Sunday 26 April 2020

Historical Accuracy of Netflix’s ‘The English Game’

Darwen FC in 1879 - Fegus Suter pictured on the ground
Following on from my review of the recently-uploaded Netflix football drama ‘The English Game’, I thought it only proper to delve into the real history the story was inspired by.

Set in the early days of association football, the series tells the story of the working class strive to topple their upper-class opponents to win the FA Cup. Interwoven with the personal and professional struggles of real and fictional people, it was always going to distort, amalgamate and make-up plot elements.

I’ve covered the major points here; there are other slight inaccuracies, but these are either not integral to the story or they’re extremely nitpicky – I wish to entertain and inform, rather than inform and send you to sleep. (There will be spoilers, by the way, so unless you’ve already seen it or aren’t’ particularly bothered about being spoiled, stop reading now – save this article in your bookmarks for later, obviously).

So, that’s the warm-up done, let’s kick-off!

How True-To-Life Was ‘The English Game’?

Two Blackburn’s

The major inaccuracy of the series was Fergus Suter captaining ‘Blackburn’ to the FA Cup win, becoming the first-working class team to lift the trophy. The Blackburn team is, in fact, a composite of Blackburn Rovers and Blackburn Olympic – and it was Olympic who were the first working-class team to win the cup in 1883. Suter signed for Blackburn Rovers in 1880 and did go on to lift the cup with them in 1884 (the first of three final wins; none against upper-class sides) – however, he was not part of that Olympic team, so the drama created the composite instead.

Intriguingly, both Blackburn sides wore light blue at the time – for some reason (possibly to have a clear distinction from the Old Etonians’ own light blue shirts), the Blackburn club in this series wore claret.

Three Ties

The opening episode portrays the Fifth Round tie between the Old Etonians and Darwen in 1879 – the match ending in a 5-5 draw. A major contention point between the two sides was that the Etonians settled for a replay, which Darwen weren’t happy with – believing themselves on top in the play, they wanted to finish the tie with extra time (the prospect of travelling down south again for a replay was another contention point). The drama then portrays the Etonians winning the second match comfortably. In fact, the tie went to a second replay after a 2-2 draw, with the third being a 6-2 win for the Etonians – they would go on to lift the cup that year.

Cup Conquerors?

The narrative portrays the Old Etonians as the dominant side of the era – in fact, they hadn’t won the cup at the start of the series and would *only* go on to add a second FA Cup win in 1882. They did, however, finish as runners-up on four other occasions – the last being the loss to Blackburn Olympic in 1883.

The portrayal of the side being dominant is possibly a device to tell the viewer of the supremacy of upper-class teams at the time – Arthur Kinnaird had won the cup three times with Wanderers before he founded the Old Etonians side. Kinnaird appeared in a total of nine FA Cup Finals – the most of any other player to date.

No Greater Love

One of the series’ closest relationships was that between Suter and his teammate, Jimmy Love (played by James Harkness). The story tells us that Love followed Suter to Darwen and later, Blackburn. Jimmy fits in well with the community, finding love (fulfilling his surname), but sadly ends up breaking his leg in his first match for Blackburn (against Darwen) and his playing career is seemingly over. In reality, it was Suter who followed Love down from their former club, Partick (not to be confused with Partick Thistle), Love never played in a competitive match for any Blackburn club and by the time his friend won the FA Cup in 1883, Jimmy was dead.

In The English Game, as a result of his broken leg, Jimmy finds work in a former teammate’s shirt-making factory. This didn’t happen; he left Darwen after a year and joined the Royal Marines. The reason for his departure and subsequent joining of the Navy seems to be linked to his reason for moving to England in the first place – a warrant was out of his arrest in Scotland over his non-attendance of a bankruptcy hearing after his cleaning business racked up debts.  His skills as a footballer offered a route out – he was recruited by the ambitious Darwen and as a result, he became (arguably) the world’s first professional footballer.

After participating in the bombardment and occupation of Ismailia, Egypt, in September 1882, Jimmy Love fell ill with enteric fever and died, aged just 24. He was buried in Tel-el-Kebir cemetery and has also been commemorated on a Royal Marine memorial in Rochester Cathedral. (For more information on Jimmy Love and the differences from his portrayal in The English Game, check out this great article on the Scottish Sport History website).

The Founder

William Kirkham, a Darwen native, was the link between the Lancashire mill town and Partick. Working in the area, he helped to found Partick FC before returning home and having a hand in the development of the local club. It’s said that he was instrumental in bringing down several players from Patrick – first Jimmy Love and then Fergus Suter. In the series, their professionalism is covered up by them working in a cotton mill, whereas in reality, they were both stonemasons and their reason for chucking in the trade shortly after arriving in Lancashire was that ‘English stone was too difficult to work’.

There is no mention of Kirkham in the series and it seems his role is being played by James Walsh, the owner of the cotton mill that ‘employs’ Suter and Love, and is the financer behind the team.


The Next Generation

A major storyline that runs throughout the series is Arthur Kinnaird’s relationship with his wife, more specifically their struggle to have children. After suffering a miscarriage early on, Alma Kinnaird (Charlotte Hope) goes on an emotional journey that makes her question her role in the family and whether she is of use if her ‘raison d’etre’ to create heirs for this aristocratic family doesn’t exist. The latter episodes see her getting involved with a women’s refuge and the questionable practice of an orphanage service that sells children off.

This was a total invention – the layering of a domestic storyline that wouldn’t look out of place in the series creator, Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey series. In reality, the Kinnairds had no such problems conceiving children – their first child was born in 1876, several years before the events depicted in the series. Over the next 25 years, they went on to have six other children, most of whom would survive into adulthood (which wasn’t a given in those days, by any means).

