Soccer gets comedy series treatment with help from Liverpool

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This undated photo made available by Terry Cartwright Television Ltd shows the filming in London of The First Team a new BBC comedy drama series about a fictional soccer team. One of the executive producers is Tom Werner, the American chairman of Liverpool, who was a source of behind-the-scenes knowledge and footballing contacts. (Terry Cartwright Television Ltd via AP)

Mattie Sullivan cannot believe he is making the leap from American soccer to the Premier League.

The English club’s American chairman is delighted to be signing a player who can “sell some shirts back home" and hands over the contract to be signed.

But the ink isn’t even dry when chairman Mark Crane starts to discover more about his 21-year-old recruit from Sporting Kansas City.

“So, I just signed an American who isn’t even an international,” Crane sighs, trying to wipe away the signature before calling the club’s lawyer.

But Sullivan won’t be seen in the Premier League anytime soon, and not just because the competition is suspended. This is an opening scene from the “The First Team,” a TV comedy series which premieres on the BBC in Britain next week.

“I feel like I shouldn’t even be there,” actor Jack Short, who plays Sullivan, said from Los Angeles.

But fiction does blend with reality for the series. One of the executive producers is Tom Werner, the American chairman of Liverpool, who was a source of behind-the-scenes knowledge and footballing contacts for co-writers Iain Morris and Damon Beesley.

“We have been trying to come up with something to work with him on,” Morris said. “And this feels like a bit of a no-brainer.”

Werner fixed it so Morris could go to a Liverpool team training camp in Spain to chat to the players and pick up ideas.

Fans of the real-life Premier League leaders might be less aware that Werner has produced some of the biggest American sitcoms, including “3rd Rock From The Sun,” “That ’70s Show” and “Roseanne.”

“One thing that I’ve been good at,” Werner said in an interview, “is to try to put the focus on the people in front of the camera.”

Werner said the idea for an insecure American player actually came from Morris and Beesley, who wrote adolescent TV and movie comedy hit, “The Inbetweeners.”

“He’s an outsider,” Werner said of Sullivan. “You can see the experience from the minute he walks into the dressing room, how uncomfortable it is for him.”

The actors were spared having to display their soccer credentials during the filming. The series largely focuses on the off-field antics of Premier League players with more cash than common sense.

When the first of the six parts is aired on BBC 2 next week, it will be as close as Britain has got to seeing anything new from the Premier League in more than two months. The coronavirus pandemic means the season is on hold until at least next month.

“Hopefully we get some good views with everyone being at home, watching the TV,” said Jack McMullen, a real-life Liverpool fan who plays Jack Turner. “I think there is a real appetite for football at the moment and a football themed show hopefully appeals.”

Viewers can tune in to see McMullen portraying the challenges of dating while being unable to hide your identity as a Premier League player earning 25,000 pounds ($30,000) a week.

“It really is about their misadventures and their friendship,” Werner said. “There’s a lot of fun to be had about conversations they have about the dangers of social media. They’re not particularly successful in meeting and falling in love. They’re awkward, and they’re boys in their 20s who have too much time on their hands and a bit too much money.”

Shaquille Ali-Yebuah plays Benji Achebe, a flashy academy graduate. Parking violation tickets are seen stacked up in Achebe’s chrome Bentley and he is stopped by police for not having insurance.

“The police are excited to meet him,” Werner says, “because maybe it’s a path for them to get free tickets. But it doesn’t stop them from doing their responsibilities and pulling the car away.”

While live soccer attracts some of the world’s biggest audiences, rarely are TV comedies or dramas set around the world’s most popular sport.

“The big sports stations try to wring every ounce of drama out of that anyway,” Beesley said. “I guess recreating that just as a pure drama is always a challenge because you’ve got so much to compete with. It even has its own stars. You could put Brad Pitt in it, but probably more people would watch Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi in a movie. For a while that maybe put us off for a bit.

“But then we have noticed there have been some brilliant sports documentaries that have been released lately that I think most people enjoyed them because they tended to focus on the behind-the-scenes, human angles.”


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