Ashes to Ashwood: That’s Liquid Football Speaks to Joel Emery, Co-Creator of ‘The Offensive’

The Office, Marion and Geoff, Look Around You, People Like Us, Operation Good Guys – what does that say to you about British mockumentary series’? There’s too many of them? Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is: people like them, let’s make some more of them.

That wasn’t quite the plan when Joel Emery, along with writing partners Adam Jarrell and Oliver Dowling, began developing the idea for a sitcom set in the offices of a Premier League football club. The three have been writing together since meeting as teenagers, and have previously created the feature film The Catch, and the well-received West End play Good Cop Bad Cop, lauded by the British Theatre Guide for pushing the boundaries of the form. When it came to their latest venture, however, the gatekeepers in TV-Land had reservations.

“Put yourself in the shoes of a commissioning editor when this script lands on your desk. It insults every club in the country, swears roughly every 4.5 seconds and is inundated with ultra-specific football gags that require at least an intermediate level knowledge of the game and industry. It won’t surprise you to learn that they passed it up.”

Joel started working in football broadcasting eight years ago, fresh from collecting his degree in Film, Video and Interactive Arts from Middlesex University. Since then he’s worked on projects for Eurosport, the BBC and the Premier League, but when the door closed on producing a televised version of their fictional football club, it was co-creator Adam Jarrell’s experience in podcast production that set the wheels in motion. Initially devised as a radio comedy, the trio decided to shift the project down the mockumentary route, providing the opportunity to utilise the descriptive advantages of a narrator to knit the narrative together. Thus, The Offensive was born.

“We often get people saying ‘I was convinced this was going to be shit and it’s not’.”

The series is set at Ashwood City Football Club, a founding member of the Football League based in Kent, who’ve been in the Premier League since its inception in 1992. Since their takeover in 2017 by the American business consortium Anaheim Sports Group, perhaps a nod to early-nineties hockey film The Mighty Ducks, the club have undertaken a five year policy of advancements which lends its name to the podcast. Though the listener occasionally sneaks a peek into the lives of the players and on-field matters, the focus of the show sits at boardroom level, with interactions between Chief-Executive Patrick Nolan, Communications Director Jess Tate and Sporting Director Chris Woodall, aided and abetted by fleeting appearances from a revolving cast of hapless managers. Joel explains that, for the project to have the maximum impact, its target for ridicule had to be just right.

“I didn’t want geography to be important; a team tucked away in the South-West would have been about the area, as would a team competing with the giants in the North-West.

“Ashwood City needed to be extremely frustrating. Nothing makes a club more frustrating than having all the tools to succeed and not doing so. With them being in Kent they’d have no immediate competition around them, their fanbase would be loyal, they’d be close to London and have commercial-ability but Ashwood through poor ownership and greed continually choose to survive rather than thrive.

“I still think the football comedy market is wrong and skewed, personally, I don’t think lower league teams should be the joke, I don’t think tiny budgets and dodgy facilities are funny. I think the ineptitude of the suited and booted corporate machine however is very funny and should be made fun of and satirised at every opportunity.”

The Football-Club-As-Soap-Opera has been done before, of course. Most notably in Sky One’s Dream Team, which centred on the lies, betrayals and frankly ludicrous murders at the fictional Harchester United. Others have tried, and failed, to turn the real life drama of the world’s biggest sport into something approaching satisfactory escapism. In fact, The Reducer podcast spent a large chunk of 2018 skewering those efforts, from Steve Bruce’s series of novels Striker, Sweeper and Defender, to the abysmal Goal 3: Taking On The World. When it came to creating The Offensive, Joel, Adam and Oliver were keen to avoid the same tired cliches that have plagued football fiction.

The Offensive is deliberately made in opposition to something Adam Jarrell and I used to joke about called ‘Football Cup’. This term was used to identify the tone-deaf, safe, sterile representation of fictional football on screen. Everything from razorblade commercials to children’s TV you usually found a plethora of cliches: ‘The Reds v The Blues’, ‘Star Striker’, ‘Who ate all the pies’, a gravity defying, slow motion overhead kick that wins ‘The Football Cup’. There isn’t a football fan on the planet who is turned on or even remotely convinced by this.

