Sunday, December 3, 2023

Brendan Hunt (Coach Beard) on his love for Arsenal: ‘Arteta thanked us, it was overwhelming’

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In September 2022, Ted Lasso stars and creators Brendan Hunt and Jason Sudeikis attended Arsenal’s match away to Brentford and happened to run into Mikel Arteta.

“We were in the press area just after he’d finished his interviews,” Hunt, who plays Coach Beard on the Apple TV+ show, tells The Athletic. “You know how Arteta is when he’s in gameday mode — he’s like a guy you think Jason Bourne is going to have to deal with for the entire second act of the film.

“But he sees Jason and me and just immediately has this big smile and says such lovely things about Ted Lasso. He was thanking us for the show, it was kind of overwhelming.”

Arteta told Sudeikis and Hunt that Ted Lasso makes him think differently about the job of being a manager, particularly when it comes to dealing with people. Arteta, like so many viewers, loves Ted’s positivity and refusal to be deterred by setbacks.

For a man as obsessed with Arsenal as Hunt, it was a special moment — a perfect confluence of two worlds. “It’s just f***ing mind-blowing that someone who I care about cares about what we’re doing.”

Growing up in Chicago, soccer and Arsenal were not really on Hunt’s radar. He was more enamoured with the work of William Shakespeare than, say, Wojciech Szczesny — an eighth-grade field trip to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream was part of what inspired him to become a performer.

His love for Shakespeare almost led him to the other end of the Seven Sisters Road. “I was married for a brief period and my parents-in-law took a visit to London,” Hunt explains. “And when they came back, perhaps knowing my interest in all things Shakespeare, they bought me a Shakespeare-themed scarf that said, ‘Tottenham Hotspur’.”

Hunt didn’t know of “Tottenham” but liked the reference to Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, the brash rival to the young Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1.

“So I was wearing this Tottenham Hotspur scarf around Chicago with a degree of pride in 1997,” continues Hunt. “And then, one time, I was at a bar called O’Rourke’s, across from the Steppenwolf Theatre. I was waiting for someone when a rather dark and sullen man at the end of the bar, drinking alone, unprovoked, said very slowly and deliberately, ‘Take. That. Off’. I said, ‘Excuse me?’. And he repeated, ‘Take the scarf off’. ‘Why?’. ‘Because they’re f***ing scum’. And I began to look at my scarf with less confidence than I had previously.”

As it transpired, that man was Will Frears — director, writer and son of celebrated English filmmaker Stephen Frears. That encounter typifies the intersection of football and art that has come to characterise Hunt’s professional life.

Despite this brush with the intensity of north London rivalry, it wasn’t until Hunt came to live in Europe that he was bitten by the football bug. “I knew absolutely nothing about football until I moved to Amsterdam in 1999,” he admits.

This was pre-broadband and pre-widespread availability of U.S. sports on European television. Hunt had a sports-shaped hole in his life and football filled it. He started watching Ajax games but was also urged to check out this entertaining English team, Arsenal. They were flying, with a couple of Dutch stars in their ranks: Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars.

The name ‘Bergkamp’ rang a bell: Hunt had been waiting tables in a restaurant during the 1998 World Cup when the games would be shown between the lunch rush and dinner rush. “I’m pretty sure I saw the Bergkamp goal against Argentina on one of my shifts,” he says. “I had no sense of the importance of it. I just thought, ‘Oh, that’s kind of cool’.”

Art played its part in his conversion. “The last book I’d read in Chicago was High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, which created a gateway to Hornby,” says Hunt. “People suggested I should read Fever Pitch, so I did. Now, I didn’t know the references — I didn’t know Anders Limpar or Gus Caesar or the Rumbelows Cup. But just as he did with High Fidelity, Hornby manages to map the young male brain so well that I felt like I was reading a book about The White Sox.”

The point of no return came on October 23, 1999. Hunt wandered past a pub and, seeing there was a game on, poked his head inside. Chelsea were beating Arsenal 2-0 and there were 20 minutes to go. “And in that 20 minutes, Kanu scored a hat-trick. A memorable hat-trick of incredible skill, with the third goal in particular seeming to be physically impossible. And that was the inflexion point and there’s been no turning back since.”

