The English Game: A Review

‘The English Game’ is a ratings success, trending in second place all week on Netflix and gaining an overall 7.7 score on ImDB review site. It raises awareness of early Victorian football which creates a rising tide of interest in all the geographic areas involved in the period, such as Cambridge, Sheffield, Lancashire and Glasgow. The end credits show that the programme is also being subtitled for Poland, Germany, Spain, France, Italy and Turkey and whilst Netflix famously never reveal their viewing figures, surely millions will watch the latest offering from Julian Fellowes.

There is some fantastic dialogue in the six episodes when it isn’t dealing with football facts. In my opinion someone has written one of the best descriptions of football ever during an interchange between Fergus Suter and his girlfriend whilst discussing the beauty of football; she says, ‘…it’s what music must look like’. One of the Old Etonian team members criticises the Blackburn style of play by saying ‘…all that absurd passing’. The recreation of the actual games are fantastic and have not been seriously done since the FA attempted it 1972 in a centenary celebration of the FA Cup called ‘Cup Glory’, well worth a full watch with the match recreation timed at 2 minutes 50 seconds.

Netflix’s budget has also extended to recreating the ‘Little Tin Idol’, the very first FA Cup, which is used in the climactic scenes of episode six. Presumably it currently resides on Julian Fellowes’ mantlepiece in Dorset and if he is looking for a suitable home for it, then can I suggest that newly instigated Football Archive in Sheffield would love to make it the centrepiece of its new exhibitions (once the Covid 19 pandemic passes of course).

The series has been heavily criticised for playing fast and loose with the football facts and its supporters have counter-argued that it is a just a costume drama not a factual documentary. Would a historically correct drama/documentary achieve the necessary viewing figures? Would it even have been commissioned in the first place?

The true facts are certainly casualties in ‘The English Game’ but I don’t think Fellowes and his team of writers were overly preoccupied with historical certitude. They wanted to replicate past successes such as ‘Gosford Park’ and ‘Downton Abbey’, where entitled aristocrats bump up against plucky working-class types and everyone lives happily ever after. The writers needed class conflict and a resounding finale where the plucky underdogs beat the heartless toffs. The solution was to blend Darwen FC with Blackburn Olympic FC into a fictional club, Blackburn FC, that ticked all the necessary Downton Abbey checklists. This approach of writers’ licence trumping historical fact has clearly worked in terms of bums on seats and does it really matter that the truth has been disregarded?

In my opinion I think it does.

Could they have got away with a programme that merged the Manchester United story with the Manchester City story and called them Manchester FC and dressed them in an all green strip? Instead, they could have followed the example set by Netflix’s ‘The Crown’ series. A great writer, Peter Morgan, took a real-life cast of historical characters and a series of real events and didn’t tamper with them. He then wove a fantastic script around those immoveable pillars; everyone clearly understands that this script is pure conjecture, but the facts remain constant- at no point, for example, does Harold Wilson mysteriously morph into Ted Heath.

A much better candidate for the main role in ‘The English Game’ would have been Jack Hunter from Sheffield who only appears in a short cameo performance in this series. He was a working man who played for Heeley FC; he clashed with the Sheffield FA over appearance money when he turned out for the Zulus FC. In response he crossed the Pennines to be the paid coach/player of Blackburn Olympic FC. This short-lived team achieved the most seismic moment in FA cup history by being the first northern team to overturn the eleven-year hegemony of old boy southern teams and claim the FA Cup. In 1888 McGregor chose Blackburn Rovers over Olympic to play in the newly constituted Football League. This marked the end of Olympic and Hunter became assistant coach and groundsman at Rovers; what a story.

Football history should aim to be factual, and myths damage the game. In my book ‘’England’s Oldest Football Clubs 1815-1889’ I question a lot of longstanding football facts and I dispel a number of creation myths surrounding early football clubs that have been repeated over and over for many years. After watching this series millions of people Europe-wide, think that Fergus Suter winning the FA Cup for Blackburn FC in 1880 is a fact. In truth, the first FA cup final he played in for Blackburn Rovers was in 1882 against the Old Etonians and they lost. He made up for it two years later by winning three consecutive cups in 1884,1885 and 1886. (Blackburn Olympic had won it in 1883).

Although I enjoyed watching the blurring of fact and fiction in  ‘The English Game’ I completely expected that at the end of episode six, care would be taken to spend a couple of minutes explaining the actual events and outcomes and the true biographies of the players involved. This way the viewers would have known they had been watching a work of fiction and it could have been the perfect end. They weren’t and an opportunity was missed.