The sun had long set, the floodlights glared bright and triumph for England was in reach, an extra time anxiousness hanging in the London summer night air. Then something strange happened. Gareth Southgate, from the pedestal he’d rightfully climbed up on to, completed three late substitutes, introducing Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka.
It was a strange move, so late into the second biggest game of England’s history. After Southgate’s manoeuvres backfired, the mood turned. Football wasn’t coming home after all.
That same week football comedy drama Ted Lasso premiered it’s second season. Jason Sudeikis, who plays eccentric uber collegiate coach, took to the the red carpet in support of the three denied penalty takers. It looked contrived, too Hollywood, all part of the PR machine.
With this second season coming to a close, that sweatshirt has become a meaningful symbol of what Ted Lasso is truly about.
The two seasons have been much like a two legged football toe, with comedy and positive messages vying for possession. Comedy had more of the ball in the first season, but that balance has shifted second time out.
Relegated to the Championship last campaign (after loanee and former striker Jamie Tart returned to Manchester City and became the architect of Richmond’s demise) the fans were all set for a revenge mission with clips of an encounter with City drip fed. As Richmond set out for City, the team started the season with six straight draws.
A late penalty beckoned in their seventh outing and as Danny Rojas (“Football is life!”) struck from twelve yards, with the ball stanchion bound, club mascot Earl the greyhound wrangled free of his master, took flight only to be struck down by Rojas’s effort. Football, Rojas mournfully reflected, is also death.
Enter stage left psychologist Sharon Fieldstone who played a quiet but pivotal role in this second season. The good doctor’s introduction not only served to absolve Rojas of his guilt, but spurred on the character development of Ted, which led to the flaws and nurturing of others in the dressing room being playing out too.
Early on we see the myriad of demons and challenges many of the team face. Difficult father son relationships, self awareness, self worth, leadership, responsibility, love, loss and more, all throwing light on the wide ranging triggers that impact mental health.
Ted, a bizarre cocktail of Flanderisms and Lombardi like inspiration, struggles. In the Christmas special (airing in August, such is the show’s anything goes approach) Ted is alone, drinking, down, all but defeated. Away from home during the festive period, feelings of isolation would be understandable. As the show unfolds, his burden goes much deeper.
In the finale, the lovable director of communications Leslie Higgins imparts some wisdom to colleague Keeley Jones, and us; “a good mentor wants you to move on, a great mentor expects you to move on.”
Though referring to Rebecca, it’s Ted to a tee. Still with a passion, not just for coaching, but putting a meaningful arm around the lads, exiled Jamie Tart is welcomed back to the club. A leader showing forgiveness but more importantly connecting with a lost soul that engenders the same spirit, eventually, from a wary and hostile squad. Is holding grudges worth the energy, or is the team moving forward more important?
The manc with the mouth on him isn’t the only redemption story. If we currently find ourselves in the information age, we find ourselves in a broadcast one too, for better or worse. Content, particularly as the world adapted to the pandemic, is teeming from our tablets, smart phones and airpods.
More so than ever ex-footballers are accessible to us, and so is their post playing struggle; their lack of routine, place and purpose. The once upon a time hard man of continent conquering Chelsea, and former Richmond club captain Roy Kent spends the early part of the series going half time Mexico Mike Bassett at his niece’s school team, and dining solo on kebabs whilst his former charges carry on without him.
Desperate to be back around the game, Roy parks the emotional bus, whilst insulating himself in a yoga practicing, reality TV watching, rosé tinted bubble.
When Keeley, his partner, former glamour model and Jamie’s ex-girlfriend, persuades him to join the Sky Sports panel, we see Roy start to grieve the loss of his old self. When Ted calls on his former captain to help his struggling successor, Roy rediscovers himself and abandons the pundit’s mic for the coach’s whistle. Often football fans see the surface, the player. Roy Kent shows us players are human after all (though conspiracies he may be some form of CGI borg continue to gain traction).
