Opera North - The Little Greats

Football Documentary: Shaun Barker: 1,065 Days

29 September 16 words: Penny Reeve
A local filmmaker is documenting the story of the Derby County player's rehabilitation after a horrific knee injury
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First up - who is Shaun Barker?
He was the captain of Derby County when Nigel Clough was still their manager. The club was in a mess after being relegated as the worst team in Premier League history – Clough then wanted to build a new team around an old-fashioned, honest defender who, having grown up in Trowell, knew how important football was to the local area. Unfortunately, only three years into his Derby career, aged 29, Barker suffered a horrific knee injury while playing against Nottingham Forest in March 2012.

What inspired you to tell his story?
I first talked to Shaun a couple of years ago through his Foundation. I’d met a decent amount of footballers before through working with different clubs, and was immediately struck by how different he was from the stereotype. He’d suffered one of the worst injuries imaginable but still seemed so upbeat and positive about it. Shaun was determined to do something positive with his time out injured. I initially just wanted to make a short about his last year at Derby County and how it feels to be a footballer edging closer to retirement. 

Can you tell us a little about his football career up to the point of injury?
Shaun had a weird route into football. He was reluctant to take it up as a professional at all, and had to be persuaded to do so by his Youth Team coach at Rotherham United. He loved art and music, but was a naturally gifted footballer. We’ve talked a lot about him hating the business side of the game, and the way players get treated as commodities. It seems like a sport where integrity is increasingly rare. 

And the injury?
Nigel Clough described Barker as a “no nonsense ‘head-it, kick-it’ defender,” which I think is fairly accurate. He was known for putting his body on the line and being a warrior on the pitch. Fans love that in their players. Unfortunately, the downside of that is that you put your body at risk. His injury came, weirdly, in a collision with his own goalkeeper. They both went to clear a ball and Shaun had the whole weight of the keeper land on his knee, rupturing his medial, anterior cruciate and posterior cruciate ligaments. His surgeon said it was one of the worst injuries he’d ever seen, and something more likely to be seen in a bad car crash. His leg was literally hanging on by the skin. 

Why is Shaun’s story such an inspiration?
To me, it’s because he refused to quit when almost everyone expected him to. He just had this colossal five-year battle with his own body, and somehow came out the other side successful. What he had to go through during that rehabilitation, and what happened at Derby County, must have been horrendous for him.  Obviously, professional footballers have very charmed lives, but he’s still a man, and his motivation certainly wasn’t financial.

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Shaun does a lot of community work and even started his own charity. Why do you think it’s important for footballers to do charitable work?
There’s doubtlessly a negative stereotype about modern footballers. It’s partly fuelled by the media, but partly true, especially with certain players. Shaun is very honest about the fact that he’s been fortunate in life and does a huge amount of charity work with The Shaun Barker Foundation, which provides creative workshops for underprivileged young people in the Derby area. I think one of the main reasons he has a different perspective from a lot of other players comes from his parents, who fostered a lot of children throughout Shaun’s childhood, so he had first-hand experience of how difficult life could be for other kids. 

Besides the obvious physical strain, how do injuries affect players?
Athletes’ careers can be snuffed out instantly, so the psychological impact of injuries can be even bigger than the physical impact. Your entire future can hinge on one moment, and you’re totally reliant on your body. Injured players, especially those with long-term problems, often feel isolated because their role and their relevance to a team is almost entirely based on their playing.

How were Derby County throughout Barker’s injury and quest for rehabilitation?
It’s difficult because football clubs are fundamentally businesses who need to make decisions that aren’t based on emotion in order to be successful. There was definitely a turning point once Nigel Clough was sacked as manager, he’d taken the unique step of giving Shaun a new contract, despite having no idea if or when he would ever play for the club again. Once Nigel had gone it became pretty apparent that Shaun wouldn’t play for the club again. When we interviewed Clough, he said that, had he remained as manager, he would have given Shaun as much time as he needed to come back. That loyalty is pretty much unique in the modern game.

How did Burton Albion get involved?
Nigel Clough is currently the manager of Burton Albion and, after Shaun was released by Derby, he invited him to train with the club. For the size of the club, it’s insane that they’re now playing in the Championship with the likes of Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Derby. Barker signed a contract with the club and made his first professional appearance for them last month, ironically against Derby. It’s the first time the two clubs have ever met competitively. Burton won 1-0. 

