Having read that the The Inbetweeners creators had written ‘a football sitcom set for relegation’, which ‘hits the post with (an) underwhelming start’, I approached The First Team with low expectations. As a West Ham fan, I’ve grown accustomed to this.
But think about it, as supposedly scathing football puns go, hitting the post early-doors is hardly underwhelming! If the Hammers hit the post in the first 10 minutes, I’d say that was an encouraging opening spell.
A Guardian critic (with the top result on Google) admitted to only watching the first two episodes. You don’t get to write the match report if you gave up watching before the end of the first half! So, I suggest ignoring the negative reviews.
This new show provides a much-needed lock-down dose of footballing banter that fans have been desperately missing throughout the coronavirus pandemic. I can’t speak for non-football fans, but I’ve asked around and every friend (‘Ooh, fwend!’) who loved Beesley and Morris’ previous shows has enjoyed The First Team too, regardless of their interest in the beautiful game.
Mattie, Benji, and Jack are three up and coming young players at a struggling, fictional, premier league club modelled on a nightmarish cross between Arsenal and Man United. Think Arsenal Fan TV, mixed with the Glazer ownership, plus a few Paddy Power gags thrown in.
Things take slightly longer to kick-off than The Inbetweeners, but by the middle of the third episode I found myself creasing in laughter with the boys, cringing at their mishaps and enjoying the not-so-subtle nods to problems at real clubs.
More so than with White Gold, The First Team doesn’t hide that it is quite simply the same Inbetweeners story line template, just with the school scenario substituted for a football club. So, you might ask, who’s who?
Mattie (played by Jake Short) is Will. He thinks he’s smarter than the others, having graduated with a sport science degree in the states. Just like Will, he’s bullied for being the snobby new kid. Taunted as a ‘born-again virgin’, Mattie insists he is on a ‘self-imposed dry patch, focussing on my career’, an especially quotable catchphrase in times of socially-distanced dating. In reality, he’s no smarter than the others and his well-meaning but ill-informed intentions drive the antics of the plot, producing classic Beesley and Morris comical outcomes.
Benji (Shaquille Ali-Yebuah) is Jay. He talks the crude talk but doesn’t walk the walk. Barely plays any football, but is intent on attaining stardom and building his brand, even if this involves boosting his online presence by spreading flat-Earth conspiracies or inadvertently becoming the only black ambassador for a racist group.
The only regular squad-pick of the three is Jack Turner (played by Jack McMullen), who merges the characters of Neil and Simon. He is the most clueless and innocent of the group. I also found him to be the most likeable and relatable, and not just because we are two letters away from sharing a full name. The rabbit in the headlights expression rarely leaves his face, yet he is the only one to garner any fame, game time, or genuine romantic interest. He just doesn’t know what to do with any of it.
A surprise appearance is also made by Will Arnett. He is hilarious as the American chairman and delivers laugh out loud moments, making huge decisions based on phone calls with his Mom and learning basic rules of the game from junior players. Arnett has a Mr Gilbert-sized hole to fill and mostly succeeds, from the outset insisting the players call him ‘Mr Chairman’.
‘You wouldn’t get away with writing The Inbetweeners these days.’
No, you wouldn’t. And even if you did, it wouldn’t be as funny, since little of it would be relevant to the world of 2020. White Gold swerved this issue by conveniently being set in 1980s Essex. Without specifying, The First Team is set in present day London or Manchester, and Beesley and Morris did a decent job of bringing matters up to date.
The women’s team are smarter and more professional than the men, yet it’s pointed out they were only recently granted training sessions at the main complex, and even then not full-time. Tamla Kari as Olivia, the head of press, is the real brains holding the club together and provides wit and proficiency lacking in the male characters.
In six short episodes, topics broached range from consent, #metoo, and the problem of porn-induced fantasies, to gambling, mental health post-football, and the sad absurdity that there are still no openly gay footballers at elite levels. That’s not to say that these topics are sensitively addressed, but at least they are present.
Hopefully, more seasons to come…
I, like many, wished The Inbetweeners could have gone on forever. However, there was only so much time before a 30-something Joe Thomas had to hang up his school uniform (and pretend to be a 30-something university fresher in Fresh Meat, or a mid-30-something graduate in The Festival). The Inbetweeners reviews weren’t great at first, but season 2 and 3 were made nonetheless, and nowadays you can’t walk halfway down a high-street without being branded a ‘bus-wanker’.
I hope the initially tepid reception for The First Team isn’t a deterrent for the BBC to commission Beesley and Morris to continue the series, as there’s plenty of scope for the careers, characters, and comedy to develop. Will Mattie’s self-imposed dry patch end? How long until a club legend comes out as gay? Will any successes be as short-lived as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s at United?
If you’ve read this far and haven’t started watching yet (I’m sure for most Inbetweeners fans, the title of this article would be invitation enough), then give it until the end of the third episode before you get in touch moaning it’s not any good. For the next week or so, it’s an easy choice: continue feigning an interest in the Bundesliga, or dive into The First Team (all episodes of which are available on BBC iPlayer).
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