BBC Two’s new comedy series The First Team, about a trio of young soccer stars, is the latest project from The Inbetweeners creators Damon Beesley and Iain Morris – and while the characters in their hit E4 series might not seem to have much in common with professional footballers, the two shows are more closely related than you might expect.
The First Team follows Mattie (Jake Short), Jack (Jack McMullen) and Benji (Shaquille Ali-Yebuah) and their adventures with terrifying team hard-man Petey (Theo Barklem-Biggs) and eccentric chairman Mark Crane (Will Arnett).
“It didn’t come from us thinking we want to make a sitcom about football, we were thinking about making a sitcom about young men – the sort of age up from the Inbetweeners,” co-creator Morris tells RadioTimes.com. “The stakes are higher than when you’re in a teenager in terms of what you can say, what you can do, but also you’re still a little bit between an adult and a child, really.
“The second phase was… where’s an enclosed work environment to explore that, where people are thrust together who aren’t necessarily friends? So that was where the football came from – we kind of approached it as a workplace sitcom but the more we got into it, the more we discovered peculiarities about football that we could exploit.”
“For us, it came down to the emotional bio-rhythms within a dressing room,” adds co-creator Beesley. “We don’t exactly leave the football on the doorstep, but the series isn’t really focused around football. It’s more about those internal struggles – where people sit in the hierarchy of the dressing room, and how they’re coping and what’s happening around them…
“These young footballers are expected to be philanthropists and ambassadors and social warriors and all these things – and if they don’t say the right things, they can be completely eviscerated in social media or in their public life. It’s quite a dangerous tightrope to walk.”
As with the Inbetweeners, saying or doing the wrong thing often leads to painfully awkward situations for The First Team’s Mattie, Jake and Benji, with Beesley and Morris keen to ensure that their new series felt as authentic as their last – interviewing real players, managers, owners and chairmen and shooting in real football stadiums.
“With The Inbetweeners, we knew 16-year-olds, we knew their universe, because we could remember it, whereas we’ve never experienced that [a footballers’ life],” Beesley explains. “So we’ve done the research, we’ve put the hard yards in – I say ‘hard yards’, we were sort of like competition winners hanging round a premier league football club! But we’ve done all that.”
Helping to foster that sense of authenticity are cameos from Gary Lineker and the Match of the Day team, BBC Sport’s Sally Nugent and even Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp – though Beesley and Morris insist they didn’t go as far as basing any of their characters on real figures from the world of football.
“There are certain tropes that will be recognisable, I think,” suggests Morris. “Super-star managers who have slightly lost their sparkle, and senior players who have come towards the end of their career and are kicking off and behaving in appalling fashion – so I think you’d recognise tropes from footballers we’ve known over the last 20-30 years.”
Like a team who’ve won some silverware and now face heady expectations, the pair are aware that The First Team will inevitably be compared to their previous collaboration, but Beesley insists that they “don’t feel a pressure” about their latest effort being compared to past successes.
“I made a film a couple of years ago, The Festival, and there was one review which said I should’ve made it a bit more like the Inbetweeners,” Morris says. “That would be a valid criticism if I hadn’t made The Inbetweeners too – we did that, and we did it well, and now we’re doing something else…
“You can compare it to The Inbetweeners if you want to, but we also did that, so that’s not a problem for us. We’re glad you still like that, because that is also us!”
The First Team begins tonight (Thursday, 28th May) at 9:30pm on BBC Two – check out what else is on with our TV Guide