“Everything about Ashwood City is scrutinised to avoid the ‘Football Cup’ cliche. The suffix City was chosen over Rovers, United, Town, and Wanderers because of this exact reason. ‘City’ would never be the centre of a comic or an advert. We try to avoid mentions of antiquated positions at football clubs. I won’t talk about ‘the kitman’ or ‘the tea lady’ or ‘the groundsman’ because I believe they have been over-used in the ‘Football Cup’ universe, the truth is Ashwood City are an elite-level football club. The staff we mention are Player Liaisons, Merchandising managers, and Commercial Directors”

The writing team’s dedication to making the series as realistic as possible is evident. We’re treated to snapshots from radio phone-ins, Sky Sports-esque debate programmes, and the club’s schedule is synchronised with the Premier League season, with the very first episode, ‘Transfer Deadline Day’ released on the 9th August – the day after the real transfer window closed. Joel admits that, while this realism is one of the show’s key selling points, it can be a hindrance, particularly with the demands of keeping up with a football season.

“Everything has to be as real as possible. I have a number of contacts that don’t exactly feed me juicy gossip but will sometimes give narrative devices for boardroom politics. I work off a fixture list, I know where the City of Ashwood is, the season needed to be reminiscent of thousands of seasons you’ve seen before from other clubs.

“As football fans, like all other football fans; we have a wealth of knowledge we just don’t realise it. We’ve all been studying football since we were 5 years old, we just don’t regard it as academically valuable. If we all shared this kind of interest and knowledge in birdlife, we’d all be ornithologists.

“Although as a writer, you never want to live too much in the moment as a lot of our listeners are catching up on the show and maybe don’t share the immediacy of the moment like you do.

“Our current approach, which is not something we are proud of, is laying down tracks in front of the moving train. Motivation doesn’t get better than that. The schedule itself can be a blessing writing wise. Writing aimlessly sounds romantic and invigorating but when you’re trying to churn out an episode script in a day to be recorded the next day, limitations and frameworks are good.

“Having real-life football as a touchstone I personally find much more interesting and rewarding. I recently finished a script  that was set at the Westfalenstadion during the Dortmund v Tottenham game on the same night as the game took place, in which Patrick, Jess and Woody are there on a corporate trip. Excursions like that can be much more interesting than ‘here we are in the office’.”

The show’s profile has been boosted by its inclusion on the Radio Stakhanov Podcast Network, a group of shows led by the flagship The Football Ramble, and encompassing podcasts that take on a range of topics from domestic and European football, wrestling, teenage diaries and Japanese culture, to the miscellaneous nonsense of The Luke and Pete Show. As a network known for its shows that take an informed-yet-sideward glance at modern day football, The Offensive was a natural fit.

“We got a message from Luke Moore of Football Ramble fame one day, he’d listened to an episode and liked it. Then he messaged a couple hours later and he’d listen to 6 episodes and loved it. He wanted us to come on the Radio Stakhanov platform so I met with him and he embodied everything a creative person wants to hear from a co-producer. So we signed with them and they have lifted us to the next level.

“Football’s inability to laugh at itself is probably why so many people listen truth be told. The stakes at the top of football have never been higher and ultimately it’s accelerating higher and higher every single season. That has left a gaping hole for satire to appear. We’re just glad we’ve arrived there, unmarked.

“As far as the humour is concerned, we have to be as original as possible in our gags otherwise you may as well just scroll through your twitter feed for ‘the lols’. We cram each episode with jokes, there’s no way someone notices all of them, no way at all. And with so many jokes crammed into each episode we have to make sure they’re not the kind that will appear on social media via various sports accounts.”

