‘The First Team’: inside football’s answer to ‘The Inbetweeners’

NME talks banter, bands and bare bums with the cast and creators of TV's new pitchside sitcom

What’s a dedicated football fan to do during the unprecedented cancellation of almost all televised and spectator sports, leaving your season ticket untouched and your Saturday nights no longer centred around a semi-religious screening of Match of the Day? Well, if you’ve already smashed so many games of FIFA that your fingers have gone numb and you can’t be arsed to bid for a vintage Subbuteo set on eBay, then never fear, because award-winning writer-director duo Iain Morris and Damon Beesley have got you covered. Step forward The First Team, a new six part comedy for BBC Two, all about the lives, loves and absolute lols of a fictitious Premier League team.

The First Team
‘The First Team’ follows The misadventures of three young football players at a fictional Premier League club. Credit: BBC

Making their names in the late 2000s with three phenomenally successful seasons of The Inbetweeners, this is Morris and Beesley’s first collaboration since the coming-of-age sitcom’s second spin-off movie in 2014. Well aware of the magic that happens when they’re in the writers room together, we can’t help but wonder what took them so long to do it all again? “We had a huge falling out over who’s better, Queens Park Rangers or Arsenal, and we decided never to speak ever again,” jokes Morris via video call from his home in Los Angeles. “No, the money lured us back, we’re a bit like Led Zeppelin in that way,” adds Beesley, every bit as deadpan, from the not quite as glamorous location of Sevenoaks. “It’s the LA of Kent,” he reasons.

The idea for The First Team has actually been floating around for over a decade, first taking seed during season two of The Inbetweeners, when neither Iain or Damon were sure if it would be recommissioned by E4. Instead, they started to think up ideas for a new show. “What’s a similar male environment that might be quite fun to explore?” thought Beesley. The concept took further shape when Morris had a chance encounter with a professional footballer on a transatlantic flight. Taking the plane to Los Angeles, Morris found himself sat next to a large tattooed man with big headphones and an even bigger hangover. Morris asked if he was a DJ, but it was actually Damien Delaney, left-back for Morris’ favourite team, QPR (“I didn’t recognise him!”) Nonetheless, the pair chatted for the entire 12 hour flight. “I found out all about the gilded cage nature of football,” explains Morris. “You have a lot of time because you only train for an hour a day, you can’t do any more in case you get injured, so you’ve got time to fill, but you can’t go out because of smart phones [and social media intrusion]. So what do you do?” Quickly the new treatment took shape. “It made us realise that there was so much more to it – and it’s what we like, a world of male insecurity and bravado.”

“Football is a world of male insecurity and bravado”
– Iain Morris, co-creator

It was another 10 years before they would actually make the show, but it’s finally kicked into action with an all-star cast, featuring Will Arnett as the club’s American chairman and a trio of fresh talent in the shape of three sparky young leads – Shaquille Ali-Yebuah, Jack McMullen and Jake Short. Ali-Yebuah plays the flashy Benji, McMullen the paranoid star player Jack and Jake the nice but ineffectual Mattie, a recently signed US import who might not be quite as good as the chairman hoped.

When it comes to chemistry, the three actors excel, bouncing off each other’s one-liners and – perhaps unsurprisingly for a show that came from the team who repackaged banter for the millennial generation – trading enough crude jokes about loo roll and what really happens in the locker room to take you right back to the glory days of Rudge Park Comprehensive. “The comedy right away struck me,” explains Jake Short, a former Disney child star who made his name on US teen sitcom A.N.T. Farm in the early 2010s. “I don’t read a lot of scripts that immediately grab me, but the comedy was all there and very quick.”

Shaquille Ali-Yebuah
Shaquille Ali-Yebuah plays Benji. Credit: BBC

McMullen too – a lifelong Liverpool fan who pre-lockdown was playing regular five-a-side matches with a group of actor pals – was interested in the role as soon as he heard about it. “There’s such scope for comedy,” he says, citing the constant tabloid stories about young players as inspiration for the show.

As well as loving the script, Short was also pretty hyped about travelling to the UK to work, not least because of the opportunity to sample a whole new range of snacks. Did he get on the Monster Munch as soon as he touched down for filming last autumn? “I don’t know about Monster Munch, but Jack certainly showed me about 30 different kinds of candy I had never heard of before,” reveals Short from his home in LA. “I swear we took you to Greggs too,” exclaims McMullen. “And Nandos!” adds Ali-Yebuah.

“It’s about football, but it’s also a workplace comedy”
– Shaquille Ali-Yebuah

High-end British cuisine aside, what was it about the show that appealed to its stars? “It’s about football as a whole, but it’s also a workplace comedy,” states Londoner Ali-Yebuah, who you might recognise from his appearance alongside Maisie Williams in 2017’s Netflix teen thriller iBoy. “It shows young kids at work and the hierarchy around them – there are loads of different dynamics and loads of different subjects that are touched on that separate it from The Inbetweeners.” Not to mention the casting of a big time Hollywood star in Will Arnett, who’s equine voiceover work Ali-Yebuah didn’t fail to forget during filming. “I couldn’t get BoJack Horseman out of my ear!” he laughs. “Every time he said something I was like, ‘that’s BoJack!’”

What it does have in common with The Inbetweeners though is the sense that these young men are trapped in a situation above and beyond their own free will. “It explores what happens when people are thrown into an environment and they can’t choose their peers,” explains McMullen. There’s also that old classic; the liberal use of bare bottoms for comedy value. “Only male bums!” insists Morris. “We’ve been very strict in The Inbetweeners and our work that only male nudity is funny.” One of Short’s very first scenes sees him butt-naked and having his tackle inspected for a medical check-up. In the middle of this rather personal examination he is interrupted by Will Arnett’s chairman. “I thought, ‘they’ll probably write that out, I probably won’t need to do that’”, explains Short of when he first read about his arse’s on-screen debut in the script. “I was wrong.”