It’s worth mentioning that Hunt started following Arsenal in the year Manchester United won the treble. “I was afforded every opportunity in the world to be a Man U fan,” he points out. “Just instinctively, I felt: ‘No, that’s not my thing’.”

The next step was to visit Highbury. He made it to north London for a match against Charlton in 2001. “It finished 4-2 to them and I left thinking Claus Jensen must have been the best footballer in the world because he was imperious.”

He returned a few weeks later for a game between title rivals Arsenal and Manchester United. “I was dating an Australian girl who had an English cousin and his best friend was a guy called Julian Harris, who actually wrote for The Gooner fanzine,” Hunt explains. “We all met up in the pub before the game. It was my first time sampling a proper, pre-match atmosphere. I loved it. But I also took note of a sign that said, ‘Tonight: Karaoke’.”

Arsenal won the game 3-1, with Fabien Barthez gifting a brace of goals to Thierry Henry. Hunt had a particular way of celebrating in mind.

“At my instigation, we went back to the karaoke,” he says. “There were maybe seven people in there, one of whom is unabashedly, head down, asleep at the bar. The karaoke jockey is clearly miserable — he does not want to be there. The people singing are awful. I remember one woman sang ‘One Dennis Bergkamp’ to the tune of Like a Virgin — which was odd enough in itself — but she was also off by a beat for the entire song and never corrected it.

“And then came my turn. I should add that I had green hair at the time because I’d just been The Joker at Halloween and I commit. Anyway, I sang Rawhide.

The only known photograph of Brendan’s electrifying ‘Rawhide’ performance

“Now there were only seven people there, but among those seven people passed a jolt of electricity. Everyone was joining in. Even the guy asleep at the bar got involved.”

Hunt’s performance, documented in a recent Twitter thread by a bemused Julian, had the landlady asking him to come back and perform in the weeks to come. Hunt graciously explained that he lived in the Netherlands and was only visiting temporarily. It would be more than a decade before Hunt’s twin loves of football and performing would perfectly intertwine.

Hunt’s Ted Lasso co-creators, Jason Sudeikis and Joe Kelly, spent time performing alongside him with Amsterdam’s Boom Chicago improv troupe. When Sudeikis bought a copy of FIFA 2000 for the Boom Chicago green room, football missionary Hunt saw an opportunity to win some new converts.

“During my time in Amsterdam, I became rather devoted to the notion that soccer didn’t suck,” he explains. “Part of my strategy was to analogise football clubs to American sports teams. We would play as the classic teams, say Ajax ’72, and I’d say, ‘OK, they’re kind of like the Showtime Lakers’. Straight away, they got it.”

The trio pursued different projects in the years that followed, but when Sudeikis was approached by NBC in 2013 to help promote their coverage of the Premier League, he immediately called Kelly and Hunt.

Ted Lasso creators Joe Kelly (left), Jason Sudeikis (centre) and Brendan Hunt (right) at the Emirates Stadium

Together they created the character of Ted Lasso — an American football coach hired to manage a British soccer team. What he lacks in appropriate contextual knowledge he makes up for in sheer optimism.

The initial skits filmed for NBC saw Lasso installed as the manager of Tottenham. Hunt appeared alongside him as the stoic Coach Beard, an assistant in a full Spurs tracksuit. In one scene, Sudeikis and Hunt reprise those FIFA conversations, equating Premier League clubs to famous American teams.

“We shot it in July,” says Hunt. “Part of the contract said they would fly us out to a game once the season was underway. We went to White Hart Lane the following March to watch the north London derby.”

Hunt was behind enemy lines. “We were all suited up in the directors’ box and then, 72 seconds in, Tomas Rosicky scores from the edge of the box. And I did what’s classically known in the theatre as a ‘silent scream’, literally just turning to Jason and Joe like, ‘Oh my god!’.” His glee is still apparent.

The following year saw another round of Ted Lasso commercials and another trip to London courtesy of NBC. This time, they saw Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea grind out a 0-0 draw at the Emirates Stadium. More excitingly, they were introduced to Thierry Henry after the game.

Henry had joined Arsenal at the precise point in time Hunt began following them, so he’s always felt a special affinity for this particular player.

Arsenal fan Brendan Hunt with legendary player Thierry Henry

“It had been quite the day and I was somewhat ‘in my cups’,” confesses Hunt. “Joe Kelly loves to bait me when I’m drunk. So after five solid minutes of me not uttering a word in Henry’s company, Joe finally goes, ‘Well, you know Thierry, this guy over here is a big Arsenal fan’.

