That football is the biggest sport in the world is pretty much an indisputable fact, so it’s perhaps a little surprising that the fiction inspired by the beautiful game over the years has seldom been of a particularly high standard. But despite a few exceptions, and although my 12-year old-self might tell you that the Goal films of the mid ’00s were paragons of artistic quality, it’s hard to shake the view that most film and TV based on the sport tends to be a bit naff, with few managing to capture the on-pitch drama and absurdity off it.
The latest project to attempt to bust that reputation is The First Team, a new BBC Two sitcom that follows a trio of footballers on the fringes of the first team squad at a fictional – and unnamed – football club. The series has some decent pedigree, having been penned by The Inbetweeners creators Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, and so hopes were high that the show might fill a much needed gap left by the continued absence of real football matches in the UK.
Early indications, however, point to the series being another in a long line of football-based disappointments; I wasn’t quite booing at the final whistle, but I was certainly left underwhelmed by a distinct lack of big laughs.
The three players at the heart of the series are Mattie (Jake Short), an American who appears to have been signed by the club almost as an accident, Jack (Jack McMullen), an up-and-coming player on the verge of breaking through and Benji (Shaquille Ali-Yebuah) a talented player who seems more concerned with his lifestyle than his career – especially picking up girls on Instagram. Meanwhile, Will Arnett of Arrested Development fame adds a bit of star quality to proceedings as the eccentric chairman Mark Crane, although his appearance in the first episode amounts to little more than a cameo.
As set-ups for a sitcom go it’s decent enough – the dressing room and off-field antics of a group of young footballers certainly seems ripe for comedic mining, especially when you throw into the mix a supporting cast that includes an intimidating senior player and a mysterious Italian coach. Meanwhile the three main characters are at first glance broadly likeable, with Ali-Yebuah particularly impressive as the rebellious Benji in the first episode. But a decent set up and broadly likeable characters aren’t enough on their own; for a show like this to work it has to… well… be funny – and that’s where the first episode comes up woefully short.
Much of the humour on display here comes across as not only juvenile but underwhelming. The main gag in the first episode revolves around toilet paper, while there is more than one joke about the size of one of the players’ foreskins. Now, while toilet humour shouldn’t be dismissed outright – few TV writers of their generation have mined it more successfully than Morris and Beesley – here it often comes across as a little half-hearted, lacking the true sense of outrageousness that was so plentiful in The Inbetweeners.
That show too was exceptional when it came to accurately recreating the often despicable behaviour of teenagers and the excruciatingly awkward situations adolescents regularly find themselves in, I wasn’t so convinced by the interactions here – many of the jokes felt like the sort of gags only Jay from The Inbetweeners would actually find amusing.
Another issue I had with the show – and it’s a small but irritating niggle – concerns the fact that the team at which our protagonists ply their trade is unnamed, leaving the characters to frequently refer to it using generalities like “the club” and “the team”. This allows for a certain artifice to take hold – I never really believed that they were playing for a real club, and while that probably won’t matter for some viewers, I found that it made it harder for me to buy into the whole thing.
This isn’t an irredeemably bad show – there are a couple of jokes that land, like Jack’s plush home being completely devoid of decor and kitchen utensils, and it’s possible that, as we get to know the characters and the eccentric personalities that surround them a little more, the series might still be able to deliver the goods. So perhaps it’s a little too early for the crowd to turn on The First Team just yet. There are a few signs that suggest the show could still turn it around before the end of the season, but after the first episode, I reckon it has an uphill battle to get the fans back onside.
The First Team continues on Thursdays at 9:30pm on BBC Two – check out what else is on with our TV Guide