FOOTBALL dramas rarely hit the spot and unfortunately, Netflix’s The English Game did little to satisfy fans’ craving for action while the world’s most popular sport is suspended until further notice.
As lightweight afternoon drama, it made a nice change from watching funeral plan advertisements and over-50s insurance, and it looked pretty good aesthetically, but Victorian England was made to look a little too clean (with the exception of Glasgow) and the class divide made you cringe a little.
It was also full of inaccuracies. For a start, one of the main characters, Fergus Suter, never played for Blackburn Olympic, the club referred to as “Blackburn”, the first blue collar team to win the FA Cup, bringing to an end the age of the toff.
Suter did win the FA Cup, which was more often than not called the “English Cup” in those gas-lit, horsedrawn days, but he lifted the trophy three times with Blackburn Rovers. The often forgotten Blackburn Olympic won it in 1883, beating the Old Etonians. Jack Hunter, who was featured in the drama, was in that team, but Suter was with Olympic’s local rivals.
The move by the Etonian-led Football Association to ban Olympic from the final, due to the club illegally paying players in an era when the professional-class public school teams took part for the love of the game, is also not entirely true.
When Blackburn Olympic beat the “OEs” 2-1 at the Oval, there was an enquiry afterwards as journalists and officials connected with southern clubs stepped-up their call for the FA to look into the finances of northern clubs. Olympic avoided any penalty, but some clubs did get banned from the FA Cup. Professionalism gathered momentum soon thereafter.
The English Game did highlight the prejudice of the south towards the north. In one scene, a member of the OEs, working for a bank, was asked to go to Lancashire. The look of fear on his face highlighted how people once viewed northern England with great suspicion. At the same time, the north dealt in reverse snobbery regarding the well-heeled, well-educated and well-fed southerners who led easier lives.
Although the period in question was the late 1870s and 1880s, pre-football league days, the rising popularity of football was prematurely portrayed. The owner of Darwen FC said that football gave the working man “something to feed the soul”. At the time, attendances at games were very small, the FA Cup final of 1883 was watched by 8,000 people, and club rivalries were at a very nascent stage. Crowd trouble was featured in one episode when Darwen met Blackburn, which did make you wonder if the writer, Julian Fellowes, was throwing in a cliché or two to underline that the game was becoming the property of the drunken, rough and ready proletariat.
The story of football’s emergence as a mass spectator sport and simple pastime of the working class is one that deserves to be told properly. There is plenty of evidence to make a very compelling series. As it stands, it looks like a spin-off of Downton Abbey. Entertaining in places, but a real shame that The English Game underperformed.