“Look around. You’ve given these people something to believe in. The game feeds the soul. When they have nothing else that does it in their life.”
The English Game is the remarkable story of football in its infancy, before league football when the FA Cup was the most privileged prize in the country. This incredible story tells the tale of the late 1800s as football began tentatively to move towards a professional game, much to the disgust of the Old Etonians and the Football Association.
The main crux of the six-part series, released on Netflix on March 20th, follows the story of Fergus Suter, one of the pioneers of football as we know it and one of the first players to be paid for playing the game. The plucky town of Darwen and mill owner James Walsh promised to pay Suter and his teammate Jimmy Love to join his side from Partick, under the guise of working at his mill.
The contrasting tale throughout the series is that of the Old Etonians, who claimed football as their game having introduced proper rules to the sport. They had contested several of the early finals and were keen to make sure all clubs abided by the laws of the game, which meant strictly no professional players.
However, this meant that the best teams were often those that came from privileged backgrounds as the players based in the north were made to work long hours six days a week, leaving little room for practise while their diet was also far from perfect.
The first episode sees Darwen travel to Eton to play in the 1879 FA Cup quarter-final, lead by their new signings Suter and Love. The Scotsman inspires his side to play in a different style and as one of the best players in the country they impressed Arthur Kinnaird, the captain of the OE’s, and he becomes a key figure in the series.
“Football is what music must look like,” mill owner Walsh tells Suter, in one of the most memorable lines of the series.
This period drama is not just about football, there is an interesting subplot regarding infertility while the series clearly shows the class divide and the difference between the wealthy and the poor. As the mill workers from the north repeatedly have their wages cut, divides begin to show between those playing for free and the players who are being paid in the same team, leading to disrepute, tension and conflict.
Given the current multi-millionaires playing the game, it is eye-opening to see the struggles those former players faced at the very dawn of professional football. This series is far from a thrill a minute, but instead a slow-burning, interesting watch which teaches us more about the origins of our beautiful game.
Sportsman Rating: 8.8/10