POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD
In these trying times where there is no football for us to enjoy and we’re trapped inside our homes 24/7, Netflix’s new mini-series The English Game attempts to provide us the best of both worlds by giving us a footballing history lesson we can watch from the comfort of our sofas. “Attempts” being the key word in that sentence.
Coming to us from the mind of Julian Fellowes, who most people will know as the bloke who poisoned our TV screens with Downton Abbey for however many torturous years it was, The English Game tells the story of the great FA Cup-winning Blackburn team of 1880 and their captain Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie, who apparently is also in the Fantastic Beasts franchise), and their fabled story of taking the game from the upper-class private school teams who dominated the FA Cup in its infancy, ushering in a new dawn of professionalism in football.
Sadly, the show plays fast and loose with history, as just about all historical dramas do for the purposes of entertainment. The basic story is mostly accurate. Yes, Fergus Suter was the first player to be paid for playing football, along with his mate Jimmy Love. Both joined Darwen from Partick Thistle in 1878, leaving for Blackburn in 1880, who then dethroned the posh bastards at Old Etonians to become the first working-class team to win the FA Cup.
But that’s about where the similarities end. The story begins in February 1879, where Darwen (sporting the suspicious new signings of Suter and Love) play Old Etonians in an FA Cup tie, coming from 5-1 down to draw 5-5, much to the chagrin of the posh bastards at Eton, mostly because they claim to have ‘invented the game as we know it’, most of their players were also on the FA board, and because they don’t want to be outshone by a bunch of mill workers from the north. Their blushes are spared through victory in a second replay, which the people of Darwen all pitched in and banded together to pay for the travel expenses of the team.
The show skips over the fact that there was a first replay to begin with, probably because Fellowes and co. thought it’d be too much to show heart-warming fundraisers to pay for two separate trips from Lancashire to London. But after Darwen lose, the show appears to show Suter telling the team to “go again” next season, which they do, only for Suter to jump ship to local rivals Blackburn after his team are knocked out of the cup at the lure of more money, who then go on to win said cup, in the space of one season. Maybe there was a time jump and I’m just really ignorant, but I’m standing by my judgement here, even if it’s based on a mild falsity.
Problem is, and it’s a biggie – there was never any team just called “Blackburn”, nor did they win the FA Cup in 1880. The first working-class team to win the FA Cup was a team called Blackburn Olympic, who Suter and Love also never actually played for. Suter did win three FA Cups in his time, but he won all three at Blackburn Rovers, and he didn’t even win his first until 1884. And Love, as it turns out, according to an article by Andy Mitchell, only played one game for Rovers before departing to join the Royal Marines, passing away on duty in Egypt in 1882. In fairness, he does actually only play once for Blackburn in the show, breaking his leg in a friendly against Darwen, and I’m guessing this never happened in actuality, since I don’t think he’d be able to serve with a bum leg.
The other big problem here is that Olympic didn’t even win the FA Cup until 1883. They did actually beat Old Etonians 2-1 after extra time in that final, which serves as the climax to the show, with Suter scoring both for Rovers and Arthur Kinnaird, the captain of the posh Etonian twats whose character arc sees him developing more respect for the working class and how well they play the game, scoring a last-minute belter to take the game into extra time. Again, I’m assuming this was done because they were the two main characters for the opposing sides and the audience would be able to identify the goalscorers, and to have a more emotional punch when Suter scores the winner.
But of course in real life, Suter never played in this game, and Kinnaird didn’t score the goal for the Etonians. So this amalgamation of the two Blackburn teams seems, to be honest, quite unnecessary, and seems more to have been contrived to combine the working-class heroics of the 1883 Olympic team with the story of Suter and his influence in advancing the game to professional standards.
Basically, if you’re looking for an accurate history lesson, you’re not going to get it here. If you’re looking for something to occupy your footballing needs during the current postponement, then sure, give it a watch. The footballing scenes are easily the best part of the show, and provide an interesting look at the sport in its infancy, with no nets and crowds of only a few hundred turning out to watch the biggest matches in the country. Its overall message about the beautiful game being for everyone, and that football is a game to share and bring people together, is also a nice touch in an era dominated by huge paycheques and political tension. I will say that it depicts the class divide in the early years of football relatively well, and sets out a nice backdrop for professionalism and the eventual formation of the Football League in 1888.
On the whole, the show isn’t especially ground-breaking, nor does it have a massive ‘wow’ factor that will stick with me for days now that I’ve finished watching it. It’s a nice show, it’s easy to watch, and remains engaging enough for most of its runtime. The acting is all fine with no real standout performers, but Edward Holcroft as Kinnaird and Charlotte Hope as his wife Alma are probably the best two actors in the thing. It’s certainly not bad considering I’d not actually heard of any of these people prior to watching the show.
Aside from the aforementioned altering of history for the sake of entertainment and convenient storytelling, the writing, I will say, is on the whole rather weak. The dialogue is basic and heavy-handed, and it doesn’t help that every scene feels like it has to end with a dramatic cliff-hanger, usually ending with dramatic orchestral music beginning to swell in the background and someone storming off in an unnecessary huff, which will then most likely be resolved when those two characters next appear together. And for a six-episode series which doesn’t even feature overly-long episodes, there’s an unusual amount of filler and side-stories. In a show “chronicling” the origins of professional football, I’m not really sure why there’s a side story featuring Alma running around finding another side character’s taken-from-birth child. To put her and Arthur more in touch with the working class struggle? Whatever the reason, it still feels pretty out of place, and more time could’ve been spent exploring the dynamic between Suter and Davy Burns, a Blackburn player who has a pre-existing tumultuous relationship with the main character. It would’ve been great to see their relationship develop on and off the pitch as the show progressed with the FA Cup as a dynamic duo. But this detail is glossed over in favour of near-random side stories, which is all the more baffling seeing as it appears Burns is a fictitious character created for the show. Seriously, what was the point of having him there?
I digress, however. It’s quite disappointing to see such an interesting topic have so many liberties taken with it, especially when the highest praise I can give it is that it’s ‘light-hearted entertainment’. I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it, it’s fine. Your life probably won’t be greatly enriched for having watched it but I wouldn’t consider it a waste of time for watching it. Safe, middle-ground entertainment.
Anyway, that was just a bit of a different opinion piece from your humble narrator, as I enjoy my film & TV and the opportunity for a crossover episode was too good to pass up. I hope you all consider my opinion in some way, shape, and form, and if you need more football/old-timey Julian Fellowes content in your life, give it a shot.
And for those of you who want to know what actually happened, here’s the link to the aforementioned article by Mitchell: http://www.scottishsporthistory.com/sports-history-news-and-blog/from-partick-with-love-the-story-of-jimmy-love-and-fergie-suter-the-first-professional-footballers
For now though, stay safe, and happy viewing.