WORDS BY CHRIS WALKER | @ONEDAVEBAMBER
If there’s ever a subject I can relate to: terrible quality 5-a-side football has to be right up there. I’ve played in useless 5-a-side teams all my life, so nothing spoke to me quite like the 1990s Nickelodeon show Renford Rejects, which followed a bunch of no-hopers in their David v Goliath quest on the local parks.
In stark contrast to the slickly-produced American kids’ shows it sat alongside on its host channel, Renford Rejects had a comforting charm that makes it deserving of its ongoing legacy as a cult classic television show for people of my generation.
Discovering the whole series was available on YouTube, I gleefully spent a few weeks drinking in the ‘90s nostalgia and the memories came flooding back. The garish shirts, the imitation Ravanelli celebration, cameos from Kasey Keller, Roberto di Matteo and so many more, and boy, oh boy, the music! The theme tune is classic Manic Street Preachers, backed up by a strong soundtrack featuring the likes of Republica, Chumbawamba and the Lightning Seeds, fondly remembered for their goal of the month music on Match of the Day.
Set in the fictional town of Renford, our motley crew join the local youth league, having tried and failed to get onto their school football team. It’s never quite made clear where Renford is supposed to be, but it’s a fair bet it’s intended to be the London suburbs given the prevailing accents; one or two notable exceptions aside.
It’s not to be confused with Brentford, however, with one university friend who is a fan of the Bees delighting in telling the story of how his father once sat down in front of the television expecting to watch Brentford Rejects. You can only imagine his disappointment not to be met with the sight of Leo Fortune-West and Joe Omigie, but rather the purple strips of Renford.
Despite its apparent London setting, the Rejects were captained by Jason Summerbee, who, when not wearing the purple of Renford, would often be decked out in a Hull City shirt manufactured by classic ‘90s underdog brand Super League. In keeping with the foreign influx of the early Premier League years, the Rejects also had their own exotic star in so-called “Italian” Bruno di Gradi, who turned out to be plain old Barry Grade with an even worse Brummie accent than his put-on Italian, presumably picked up from watching one too many episodes of Football Italia.
Five-a-side veterans will be all too aware of the difficulty of finding a regular goalkeeper. My own struggling side has gone around two years without a designated keeper since losing our Sheffield-born Cypriot shotstopper who would get away with all sorts of insults directed at the referee in Greek: “malakas” being my personal favourite. Unlike my Thursday night team, the Rejects were spared the humiliation of having to take turns in goal, but were lumbered with wannabe-poet Ben Phillips. When trying out for the school team, in the pilot episode, Ben is hit with a scathing zinger from PE teacher Mr Stoker: “Goalkeeper? Goal-sleeper, more like.” Ouch.
Given the ‘90s setting, one might expect to see some outdated views expressed on the show. But, in one sense, Renford Rejects was ahead of its time, with Robin Walker joining the team in the first episode and being far and away the best player. Her arrival is met with scepticism from Jason, but even he is won over by Robin’s fervent advocacy of the zonal marking system. There’s no room for ‘proper football men’ on the Rejects.
As this piece was being researched and written, Chris Brookes interviewed Holly Davidson, who played Robin, and dug into some behind-the-scenes stories of filming. Davidson speaks with fondness of her memories on the show and even a tinge of regret at leaving at the end of the first season, when Robin left the Rejects to sign for Chelsea Ladies. “It did turn into such an iconic kids’ programme, and I have so many people who remember me from it now, and that’s 20 years ago. So there is a bit of me that wishes I’d made a different decision on that one,” said Davidson.
Davidson also explained how she gave up acting in her mid-20s to pursue a more stable career, finding a passion in personal training, about which she has published two books, one of them jointly with her sister Sadie Frost. Should Nickelodeon ever choose to bring the Rejects back for a one-off special and coax Davidson out of acting retirement, we would surely learn how Robin’s career sadly faded into obscurity after multiple loan spells at Vitesse Arnhem. Robin was replaced on the show by Sue White in the second season, and Mia Smith in the third and fourth, but neither fit into the group quite as well.
Not only was Renford Rejects socially progressive, but it was also inventive, as demonstrated by the show-within-a-show Sportsview, which featured Vinny Rodrigues filming the matches on an old-school handheld camera. If the Rejects were around today, Vinny would surely be shooting the footage on an iPhone and hosting the show on YouTube. In a bizarre turn of events, Vinny’s footage would be interspersed with cuts to a studio inhabited by Jim Rosenthal and Bob Wilson, who seemed equally bemused to be a part of the whole charade.
Coaching the side in the first two seasons was Stewart Jackson, who suffered an injury in the opening episode at the hands of series nemesis, Terry Stoker, captain of the Razors. A quirk of the Renford youth league 5-a-side fixture list sees the Rejects humiliated 5-1 by the Razors in the opening fixture before the two sides meet again in the final match of the season, with the Rejects needing a win to avoid relegation and the Razors just a point to clinch the title.
With Robin being held hostage by a stooge of Mr Stoker and the Rejects 1-0 down and reduced to four players, Stewart is forced to risk an early return from injury to help turn the game around. Stewart, who is more skillful than any of his male teammates on the Rejects, quickly grabs an equaliser but suffers an injury in the process. Fortunately, Robin returns for the final five minutes and scores a decisive penalty to keep the Rejects up and deny the Razors a third consecutive league title.
The scene of the survival party, and one of the series’ most commonly used locations, was Gracelands cafe. Owned by Scottish Elvis obsessive Eddie, played by Taggart actor Alex Norton, and his wife Priscilla, whose face is never seen, the cafe is the place where the team often meet up to commiserate their many defeats. The show’s atrociously-written Wikipedia page will tell you that the real-life location in Willesden still trades under the Gracelands name today and a visit to Google Street View pleasingly confirms this.
Not even the sight of a young James Corden as “Razor #1” in episode two of the first season could ruin my hours of reminiscing on YouTube, which is about the highest praise I could possibly give. Rewatching Renford Rejects today, despite all its outdated references and shonky production, is still a joy.
Long live the Rejects!