He never really wanted to be a professional footballer, so why not just stop and go into the education system or similar as originally planned?
That’s the thing that fascinates me the most. He has his Foundation, as well as a successful fashion line. He could turn his hand to a lot of things and do well at them. I’ve asked him a few times why he refused to quit. It’s mostly down to wanting to prove people wrong, as no one thought he could actually come back from an injury that bad. I also think his legacy plays a big part in it – he could have been the guy that got a fucking terrible injury and retired, or the guy who spent nearly five years in brutal rehab, and eventually played professionally again. 

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Shaun has documented a lot of his recovery through his own videos – have you incorporated these into the doc?
Having that footage is great, as it shows how relentless his rehab was. There’s POV footage of the first time he ran following his surgery, as well as the work he did in Germany and the USA. We will be including some of it, but we obviously have to be quite selective with what we use. As much of the story has already taken place, we’re quite reliant on archive footage and photos, but luckily there are a lot of resources, like Sky Sports, the Football League, Derby County and the Derby Telegraph, who have all been amazing with us. Our producer Daniel Turner has done an amazing job in getting archive material. 

How has Shaun returning to football changed the narrative of the documentary?
Like I said, this was originally going to be a short film about a footballer in the last year of his career. The ending was then going to be his Testimonial, which I genuinely thought would be his farewell to football. But then he just kept going and persevered, and now he’s playing professionally again. It’s great to see how much attention his comeback got in the media. 

When you’re so ingrained in making a film, you have moments of doubt when you raise your head above ground and think, “Does anyone else actually even give a shit about this, or is literally just me?” I think that’s natural whatever you’re making, because you literally have to become obsessed with it, it becomes your life. My office walls are like a serial killer’s: just photos, notes and red string linking everything together. But seeing his comeback get a huge amount of national press, and being met with pretty much universal positivity was hugely reassuring. 

For you personally, how was it watching Shaun’s return to professional football?
Shaun is genuinely such a nice guy that my initial feelings were just to be happy for him. It was such a perfect end to his recovery, seeing both him and Clough return to play Derby, and to actually win. It was amazing. Obviously, it’s perfect for the film too…

Shaun did manage to play in a testimonial match. What are those?
Testimonials are given to players that have been at a club for 10 years or more. It’s a match played between legends and current players. It’s testament to how well thought of Shaun was by both the club and the fans that he was granted a Testimonial after only being at Derby for five years. We filmed at the match, and it was phenomenal. Over 10,000 people turned up to see him play for Derby one last time. Our DoP Will Price got some incredible footage of it. 

Other players recovering from injury will be featuring in the doc – who else will be interviewed?
I’ve been really lucky, I can’t remember anyone that we approached actually saying no. I’ve managed to talk to some massive names from Derby County’s history, including Roy McFarland – who was part of the team when Brian Clough was manager – Nigel Clough, Jake Buxton and Craig Bryson. Some of the biggest names are still to be interviewed though, including one who, if we get him, will be huge for the film. To be honest, I think my favourite interview so far though was with Shaun’s wife, Becky. She was hilariously honest, and we had to stop filming twice due to laughing.    

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How involved is Shaun in the documentary?
I’ve had to check a lot of stuff with him, and he’s helped with getting access to some people and locations, but equally I’ve wanted to keep a distance between him and the film so I can keep a sense of balance. It can’t just be an hour of people saying how great he is, because that wouldn’t be interesting to anyone. A few people on social media think he’s making/funding the film, which isn’t true at all. I approached him with the idea and asked his permission to film him, and I’ve been in control of everything from there. It’s a film being made about him, not for him.

Is the film going to be feature length?
The finished film will be about an hour in length. As well as looking at Shaun and his rehabilitation, it will look at Derby County as a club, particularly the rivalry with Forest and, in a wider sense, what happens to footballers when they retire, the impact of career-threatening injuries and the nature of modern football. 

How are you funding it?
It’s been partly funded by me, partly by businesses in the Derby/Burton area and party through Indiegogo.

Tell us a little about the Indiegogo page…
I was reluctant to run a crowdfunding campaign at first, simply because I’ve worked on them before and the process of running one is brutal. But this is a film that, as a Derby fan, I would genuinely back myself if someone else was making it, which made me think it would be worth doing. We also managed to get loads of great perks during filming, like signed shirts, balls and photos, so it made sense to offer Derby County fans, and football fans in general, the opportunity to help get the film made.  

Shaun Barker: 1,065 Days Indiegogo Page
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haun Barker: 1,065 Days Twitter

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