiely was definitely the most popular, and that was underlined by the fact that Karl Fletcher returned to his boyhood club on several occasions.
So what was it about the Midlands that could tempt a player to twice return there from Spain? It's simple, Fletcher went where he was wanted, according to Kiely:
"Fletch was always drawn back to the club because he loved it so much, and he obviously revelled in his status as a club legend."
Although Kiely appeared each of the show's ten seasons, Fletch was killed off in the eighth season of Dream Team - one of the unlucky 26 to have his ended prematurely. The decision to leave the programme was a difficult one for Kiely, and one that fans of the show struggled to accept.
"A great deal of people perished in the show, what can I say, it was art. But everything must come to an end, and I'd run my course. People in the street were very kind to me, they told me I would be missed and that was it for me; I felt like I'd gone out on a high," he explains.
That high came in the form of Karl Fletcher being impaled on a dressing room peg by Harchester United's former manager, and although Kiely was happy with his decision to leave the programme, he was tempted back to appear throughout the tenth and final series of Dream Team; this time playing a ghost.
"The programme was far-fetched," Kiely admits. "But real life can be more ridiculous than television sometimes. Coming back as a ghost sounded comical at first, but the writers wanted to pay homage to True Romance and I understood that; I hope the audience got it too."
Once one of Sky One’s most-watched programmes, the channel eventually decided to do what the Football Association had been attempting for years and shut Harchester United down. After 42 deaths and having developed a cult following, with Harchester United finding their way onto Football Manager 2006 and replica shirts making their way into shops, the final whistle was blown.
The programme's climax came in that year's Premier League title decider, and with scores locked at 1-1 between Chelsea and Harchester, young striker Jason Porter took a shot and scored the winning goal.
In the stands, the ghost of Karl Fletcher looked on and smiled, a fitting ending that Kiely was more than happy to be a part of:
"It was a huge honour to be the lasting image of Dream Team, it was as if the show had gone full circle."
Next year marks the twentieth anniversary of Dream Team’s debut on Sky One, is there still room for a programme like it on our screens? “I’d love it if it came back”, Kiely says.
Will Dream Team ever return to our screens? Well, stranger things have happened; especially where Harchester United are concerned.