Tuesday 31 March 2020

The English Game (Netflix) - Review

Football is in its infancy, an amateur game dominated by the upper class teams who invented its rules.

Arthur Kinnaird, the captain of the Old Etonians, has played in more FA Cup Finals than any other player, and won the cup three times.

Until 1879, no working class team had ever reached the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup.

And so begins The English Game, Netflix’s historical drama on the early days of association football and how it moved from the public schools to bfellecome ‘the working class game’ it has been perceived to be ever since. Developed by Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame), the six-part series places its focus on two figures at opposite ends of the social scale; the aforementioned (future Lord) Kinnaird and Fergus Suter; a Scottish player who moves south in the pursuit of fortune.

After codifying a set of rules from the various forms of football played throughout the country, the Football Association quickly recognised that their game needed a ‘Challenge Cup’ to take place for its members. Initially featuring alumni from public schools, the FA Cup opened up to include teams from working class towns and cities to broaden the game’s appeal. Competing was difficult for the working class, however – as their players had shift work for 6 days-a-week, travelling south to meet these well-honed Gentlemen and beat them in a match was a difficult prospect. Then local business owners hit upon the idea of compensating their players for loss time so they could take time off work to practice – something that the Gentlemen objected to, and quickly outlawed the practice…

The story initially focuses on Suter's move to the Lancashire mill town of Darwen, and the football team's Quarter-Final clash against Kinnaird's Old Etonians. Later, the series charts Suter's move to Darwen's rivals 'Blackburn' (a composite team of Blackburn Rovers and Blackburn Olympic) – bringing into focus the growing professionalism in the game and the northern clubs' ambition to establish themselves as leaders on the pitch.

Although the series plays fast-and-loose with some historical facts (more about this is an upcoming blog post), the detail in which they go to present a genuine 19th century spectacle should be admired. Aside from things like the costumes and social etiquette being portrayed to a tee (again, no surprise, what with it involving Julian Fellowes), they didn’t compromise anything to present a realistic portrayal of what the play would have looked like. I particularly enjoyed a reference to Arthur Kinnaird’s ‘handstand’ goal celebration – which I saw at the National Football Museum recently.

Kinnaird (played by Edward Holcroft) is arguably the main driver of the story as his outlook on life changes from someone willing to gain an advantage any way he can, to someone who is willing to lose if it means to play fair – as a proper Gentlemen should. Conversely, Suter (Kevin Guthrie) is the working class hero that seems to be more of a Gentleman – despite him wrestling with guilt at being a professional footballer, whilst his Darwen teammates get nothing. The rest of the plot features Kinnaird and his wife’s attempts to have children, Suter’s REAL reason for moving south, his relationships with the locals, the labour conditions of the era and the attitude of the upper class towards their game being uspured by the working class.

As for the play presented in the series, the most successful tactics of the time seemed to involve a ‘kick and crowd’ style – reminiscent of what rugby union came to be. Working class teams tended to play the ‘combination game’ (a major reason being that they were not as ‘conditioned’ to play the same way as upper class teams was because they couldn’t train anywhere near as much. So the passing lets the ball do the running, solidifying football as a quick, fast-moving, exciting game to watch). This was explained well in the series, as the attitude towards the play of the working class was summed up by one of the Old Etonians who said “All that absurd passing, it’s nonsense”. How times change!

A major criticism I have of the series is that it leant too much on placing upper class characters as villains. Whilst I do not doubt that many of them did hold the attitude that was shown, I doubt that it would have been as widespread as it seemed to be. Another aspect that needed focusing on was the businessmen who bankrolled these teams – they’re portrayed as benevolent champions of the working class when in reality, it was a means to generate money (for most of them).  Having an upper class vs. working class conflict, with clear positions defined on both sides, just feels a bit cartoonish.

Another issue that I’d like to pick up on is a plot point involving Suter’s reason for moving away from Glasgow to make his money – it has no basis in reality and simply acts as a motivation for his character. Even though these events happened some 140 years ago, it felt somewhat disrespectful to (potentially) besmirch the name of a real, historical family just to give a character some depth.

Overall, The English Game is a decent-enough binge-watch but ultimately feels like a missed opportunity to explore the social impact of the game in the depth that it deserves. It feels very-much like a cut-and-shut of the intricacies of early football and the domestics of Downton Abbey – and it could have easily done without the latter. Concentrating solely on the football would have made for a great vehicle for a feature film and I hope one day that we get to see something like it.


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