It’s not just the arsenal of jokes, which lurch from highbrow observational nods and winks to current events to puntastic references of nineties footballers, often in one scene, that make The Offensive such addictive listening. In Nolan, Tate and Woodall, Joel and his fellow writers have created believable, three-dimensional characters designed to court both sympathy and disgust from the listener. Chief-Exec Nolan comes across as a megalomaniacal suit with little regard for the football club that employs him, though in private moments with his trusted confidantes he can be viewed as more than a little vulnerable. Tate, too, is a supremely confident, aloof operator in the office, but during the episode ‘Out of Office’, the loyalty at her core is uncovered. Chris ‘Woody’ Woodall, voiced by co-creator Adam Jarrell, is perhaps the star of the show however. An acerbic-tongued Scot that refuses to suffer fools or, well, anyone gladly, is slowly revealed to be the brains behind Ashwood City’s operations, and a supremely talented Sporting Director. In typically self-effacing fashion, Joel refuses to take credit for the development of the show’s characters.

“I find writing cynical characters easier and more fun, so I knew that the show would be riddled with them. I think the puppet-masters of a top-level football club have to be cretinous at the least. But the actors should, whether they want to or not, hold responsibility for the direction of the characters.

“Helena Doughty who plays Jess gave us something much more venomous, much more intimidating than we expected Jess to be. Paul Waggott who plays Patrick uncovered a fascinating layer of insecurity in Patrick that now we just can’t leave alone. Adam Jarrell is a co-creator of the show, the director and the editor so he naturally has imprinted on Woody almost entirely. Early on we toyed with the idea of Woody being in that position purely through circumstance and nepotism; what Adam wanted to do was make Woody a football genius, a sought after Sporting Director and therefore someone that can dictate the fortunes of the club and it’s worked enormously.

“I don’t think moments of morality were in the plans initially but the actors have drawn the characters out so much that those moments were only natural to explore.”

There’s more to The Offensive than just a writing desk and recording studio, however. With the show running parallel with the Premier League season, it provided the show’s creators with an opportunity to expand the universe beyond the podcast platform, creating social media accounts and a club website for fans of the series to interact with the team. As if he weren’t already busy enough writing scripts, Joel also runs Ashwood City’s Twitter account, which has amassed almost 37,000 followers already this season – enough to sell out twelve of the twenty Premier League grounds.

“You’d be stunned how many people want to live vicariously through a dysfunctional fictional club”

The team have built on the success of their social feeds by opening a Club Shop on their website, where fans can purchase Ashwood City home and away replica shirts, along with other merchandise including the vandalised notebooks that appear in the show. For Joel, it’s the level of interaction from listeners that provides a gauge of the series’ success.

“The Twitter support is genuinely one of the funniest sides of the show. The abuse we receive is consistently extremely funny and we love hearing what the fans have to hurl at the club.

“The club shop is really important to us, not only because it’s the lifeblood of the show but also – we didn’t want to just do a crowdfund or patreon and say ‘give us your money’ we want you to support Ashwood. Buy the shirt, it supports the show and you get something. The packaging is well thought out and if you buy the home or away shirt you get a letter from Patrick Nolan. We’ve deliberately put a lot of thought into it.

“Success for us is measured in not how many people listen, but how many people LOVE IT. And if they love it, they support the show via the club shop. And of course by abusing the club on twitter.”

Despite fan discontent, boardroom warfare and the sale of their star striker to China, it looks as though Ashwood City will be retaining their Premier League status for another season. So have Joel and the team been surprised by the success of the podcast? And what does the future hold for The Offensive?

“We have been surprised, HOWEVER, we believe in the project. We believe that this is what people want.

“We have talented people behind the show but as Mike Phelan once said; hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard. I think this was also said by NBA player Kevin Durant. Who once stole a beer off me at the Rio 2016 Olympics – but that story is for another time.

“We’d like to become part of the furniture of English football. One day we look forward to the moment when a pundit says ‘It’s all gone a bit Ashwood City at…’ I think we have a unique idea and we have a decent show. If you’re a football fan – you will like it. That’s because fictional football on screen and elsewhere has constantly patronised the football fan and given you a completely dulled down product – we haven’t done that.”

 

Thanks to Joel Emery for agreeing to interview for this piece. ‘The Offensive’ is available on acast, iTunes, or wherever you get your pods. 

You can follow Ashwood City FC on Twitter, or head over to the club’s official website to buy merchandise. 

The Offensive is part of the Radio Stakhanov network. 

 

 

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