Jack McMullen
Jack McMullen is star player Jack. Credit: BBC

But it’s not just bums and banter. At its heart, The First Team is about what happens when young men have to play out their formative early manhood in the public eye, face up to toxic masculinity and try to find love all at the same time. “Normally, boys of a certain age are going out and doing stupid stuff all of the time,” explains Beesley. “It’s about living a different life to everyone else and the sacrifices that these people make. That’s what we thought was interesting about footballers. There’s a perception out there that they’re all terrible human beings that are overpaid, lazy and don’t know they’re born – and actually the reality is not that.”

Talking to numerous top secret premier league footballers and managers during their research process, underneath the jokes is a not wildly off the mark depiction of what it’s really like for the Dele Allis and Harry Kanes of this world. “I’ve never seen an article about Denzel [Washington] being out drinking late,” explains Ali-Yebuah when asked if he thinks it’s harder being a successful actor or a successful footballer. “But as a footballer you’re seen as this figure who always has to be focussed and training or on the pitch. There’s no space to be human.” McMullen, who’s run the gamut of UK telly from childhood appearances on Brookside and Grange Hill through to Waterloo Road, is in agreement. “It’s ruthless and all encompassing, every aspect of your life has to be perfect or you’ll never make it,” he says. “I know actors who have lost their way a little bit and then they bring it back again. And you can do it for 80 years. If you’re a footballer, you’re gonna get 20 if you’re lucky.”

“Every aspect of a footballer’s life has to be perfect or you’ll never make it”
– Jack McMullen

When it comes to the hefty paychecks however, the cast are in two minds as to whether football players deserve such obscene amounts of money. “I feel like they play football for free, but everything that comes with it; the press, the backlash, getting negative feedback or the media following you, your whole privacy invaded – that’s what they’re getting paid for,” says Ali-Yebuah. “I feel like from an economic perspective, the value they bring to clubs, they probably deserve it, but in an ethical sense probably not,” adds McMullen.

In a time when public sector health workers are being stretched to their limits, Ali-Yebuah is aware of the injustice. “NHS workers, they should be getting paid way more, but people wouldn’t sit at home and watch an NHS worker work – it’s entertainment and it’s the sponsors who are giving footballers all this money.”

Jake Short
Jake Short plays Mattie. Credit: BBC

Filmed at proper football clubs, in legit locker rooms and on IRL grounds, you’ll quickly notice that the club the three men play for doesn’t actually have a name. “A personal pet hate of ours is those made-up names,” explains Beesley. “If you’re trying to work with realism and make it feel like a very authentic rendering of that world, if you start calling them Hardchester Rovers it just becomes…. we opted out of that!”

What is real though is the outstanding cameo appearances, including Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp and Gary Lineker, who appear as themselves in the show’s sports star-studded intro. More unexpected though is the actor behind the role of the sweary and intense kit man Martin – Sleaford Mods’ shouter-in-chief, Jason Williamson. Iain Morris first cast him as a walk-on copper in his 2018 comedy film The Festival, which starred The Inbetweeners’ Joe Thomas and was partially shot on-site at Leeds Festival. He’d recently seen Sleaford Mods play what he maintains is “one of the best gigs I’ve seen in my entire life” and decided he had to have him in the movie alongside comedy legends Nick Frost, Jermaine Clement, Noel Fielding and breakout star of Netflix’s LA-set rom-com Love, Claudia O’Doherty. “I thought, well, if I can’t exploit my position as a film director to meet people that I’m impressed by, what’s the point of being a film director?” says Morris.

The First Team
Sleaford Mods’ Jake Williamson cameos as sweary kit man Martin. Credit: BBC

Electro-punks Sleaford Mods however haven’t quite made it onto Jake Short’s radar yet. “He’s in a band?!” he exclaims. “You didn’t know that, Jake?” chuckles Ali-Yebuah. “No and I probably worked with him way more than you guys did!” So what do you think Sleaford Mods might sound like Jake, having never heard them? “Well, he’s got a lot of tattoos… I wanna say ironically, indie folk?” For a duo who recently stated that their early material was mostly about “urine and faeces”, it’s pretty far off the mark.

Lockdown football entertainment looks set to be a continuing theme of the summer, at least for Iain Morris, whose next project is a film called Next Goal Wins. Based on the true story of American Samoa’s attempt to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, he’s co-written it with an old mate, new Star Wars director Taika Waititi. “He loves rugby but he doesn’t know anything about football, so he said why don’t we write it together,” explains Morris. This meant that for the majority of 2019 Morris was “making a football TV show during the week and rewriting a football film at the weekends”. Did he reuse any leftover jokes from The First Team in the Waititi project? “I did actually! I didn’t realise until we started filming, but i mentioned it to Taika and he seemed fine about it…”

“I didn’t realise Jason Williamson was even in Sleaford Mods”
– Jake Short

After Next Goal Wins, Morris and Beesley could well return to writing jokes for the unnamed players of The First Team. Jack McMullen certainly thinks it could go the distance. “The real life off-the-pitch football world is keeping us entertained all the time, so there’s also unlimited scope for where these guys can go if they want to do another series or two.” If social distancing continues well into next year, it might be the closest to a normal game we’re gonna get.

‘The First Team’ premieres on BBC Two at 9:30PM on May 28