The First Team: Inbetweeners creators tackle the secret, surprisingly mundane lives of footballers

Chris Bennion
Shaquille Ali-Yebuah, Jack Mullen and Jake Short in The First Team - James Stack

All football fans have regrets. Damon Beesley and Iain Morris, creators of The Inbetweeners, have a bigger one than most. To help research their latest sitcom, The First Team, which is about the dressing room of a Premier League football team, the writing duo spent a lot of a time behind-the-scenes with the Liverpool FC chairman, and comedy producer, Tom Werner. On May 7 2019, they were at Anfield with Werner, who invited them to watch the following day’s match in the director’s box. The pair declined.

After all, Liverpool were 3-0 down from the first leg to a Lionel Messi-inspired Barcelona. The second leg would surely be a soulless affair, why would they want to watch Werner, and the staff they had got to know and like, suffer so much? “They’d been so nice to us,” says Morris, “but it might have been 7-0 to Barcelona, it would be so depressing. So sad for Tom especially. So we said ‘no, we’ve got to get back to London’.” Liverpool would go on to win 4-0 in one of the great European Cup comebacks. Sick as a parrot, as they say.

Neither of the pair, thankfully, are Liverpool fans. Beesley supports Arsenal, while Morris has been a season ticket holder at Queens Park Rangers for more than 20 years, though now lives in Los Angeles. The First Team is the pair’s first project together since the enormously successful Inbetweeners and while it is nothing like as puerile, the First Team also focuses on a small group of immature young men. It is not, they say, about football.

“You see a football once in the whole series,” says Morris. “This is a workplace comedy – football has pressures, internal cliques, ruptures. And it’s a male environment and after The Inbetweeners we realised we like writing about young men and masculinity. Football felt right for a lot of reasons.”

“We wanted it to be about that bubble of elite sport,” says Beesley, “where you’re totally enabled and everyone expects that it must be brilliant. But there’s a lot of sitting around and twiddling your thumbs, there’s a mundanity to it. You’re not really allowed to do anything other than the one thing you’re good at.” In the show, one young player at the unnamed struggling team has nothing in his house but a sofa and a PlayStation, while another, who lives with his “owner”, doesn’t even think to pick up the copious amounts of mess left by his dog.

Young footballers, with more money than sense, have a bad reputation in the UK. But for every Jack Grealish – the Aston Villa star has been in trouble for partying during lockdown – there are hundreds of young players doing the right thing.

Morris has sympathy for them. “They’re under a microscope from an incredibly young age and everything they do is judged so harshly. I hate to think what it would have been like if I’d had any sort of profile at 18. To decide, at 18, that for the next 10 years you’re not going to go out with your mates, to make those sacrifices, it’s quite a mature thing to do. They don’t get to have that hedonistic adolescence. And at the moment, during the pandemic, they don’t know when they’re going to play again, but they still can’t have a drink at home. Football is a gilded cage.”

Many were keen to turn on Premier League footballers when the pandemic began, pointing out their obscene wages while club staff were being furloughed. But while the likes of Steve Coogan were furloughing their gardeners, the 22-year-old Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford was raising £20m for charity, enabling 2.8 million children in the Manchester area to be fed each week.

We thought ‘why not just rip ourselves off?: Iain Morris and Damon Beesley - Julian Parker

“I shudder to think if, when I was 20 years old, I was expected to be some kind of ambassador in a period of national crisis,” says Beesley. “You wouldn’t have wanted to ask the 20-year-old Damon Beesley his opinion on any topic.” Having watched the occasionally autobiographical Inbetweeners, I am inclined to agree.

Is there a class snobbery at work? After all, a drunk young rugby player is generally thought of as a good chap, a drunk young footballer is a tabloid front-page disgrace. “I think class is another thing. When we wrote The Inbetweeners, it wasn't about class, but it was sort of about class. We tried not to deify the working class, ‘oh, they’ve got hearts of gold and they're bright, and they're better than you think’, we've never tried to do that. We're just trying to create characters. And their class is part of who they are.”

Thanks to Werner, the QPR chairman Lee Hoos and former player Matt Lawrence – as well as a host of other names the pair are not allowed to reveal – Beesley and Morris got tremendous insider access into the lives and minds of top-level footballers. They also spoke to physios, kitmen, managers and current players. The experience was eye-opening.

Paolo Sassanelli as Cesare in The First Team - Jack Barnes

“The thing I learned was about fan entitlement,” says Beesley. “I’m the worst of them – it’s all so important, everyone’s letting me down when things go wrong, the whole experience revolves around me. I was in the director’s box when Liverpool played Southampton, and Liverpool were going for the league title. To be somewhere where you can see what it means to people at the club, I was just thinking ‘Oh my God’”.