Reason For Leaving

One of the more controversial meddlings with history was Suter’s reason for moving from Glasgow. After keeping a lid on it for a couple of episodes, it’s eventually revealed that he took up the offer from Darwen to get away from a drunken, abusive father so he could earn enough money to bring his mother and sisters down from Scotland. This has no basis in fact and like the Kinnaird’s struggle to have children, is a complete bastardisation of history. Interestingly, there’s no mention of Suter’s brother, Edward – who would go on to follow him to England and turn out for Darwen Football Club himself.

I was left thinking, especially considering the other inaccuracies outlined here, that it would have been better to create fictional or composite characters, rather than distort and besmirch real people just to provide the narrative with some motivation. I’ve no doubt that representing history in drama can be difficult; the reality is that even some of the most action-packed events of the past won’t make for good drama, but I think we have a moral responsibility to uphold the characters of the peoples and events that preceded us. The events depicted are real, some of the people represented are not – you can still provide people with a historical look at an event (and even some of the main players within it), without necessarily having to change motivations or backstories. This was the main reason the series didn't hit home for me.

So what did you think? Have we a duty to protect historical ‘fact’ presented in our drama? You can watch The English Game for yourself now on Netflix.

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Was The FA Too Hasty To ‘Null and Void’ Non-League Over COVID-19?

With the ongoing situation with the COVID-19 virus growing increasingly severe by each passing day (virtually placing people on lockdown in their own homes), the Football Association have taken the decision to nulland void the 2019-20 season for all non-league teams in steps 3 and below, as well as the women’s leagues below The Championship.

Whilst there’s obviously more than football to worry about with this emergency, with nothing else to do but stay inside for most people, it’s not really a surprise there’s been much speculation on the status of the 2019-20 season.

It’s the haste in which the FA have taken the decision to cancel the non-league season that has caught many by surprise – as of yet, there is no firm idea of what will happen with club football at the top levels of the game (the consensus is that the Premier League and The Football League will resume in the summer), which makes the decision to cancel the non-league football season now all the more perplexing.

Why Has The Non-League Season Been Cancelled?

It’s important to acknowledge what a difficult decision the FA faced – there are thousands of clubs that make up the leagues below step 2 of the non-league pyramid and wiping all those results from the records must have been a result of a great amount of deliberation.

But let’s not kid ourselves here; money is the biggest driver in most decisions in football and it’s no coincidence that the part-time leagues were the first to fall. It’s not just the television deals and sponsorships that the professional club garner that make deciding what to do with their seasons more difficult – but also for the fact they’re able to employ vast legal teams to challenge any decision they may find unfavourable.

Also, cancelling the season now provides leagues with the chance to start afresh next season – no having to reschedule fixtures and no having to fit in 2-3 games a week to squeeze everything in. Even if football could resume in the next few months, it’s unlikely that crowds would be allowed back – just like how television provides lifeblood to the Premier League, crowds are the income provider for the non-league game.

Solid enough reasons you might think, so why’s the cancelling been seen as problematic?

The Problem With Cancelling The Football Season

The biggest issue I have with what the FA have done, is that the decision seems to have been made too quickly – the clubs weren’t even consulted and were taken by surprise as much as everyone else was. If you’re making a decision that will affect the status of people, surely you would garner a majority view before you proceed?

The problem with cancelling football at this moment is that we’re in the backend of the season – it would have been easier to cancel it a few weeks or months in, but many clubs only have 10 matches left. A number of them have either already won promotion, are miles clear at the top, locked in promotion battles – or are completely marooned at the bottom of their leagues (somehow, I don’t think they’ll mind the season being cancelled!)

It has to be said – nulling and voiding makes a mockery of their efforts throughout the season; all those games and goals will be wiped off the records. For many clubs, this season could conceivably be the difference in them grabbing the opportunity to progress, building themselves a long-term future – or not. Many have already spent what little money they have to upgrade their facilities to fill the grading requirements of the league above – wiping the records for this season makes it more difficult for them to win promotion next season, leaving them with massive bills to pay (with less income that they would have got at the level above, had they won promotion).

Although I think that ending the season may prove to be the right decision for non-league (we’ve no idea when football may resume at all levels), nulling and voiding was not the right way to go about it. Ending the season as it was or using a points-per-game model is much better than completely wiping the records, surely? I’m of the opinion in their haste to be seen to be doing something, the FA panicked.

The Reaction To The FA Cancelling Non-League

As you might imagine, quite a lot of clubs aren’t best pleased with the decision. South Shields, who are leading the Northern Premier League Premier Division by 12 points, are heading a legal challenge on behalf of clubs who want to challenge the nulling and voiding. The open letter, signed by representatives of 66 clubs, have accused the FA of [taking the decision in] ‘needless and inexplicable haste’, [with] ‘a total lack of substantive dialogue or consultation with affected clubs’ and [having] ‘no consensus’ with the leagues.

I wish them all the best, although sadly, I don’t hold out much hope – it isn’t a coincidence that the status of professional football (which includes many clubs in the National Leagues) is still up in the air. As mentioned, these clubs and leagues have the resources to make more of a challenge if they deem they’re being handed a raw deal. This doesn’t make it right; I think all levels of football should be treated the same because otherwise, what’s the point in us having a competitive pyramid if everyone can't move within it? 

What’s your opinion on the non-league season being cancelled? Was it the right decision? Should the FA have waited or ended the leagues in another way? Leave your comment below or tweet me @pints_pies