Also amongst the coaching staff is shy Nate Shelley, an emotional equivalent of nineties Manchester City; up and down. Enduring an internal roller coaster dipping and peaking between self doubt and hyper-inflated arrogance. In the first season, against every fibre of his being, Nate challenges the underperforming squad to set their egos aside, go to Goodison and lift their Everton hoodoo.
It works and rewarded with a promotion from kit man to coaching staff, Nate’s self loathing manifests itself in his abuse of Will, the new kit boy, amongst others.
Episode five, Rainbow, gives us a backstage peek into Nate’s family life, and is one of the many times the paradigms of father and son relationships are tackled. Later on, when Ted takes a sudden leave of absence mid match, Nate orchestrates a late giant slaying of Tottenham in the FA Cup.
In absence of his father’s recognition, Nate The Great’s sense of importance becomes over inflated as he instead seeks validation from social media. Failing to keep grounded, his toxicity spreads through the squad, who in turn seek psychological support as a result of Nate’s bullying.
It’s the world many live in, and when the keyboard warriors turn sour Nate goes from great, to self hate, his meteor hurtling through the Richmond universe, destroying all in it’s path. It’s an example of the pace at which social media and the abuse that can come with it is growing, but how our ability to manage the impacts of it aren’t keeping pace, individually or as a society.
Towards the end of the series, club owner Rebecca, and bestie Keeley (responsible for the club’s branding) face their own individual battles. Both come from worlds with dependent on the validation and approval of men. Each helps the other gain a sense of independence and worth on their own terms.
As an expecting father, I’d made my piece with Baby Shark being a part of my life. The Jamie Tart chant has accelerated my familiarity with the catchy but extremely annoying jingle. The two Jamies, pre and post Keeley, are different animals and their separation from each other reflects many relationships that come to an end - with the benefit of time, space and reflection, each are given a chance to grow.
Jamie, much like Nate and Ted, has his own problems with the old man, and time and again we see the confident front man belittled and bullied by his Dad, often publicly. Whilst it’s admirable of Jamie to learn of the man he doesn’t want to be, it’s arguably unfair of him to share this with Keeley, enjoying a new found freedom both professionally and personally. When Jamie confesses his feelings for Keeley never dissipated. It’s one of the poorer moves from the guys; holding Keeley back when they were together, and having moved on with Roy, holding her back when apart. You had your chance Jamie!
In Ted Lasso though, boys do become men, and it's often the rest of the team who catalyses these changes for their team mates. The unity of the squad is absolute; whether striking against the club’s oil baron sponsor or performing a farewell dance routine for Dr Fieldstone. In the penultimate episode, as we prepare to say goodbye to the much loved soccer shrink, who has taught us so much; forgiveness of ourselves and each other perhaps her most poignant lesson, with training well under way, it quickly comes to pass it’s not the false nine they are working on, rather the dance routine of Backstreet Boys’ Bye Bye Bye for Sharon’s benefit.
You have to be prepared for surprises, and where many find the show a touch cheesy, it’s perhaps from holding out for more football than we get. In the end though, Ted Lasso is as much about the game, as Friends is about a coffee shop.
It’s never a battle between comedy and drama as the two styles only complement each other, but big news broke last week and what it means for the direction of the show will be interesting to see; as a partnership between the Ted Lasso and the Premier League was announced, where the show will have full access rights to EPL branding, badge, player names etc.
Interestingly it has been the League, already awash with cash, whose name was marked under ‘recipient’ on the cheque, but they might be having their half time pie and eating it here. Football can unfairly have a reputation for toxic masculinity, populated with players lacking personality, and clubs functioning purely for profit. Richmond and the Ted Lasso dressing room is about so much more, and the show is reaching a new demographic the Premier League would love to target in a bid to further widen their audience.
The show already has a certain cache amongst existing fans; cameos from Chris Kamara, Jeff Stelling, Eni Aluko, Thierry Henry and more demonstrate the show’s local pull, but the partnership will add gravitas in its quest for a truly global audience.
The last episode brings the whole thing home, and whilst many of the men have spent a lot of the series before the mirror, next season is going to turn that mirror around on the world we live in. After many months of global turmoil, it makes us think, individually and as a society, we can be better. We just have to believe.