Arsenal’s gobby, myopic, very entertaining Fan TV – the epitome of fan entitlement – is parodied in The First Team, a YouTube channel in which fans stand on a soapbox outside of the Emirates Stadium and rail about the state of the club. Famously, they wanted “Wenger out”.

“I think about Arsene Wenger,” says Beesley, “when they turned on him, I couldn't believe it. And they would say ‘you're destroying our club’. It's kind of insane to think, because you go every week, that you've done more for the club than the man who's been there for 20 years, literally running it day by day, taking everything on the chin, winning the trophies, dedicating his life to it. The cognitive dissonance that you have to have as a fan to think that you're more faithful and valuable to the club than this guy.”

Morris’s perception of top flight football changed with a chance encounter with the former Crystal Palace defender Damian Delaney, who told Morris that life for a footballer in London was boring and that, at the age of 26, he was thinking of joining a club in Saudi Arabia. “I thought, ‘why do you want to do that? You’re in the prime of your career’,” says Morris. “But he was worried what he’d do if he got an injury, and they pay a lot of money in Saudi Arabia. And what if I get sold? There are these insecurities that people outside of football don’t have. The world's not great at the moment, but at least your boss can't tell you that you're moving 300 miles away and there's nothing you can do about it. It’s a very insecure job.”

“As writers we like to explore male insecurity,” says Beesley. “With The Inbetweeners, they’re 16 years old and they’re scared of everything – girls, other 16-year-old boys, parents, teachers – but they’re pretending they’re not and they’re finding their way in the world. And we wanted to find an environment that was similar and football fitted that.”

“I think we also thought ‘why not just rip ourselves off?’,” jokes Morris.

One thing they didn’t hear about in their research were tales of extreme dressing room pranks or hell-raising. At one Premier League club, they ate at the training ground canteen with the players, where the atmosphere was “like being at a spa”. There was no noise, just focus and calm. “I grew up in an era of the Grazy Gang [the notorious Wimbledon squad of the 1980s] and you think you know what dressing rooms are like,” says Beesley. “But that’s changed over the years.”

So no more zany pranks, such as the time Nicky Butt scalded Peter Schmeichel’s nether regions with a kettle or Mario Balotelli’s teammates filling his Maserati with kippers? “I feel like that kind of thing was perpetrated by the older generation,” says Morris. “Any all-male environment will have that sort of thing going on, but it definitely felt like those big, time-consuming pranks were from the older players. The younger ones couldn’t understand the point of it.”

The Inbetweeners Movie

Beesley and Morris were delighted to secure the services of US comedy stalwart Will Arnett, who plays the club’s clueless America owner. The series begins with him signing a young American player by mistake. Did that prove awkward when working with Werner? “We had to keep saying to Tom, ‘Ok, here’s a script and the chairman does this thing this week – and it’s not you’,” says Morris. “Liverpool couldn’t be a better run club and Tom couldn’t be a more self-aware, funny, intelligent man. But we were writing about an American chairman of a club that was terribly run. I think a little bit of him died every time he read the scripts.”

No chat with Beesley and Damon could be complete without asking the inevitable question. Will they ever revisit the slightly sticky lives of Will, Jay, Neil and Simon? What would the Inbetweeners be doing now, as young adults? “We do get asked that all the time,” says Beesley, “and we give different answers depending on the weather. But we’re feeling quite nostalgic and we miss them terribly. The idea of us never working together again as a gang of six saddens us. But we’ve run out of ideas, basically.”

They chat all the time, says Morris, mainly over an Inbetweeners WhatsApp group (the mind boggles), but he says there is no clamour from the public to make any more, unlike when they made the first spinoff film, The Inbetweeners Movie. “If we’d have had any great ideas, we’d have done it by now,” he says.

One project that Morris did get involved with was the ill-fated US version of The Inbetweeners, which was cancelled after one critically mauled series. How was the experience of remaking his own show in America? “It was the best decision I've ever made,” deadpans Morris. “No. There’s a very honest, truthful answer that I'm not going to give you. But if you watch Episodes [about British writers remaking their sitcom in the US, with disastrous results], I stopped watching that in the first season because I was like, ‘I don't understand why this is funny, this is just what happens, isn't it?’ So that that would be my answer on that.”

Still, at least they still have the beautiful – and very funny, it turns out - game.

The First Team begins tonight on BBC Two at 9.30pm