BY JOE CARROLL - @Joe3Carroll
Ashwood City might be a fictional football club, but try telling their fans they’re not real.
They’re the club that tell you they’re gunning for the top six but are genuinely surprised with mid-table obscurity. They’re the club who promise a summer of cash-splashing before dipping into the bargain bin on deadline day and pulling out Denis Stracqualursi on loan. They’re the club who plays their second string against Burton Albion in the second round of the Carabao Cup and lose 1-0. They’re the club whose very existence, it seems, is to continually disappoint its loyal fan-base, with cock-up after cock-up. They’re the club who end the season trophy-less, manager-less and leave their fans less than impressed with yet another 38 games of total shite sprinkled with abject mediocrity.
Sound familiar? Despite being an entirely fictional football club Ashwood City disappoint and (occasionally) delight their support in the same ways that real football clubs piss off yet tempt back real football fans.
A mockumentary drama originally written for TV, The Offensive is a brand new podcast that satirises the tragicomic everyday goings-on of the people tasked with running a top-flight football club. With the world around them in danger of spontaneously going up in flames at any moment, Ashwood’s firefighters comprise the moody chief-exec with questionable football knowledge Patrick Nolan (he genuinely thinks that Bergkamp goal against Newcastle United was a fluke); the terrifying but equally hilarious sporting director ‘Woody’ who fosters the same sociopathic vibes as The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker, and not just because of the Scottish accent; and chief firefighter Jess Tate, the career-driven Head of Communications whose job it is to clean up the macho-mess left behind by the oft-squabbling boys.
“Think, The Thick of It but set in a club boardroom”, says Joel Emery, one-third of those responsible for the podcast’s being, along with creators Oliver Dowling and Adam Jarrell.
“The Offensive was created as a TV show. We’ve written a number of things over the years from a movie to a West End play and we made this for TV initially. But broadcasters were put off by the full-fat, 100% attachment to football that the show has. We knew that audience was there but we completely understand why a commissioning editor with no interest in football would say, ‘can you lose this joke about Paolo Di Canio, I don't get it’ or ‘who's Cherno Samba?’ or ‘what does Tiki-Taka-Tosser mean?’"
It’s just as well that The Offensive wasn’t written specifically with BBC commissioners in mind. Instead, each episode is brimming with football references ranging from the obvious to the obscure; jokes for day-trippers and tele-clappers, and subtle nods for the hardcore CM2 managers and bearded St. Pauli ultras.
One of the successes of the podcast is that it’s recorded and released in real-time (or as close to as possible), meaning the controversies and calamities of the weekend’s action are being fed back to you via the Ashwood City boardroom just hours after Sunday’s final whistle is blown. Finding the right balance between original ideas and dipping into the never-ending well of drama that is English top-flight football is a delicate business.
“When cabbages are thrown at managers, and mascots dress as boilers it's very difficult to ignore those, they're very much an open goal”, says Joel. “But we do try and create situations just as much as we satirise the real ones.
“Ultimately the audience dictates the immediacy of our gags, a few thousand are living the show right now, in-sync with the Premier League season when these things will feel fresh, but future listeners won't be in that same news cycle.
“What's really crazy is that we have talked about mimicking scenarios that really have happened to football clubs; accidentally playing Babestation in the hospitality suites at the stadium (Bristol Rovers). Playing Ali Dia for Southampton because he's been offered up as George Weah's cousin. Accusing members of the press of being ostriches. These actually feel like they're too far into the bizarre, but unfortunately for all clubs involved, they're very real.”
Far from simply providing a source of gags, the fact that real-life events can naturally work their way into the storylines of a football mockumentary says much about the The Offensive’s appeal. This is fiction, yet the stories aren’t so outlandish that you’d question their presence on the back pages of a national tabloid. And this helps to ground the show and give it a sense of reality that listeners are willing to invest in. And when you can see so much of your own club in Ashwood City, it feels like a worthwhile investment.
“We do get excited messages from people when 'their team' is mentioned or alluded to. We often hear from Newcastle fans as I think they see the show as a bit of therapy for them.