“And Thierry, as if sensing how hammered I was, doesn’t even look directly at me and says, ‘Oh really?’. And very proudly, I say, ‘Yeah, actually, when I lived in Amsterdam, I made it to Highbury three times’.

“Without missing a beat, completely deadpan, Thierry says: ‘That is not that many times’.”

A full series of Ted Lasso was commissioned by Apple in 2019. It was to be filmed in London, which brought Hunt close to his beloved Arsenal. “Early on, I really consciously made a point of trying to see every Arsenal home game I could,” he says. “And I did.

“This very much came at the expense of the museums. I hear the Tate’s good. The Tower of London is still there, I think? I wouldn’t know. But I did clock up some minutes watching Southampton.”

Hunt’s opportunities to watch Arsenal were limited not just by his filming schedule, but also by COVID-19. It meant that when London began to re-open and he was back in town filming the show’s third season, he was doubly determined to get to games as often as possible.

Occasionally, it backfired. “The last two times I raced away from set to go to a match didn’t work out great,” says Hunt. “In April 2022, I high-tailed it from the shoot of an episode I had actually written so I could see the first north London derby with a crowd at Spurs. It was, of course, an absolute nightmare. Best seats I’ve ever had for a game and I was absolutely in hell, surrounded by people going just ape s*** for the best day at football they’ve ever had in their lives.

“Then, in November, I rushed across town to go to the League Cup game against Brighton as we were about to finish filming and I thought this could be my last-ever Arsenal match. And, of course, we lost.”

By this time, the huge success of Ted Lasso had made Hunt a recognisable face at Arsenal — and in football more broadly. The show’s army of fans includes high-profile managers like Arteta and Jurgen Klopp.

Hunt naturally sought to include Arsenal references wherever possible. AFC Richmond’s right-back is named “Arlo Dixon”, meaning a ‘Dixon 2’ shirt hangs perennially in The Greyhounds’ dressing room. Legends Ian Wright and Henry have appeared in the show. There is, he tells The Athletic, an Arsenal-related Easter egg to look out for in season three.

Brendan Hunt on the set of Ted Lasso with Gary Lineker and Thierry Henry

The end of filming saw Hunt return to Los Angeles shortly before the World Cup. While some time back home is welcome, it’s painful to be away from the Emirates Stadium during such an enthralling campaign.

“People are right,” he says. “This season is different. And it has been from the beginning. People are on fire. And there’s so much belief right now.

“I was watching the Bournemouth game from my in-laws’ house in Minnesota. My partner has one nephew, his name is Tyler Nelson. And ever since he has expressed even the vaguest interest in football, I have been buying him ‘Reiss Nelson’ Arsenal jerseys.

“Tyler was out at baseball practice on the morning of the game. But because I’m there, in the Nelson household, the game takes on extra importance even without the nephew being there. And then Reiss Nelson actually comes on.

“No one is watching with me by the way, they’re all in the kitchen having breakfast. Nelson scores that winning goal and I vault from my seat, slap my hands down on the couch and scream, ‘REISS. MOTHER******G. NELSON’. There may have been some moisture in the area of my eyes, I concede.”

Brendan Hunt and Jason Sudeikis with Arsenal goalkeeper Matt Turner. “I’ve been waiting for Arsenal to have an American player on the team for so long,” says Hunt.

Fans of Ted Lasso will be familiar with the handmade ‘Believe’ sign that hangs above the manager’s office. So when it comes to Arsenal’s title challenge, does Hunt believe?

“There’s just some big games coming up. We can’t lose that second City game. Just cannot. And it does feel like it’s all going to come down to that. I fear that part of the season when they slip up unexpectedly may have passed us by.

“It’s there for the taking. We can do it. But will we? I just don’t know.”



Nick Mohammed Q&A: On ‘Ted Lasso,’ Nate the Great’s heel turn, and geophysics

There is no official confirmation as to whether this is the final season of Ted Lasso. However, Sudeikis has stated that “this is the end of the story we wanted to tell”.

Over the coming months, we’ll discover whether both Ted and Arsenal get the dream endings to their respective stories.

It could be quite the year for Hunt.

(Top photos: Getty Images, Gilbert Flores; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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