21 Thunder heavy on off the pitch drama but a rare enjoyable foray into bringing soccer to the small screen

21 Thunder heavy on off the pitch drama but a rare enjoyable foray into bringing soccer to the small screen

Despite being the world’s game, and one which is never off our screens and makes billions for people around the globe, the transition of football from real life to television drama is not a task undertaken too often.

The number of TV dramas based around the sport have been few and far between over the years, and you can probably count the number of actual good ones on one hand. Two at a push. It’s been years since I saw one, although there’s been some good (intentional!) comedy shows along the way.

With all that in mind, the announcement that CBC were producing an eight part drama series based around the under 21 team of fictional MLS side Montreal Thunder, filled me more with dread than joy. The trailers certainly didn’t change that. DRAMA, they screamed! All sex, violence, and intrigue, and very little football. Was this Canada’s version of Sky’s Dream Team?

I came to it with low expectations, but having seen advance previews of the first two episodes, not only was I left surprised by how enjoyable it was, but was left looking forward to seeing more. It’s actually a really good TV show and well worth a watch on Monday nights.

So just why has it been so difficult for television companies to make good footballing dramas over the years?

“It’s a great question, and one I was wondering myself,” footballer turned actor Ryan Pierce told AFTN this week. “I remember speaking to one of the producers about it and just saying that I can’t believe that there’s not been one great football show that’s came about.

“When I grew up I used to watch Footballer’s Wives. When I put that question to him, he just said that shooting sports television is a very, very difficult thing to do. It must be a very complicated process to try and film a sports drama.”

It’s perhaps the reason that the actual football scenes in the series, at least in the episodes that we’ve seen so far, are kept to a minimum. A lot more footage was shot than what you’re seeing in the show, and I feel that 21 Thunder is all the better for it.

If you come to it expecting a football drama with lots of on field action and the game as the primary plot, you’ll likely be disappointed and, in all honesty, will probably not enjoy it. But if you come to it as a drama with the world of football as the backdrop to all the other happenings in the players’ lives, you’ll get much more out of it.

The producers sought to make a soccer equivalent to the high school gridiron drama Friday Night Lights. The focus is more on the drama off the pitch than on it. Ultimately it’s football that binds all these people together.

“It follows the under 21 team of MLS team Montreal Thunder,” Pierce told us. “It follows a group of players, coaches, and staff circulating the team as they deal with life and it’s many obstacles, as they pursue the ultimate goal of making it to the first team.”

Some of the drama will be seen as overblown. Not set in a realistic footballing world. And in some ways, you are right. A lot happens to these young guys all at the same time. Far fetched? Well look at what’s happened with the Whitecaps in a short period of time this year – Sheanon Williams was arrested, two youth players are being charged with sexual assault, and a former Residency player was killed by a drunk driver.

Drama happens within the lives of footballers, as it does with all of us. We often don’t get to hear about all of it. I grew up reading comics like Scorcher, Score, and Roy of the Rovers (still do, truth be told!). Those strips had player fighting jewel thieves, foreign despots, corruption in the game, and a whole world of wonderful flights of fancy.

Pierce was a footballer himself back in Scotland, becoming the youngest player to play for Aberdeen in the Premier League, and earn some youth and U23 caps for Scotland before hanging his boots up on a career that made him unhappy with injuries, battles with depression, and some poor management along the way. His dad, Pierce O’Leary, played for the Whitecaps in their NASL day, and Ryan had a trial for the ‘Caps before their first MLS season in 2011.

He accepts football fans may watch the show and think it’s unrealistic in some realms, but feels it does actually give a realistic glimpse into what actually goes on behind the scenes with some players, both inside and outside the confines of the dressing room.

“You only, I guess, from the outside get a glimpse into soccer player’s lives via social media and what you read in the press,” Pierce said. “This will give you an insight into your potential heroes as football players and role models. I think it will be very interesting and I think it will be a fun ride.”

The drama certainly comes thick and fast for the players and the team. The series looks set to touch on gangs, drugs, racism, sexism, and more, while trying to also build in everything on the footballing side from trying to make the cut to battling potentially career ending injuries to the trappings of fame and match fixing.

And for a player that made it into the top flight of Scotland at an early age, a lot of what these guys were going through from a footballing aspect really hit home.

“It really did,” Pierce admits. “They obviously paid a lot of attention to details, the execs and the creators of the show. It was very nostalgic for me at times. Just being on set, in those changing rooms, and the scenarios, when I’m essentially a coach in this show now, looking down at these players and seeing myself in these players.

“So that was very interesting. I know exactly what they’ve gone through and are going through to achieve their goals at this point in their lives. I really could relate to pretty much every situation, well most situations, that occurred throughout the show.”

