Daily life has us all craving distractions. If you aren’t spending at least 25% of waking hours being existentially anxious, I applaud you. I would also like to know how you’re doing it. The irony of this is that at a time when we all need the distractions of football—to the point that I would take the Unai Emery era again—there is no football. Well, no live football. But there are plenty of football shows and movies, and when The English Game appeared on Netflix, I was excited. A show about 19th century football? Cool! It could be fun, enlightening, and provide some football adjacent entertainment.
Sadly, it was not. The first episode had promise: Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love are effectively purchased by Mr. Walsh, who runs a mill in the Lancashire town of Darwen, which forms the nucleus of Darwen FC. Suter and Love are paid to play; unlike any of the Darwen players, who are amateurs. Indeed, the FA at the time banned professionalism, as it wasn’t “gentlemanly” conduct—the FA, of course, being made up of the landed gentry and aristocrats. Suter and Love are to play for Darwen against Old Etonians, who feature Arthur Kinnaird. Suter and Love come with a different style: a passing style of play, moving the ball into space, whereas the rugby origins of the game are still present in Old Etonians, who move as a pack and mow down the opposition. None of this, though, is presented: I know this information from previous research and reading. The language Suter uses—“the game is about moving into space”—is completely wrong for the period.
Of course, sports featuring in a tv show and not being done quite right isn’t anything new. No one says that the football shown in Friday Night Lights is representative. But that’s fine, because there are compelling narratives around Friday Night Lights; the narratives around The English Game are not. As a period piece, it contains the realization, as the nineteenth century began to give way to the twentieth century and industry reigned, that change was coming. The problem is that Fellowes takes characters and puts them into dull archetypes: Kinnaird is the Good, Caring Aristocrat, Suter the Dependable Working Class Family Man, Walsh the Good Boss, Tommy Marshall the Thug Who Came Good, and Marandin, played well by Daniel Ings, the Sulky, Out of Touch Toff. The plot is predictable, and with the football almost nonexistent after the first episode, we begin to wonder what the point is.
There are some interesting parts. The battle between amateurism and professionalism is perhaps the most interesting fight, consisting of a larger question that continues today: who is the game for? The show ends with Suter lifting the FA Cup, with Kinnaird valiantly defeated, with Marandin, the FA Chaiman, sulking in the background as he hands over the trophy. Professionalism is hailed by the show as the reason for the expansion of the game into the global phenomena it is today. Yet, professionalism is granted by the amateurs: the upper class who run the FA; that is, the game exists to be given to people, which seems to run contrary to its democratic nature, as a sport that can be played if you have a round object, and something to mark some goals. But perhaps it is that difference that separates The English Game from the global game.