Even as David Woods, one half of Ridiculusmus, was punting the notion of a new show to be called Total Football, the other half of the act was all for relegating the topic to the bin.
"When David started talking about it initially, I was horrified because I am a committed sports-phobe," says Jon Haynes, in cultivated tones of deadpan mildness. That negative mindset goes back to when – aged 10 or 11 – Haynes was taken to a football match by his father. "I'd never seen anything like it," he's talking about the crowd, not the game. "The aggression, the language, the red angry faces – and this was in Shrewsbury. This whole feeling of violence in the air. I never wanted to go back."
If Haynes had no taste for playing the game – at school, he would exasperate teachers on the field by just looking at any ball that landed near him, and obstinately never kicking it – he's not one to shirk a challenge. "I came round to thinking it was worth doing something I'm not naturally drawn to, and anything to do with football was going to be that challenge."
This being a Ridiculusmus endeavour, football was never intended as the totality of the duo's shenanigans, hence the subtitle "More Beckett than Beckham". Alex Ferguson does put in an appearance though. "I'm him. He's my other character in the show. And yes, I do an accent," says Haynes.
He looks back to 2010. Total Football had been co-commissioned by the Barbican, London – where it was scheduled to premiere in May 2011 – in cahoots with the Belfast Festival and the national theatres of Scotland and Wales. Time to get to grips with in-depth research. That summer, football's World Cup was centre-stage. The game was rendered truly beautiful, so much so that Haynes found himself watching matches on television, being drawn into the adrenalin of competition even though the offside rule remains a mystery. Closer to home, the prospect of the 2012 London Olympics and TeamGB was looming large, bringing with it the crucial chewy question of who could line up as a member of TeamGB.
"I think that's what really motivated David, because it was the question that's been hanging over us, and our work, for a long time," says Haynes. "It's the identity issue. That 'where are you from?' question people tend to ask. Sometimes it's just a conversational line, and it doesn't really matter what you say, but sometimes it's a serious business, and there's an agenda that could go against you, or be for you."
He produces, in evidence, a merry memory from the mid-1990s when Ridiculusmus – despite being an English company in origin (since 1992) – had settled into a residency at the Playhouse theatre in Derry. "We'd more or less managed to pass ourselves off as Irish," he says. "It was all about being accepted into a community that would, ordinarily, have been very curious – or suspicious – about why two English outsiders were there." Both he and Woods have other, far from amusing, memories of times when hostile suspicions surfaced and their reasons for being in Ulster – to earn a living making theatre – were considered as a front for more covert activities.
Subversive gambits (of a performative kind) would only be staged once Ridiculusmus had settled back in the UK. Those six years the pair spent in Northern Ireland, in Derry and Belfast, provided the pith and comedy for Say Nothing, the absurdly funny and politically astute two-hander they brought to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2000, a year after they'd carried off a Herald Angel and a Total Theatre Award for Yes, yes, yes, which prompted the late Ken Campbell to hail them as "hardcore Surrealists". High-end praise indeed.
It seemed, then, Ridiculusmus would be regulars on our patch, if not on the Fringe then touring across Scotland. Instead, their tour map sent them criss-crossing the globe and into academe – their recent doctorates on How To Be Funny articulate the ingenious craft and philosophical bent within their pungent drollery. Now, just as Glasgow is revving up for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the lads are making a return with Total Football.
"Whatever that suggests, it's not 70 minutes of kickabout," says Haynes. "It's about the bureaucrats who are tasked with organising a TeamGB that can be a symbol of national identity. A 'who we are' team. Only when it came to football, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland pulled out of the team, so as not to compromise their independent standing with FIFA. So football becomes our way into examining identity in society, really."
Ridiculusmus bring Total Football to the Tron, Glasgow, from tonight to Saturday.