Pierce’s character in the show is a 29-year-old Scottish pro called Davey Gunn, a big shot name from Manchester United whose career has gone off the rails a little bit through both on and off field problems and who has headed over to Canada for a new start, coaching the U21 team with an eye on getting his own MLS deal.

Pierce admits his character is a composite of players he’s known and played against over the years. He unlikeable in the first episode, but you slowly start to warm to him by the second and it will be an interesting character to watch develop.

You’ll find a number of somewhat expected characters in the show. Stereotypes? Perhaps, but done for the most part in a refreshing and not too, too clichéd way.

There’s the oldest prospect, whose body may be failing him when he needs it the most. The young academy star brought into the U21 mix who has to suffer the hazing and disrespect from the (slightly) older guys. The African prospect brought in to turn the team around and make a name for himself, but just why did he choose to come to Montreal ahead of other top teams offering more money? And perhaps the key focus of the show, the top talent who feels he’s too good for this level but hides a dark past that starts to catch up with him.

Away from the players there’s the ruthless owner, who is perhaps the only really unlikeable character on 21 Thunders. But aren’t they all? The experienced European head coach who does things his way, but also has his own skeletons in his closet from back home. The female physio romantically involved with a player, and lots of other bit part pieces.

If you’ve not heard much about the show in the run up to Monday’s launch, one aspect you likely will have heard is that it features “the first female coach in MLS”. Was this an attempt to make a North American version of the excellent 80’s UK TV show The Manageress? Were they going to shock value? As it turns out, that’s been a very wrongly construed element of 21 Thunder.

There is a female coach – Christy Cook (played by Vancouver actress Stephanie Bennett). A decorated Olympian clearly based a bit on Christine Sinclair, even down to her taking on the world with a broken nose when she was a player! But she’s on the coaching staff, not the head coach, and she’s in charge of the strikers. She’s like their Robert Earnshaw, just with a lot more hair and beauty!

Cook has been appointed by the female owner. The head coach doesn’t want her there and there’s a battle for her to be accepted. You’d expect nothing less and this is one of the tired stereotypes the show could have done to lose. A nicer twist would have been if it was the head coach who wanted to appoint her but the female owner was against it.

But Cook is an interesting character, and one who has a lot on her plate away from football. She finds it hard to juggle both lives she has, and find solace and an ear in the Gunn. It looks like being the romance of the season, and all good dramas need that!

On the whole, the characters are believable and (mostly) likeable. The young and inexperienced cast do well with their roles, eliciting empathy and emotions from the view that keeps them interested in the storylines and wanting to come back for more. Ultimately, for a television drama, that’s all that really matters. They also attracted the well known Colm Feore from Bon Cop, Bad Cop fame to add a bit of star power and his character is very intriguing from the get go.

As for the footballing scenes, well some are way better shot than others. It’s hard to find actors who can play good football in the UK, never mind over here. A number of scenes had multiple takes, and some ‘ringers’ were brought in from Concordia University.

On the whole though, apart from the odd bit of poor control, it’s fun to watch. There’s some obviously very unrealistic aspects such as the U21 team getting a lot of TV and radio coverage. The MLS teams themselves struggle with that! But it’s set in a world we can all at least relate to and feel a part of.

I could also have done without the whole developing Asian match fixing angle that looks set to be played out. There is a danger of trying to cram too much drama and too many storylines into the plot at once, but that is the nature of only have eight episodes and needing to keep the action fast paced to keep the modern day apathetic viewer engaged. It works, but feels a lot is happening at times.

This is very much a drama show first and a footballing show second. It’s drama that will appeal to football fans and let’s be honest, that’s the only way such a show would get made. As much as we love football and engorge ourselves on every aspect of it we can, a football show trying to woo drama heads would have a shorter shelf life.

Like I said, I genuinely enjoyed it and look forward to seeing the final six episodes to see how it all plays out. Hopes are high it can return for a second season, and with the players looking to move up the MLS, that could see a whole different set of intrigue.

It won’t be for everyone and it’ll be hard for 21 Thunder to shake off the comparisons with Sky’s Dream Team. I was never a fan of that at the time, but I may revisit it now and see if I still feel the same way.

21 Thunder begins it’s eight part run on CBC at 9pm on Monday July 31. Check it out and let us know what you think of it. Cast members will be live tweeting during the premiere on Monday (9pm ET/ 6pm PT). Use the hashtag #21Thunder to take part. We’ll have more from Ryan Pierce in tonight’s AFTN Soccer Show on CiTR radio (11pm – 101.9FM in the lower mainland and citr.ca online anywhere in the world), talking about the show, his footballing career, and his Whitecaps connections. Watch for it in Episode 212 of the podcast.

Share your thoughts