“We've noticed people get giddy when Ashwood play their team. I think the excitement of hearing how you did against a fictional team is a fairly unique experience. Our Bournemouth episode (episode 6) certainly went down well with Cherries fans.
“Ashwood City are a Frankenstein of many, many clubs. In the early days we spoke to Mat Hodgson who directed The Four Year Plan (the documentary film about QPR) and naturally he was as intoxicated with the project as others who can see clubs within Ashwood.”
Of course, we know all about ‘the project’. Newly appointed managers have barely let the ink dry on their contracts before banging the drum for ‘the project’ in their inaugural press conferences. Whether it’s staving off the spectre of relegation, consolidating the club as a mid-table outfit or preparing for an assault on the top six, clubs must have a project.
‘The Offensive’ is Ashwood’s very own project, the club’s 5-year plan to break the glass ceiling and cement their place at the top table of English football; just as The Offensive is Joel, Oliver and Adam’s project. They want listeners to buy into the idea of Ashwood as a real football club. They have a real-time Twitter account, the scores are announced when the Premier League’s are at 4.55pm, you can read a brief history of the club on their website, and interviews given in-episode can be read online. The club even interacts with real people in the real world, further blurring the lines between fiction and reality.
“We (football fans) care about the finer details whether we like to admit it or not. So our core listeners care that Ashwood are real. They give the Ashwood Twitter account abuse, they want board members sacked. They want to buy the home shirt (which you can do on their website). You can interact with Ashwood on Twitter and it can appear in an episode, as a couple of people found out recently, including Jonny Sharples. The best thing for listeners about the club being 'real' is that incidents can (and do) happen outside the boundaries of an episode.
“A lot of work goes into the authenticity of Ashwood.”
Indeed, with just a week to turn around the latest episode, it’s all hands on deck. Making Ashwood feel real to the listener is one thing, but making people laugh is key to the show’s success. Unlike real football fans, if the product is no good, listeners simply won’t come back.
But there’s genuine humour pouring out of every episode. Joel is frank about the influence of The Thick of It but The Offensive is even slicker with its dialogue, and you really have to have your wits about you if you’re going to inhale every awful (by which I mean excellent) pun.
“Jokes are mostly born from the odd thought here and there. Oliver and I basically have WhatsApp messages saved where gags are swapped back and forth. The script will take a number of forms: one person writes, passes to the next, gags get added/improved, then it falls to Adam to sprinkle further gags and find more comedy in the performances.
“The show is deliberately overcrowded when it comes to jokes. You’ll notice some, others you’ll miss.”
The gags are quick out of the blocks and cause more than a few laugh out loud moments, not unlike Liverpool ‘wrapping up the title’ every year by the end of September (except these gags really do have the staying-power).
And it’s the comedy aspect that ultimately keeps the fans coming back for another episode, as well as the intrigue of just what kind of cluster-fuck Patrick, Woody and Jess are forced to deal with this week. In between episodes 8 and 9, the number of listens doubled in the space of a week, giving them the momentum they need to mount their own offensive on the podcast charts (at the time of writing The Offensive sits within the European places of the UK Sports podcast charts, 7th ahead of The Totally Football Show and just two places behind Football Daily).
But what do ‘real’ football fans think of The Offensive? “We often get told ‘I thought this was going to be shit…and it’s not’”, says Joel. As many supporters are well aware, low expectations can often lead to pleasant surprises.
“They think their football is going to be diluted and packaged to a mass audience, but this isn’t at all. We know exactly who it’s for.”
They know because they’re writing it first and foremost for themselves. They’re fans first; writers, voice artists, producers and directors second. They live and breathe the game as we all do, and this is evident from episode 1 onwards. The ceaseless footy references and puns are packed more tightly into The Offensive than Adi Akinfenwa’s shorts, they’re more obscure than an Eric Cantona press-conference, they’re sharper than Luis Suarez’ left canine, and pack more punch than the Battle of Bramall Lane. All stranger than fiction; all real.
CATCH UP WITH THE LATEST NEWS FROM ASHWOOD CITY ON THE OFFENSIVE PODCAST https://www.theoffensivepodcast.com/