My review of ‘The English Game’, the Netflix series written by Julian Fellowes.
Imagine a dramatisation of the 1998-99 English football season where the treble was won by a generic team called Manchester and Shaun Goater was depicted as the person who made it all happen?
Well, that’s the approach of The English Game, but set in the 19th Century where a generic team called Blackburn lift the FA Cup thanks to a player who in real life played for a different Blackburn team than the one that really defeated Old Etonians in the Final.
The premise of ‘The English Game’ is the struggle between the southern gentlemen amateur founding fathers of modern day football (wanting to maintain control and ownership of their game), and the emerging northern mill town, working class, populist version of the game, based on pass and move and professionalism.
It is purportedly a ‘based on fact’ story focusing on two real life key protagonists, Old Etonian Lord Arthur Kinnaird and Scottish working class footballer Fergus Suter. Their relationship is intertwined with the development of football in England as it transformed from the dribble and rush amateur game through to the pass and move professional game, focusing on their clashes in and around the FA Cup.
I’m not a TV critic, but the six episodes were an entertaining watch from a Goggle-box-like participant point of view. I enjoyed it.
Yes, the characters were clichéd but they were also well rounded, and even the non-football storylines were interesting and well woven into the development of the characters and the plot.
And the enthusiasm and love for the FA Cup was fantastic. As an advert for the positive impact of the FA Cup it was perfectly presented and very welcome. One couldn’t help but love the competition by the end of the six episodes. The obvious problem with the series was the fact that the facts it contained were hokum.
I’ve no idea about whether the lives of the main characters were truly reflected, but the show played fast and loose with FA Cup facts.
Now I’m fully aware this was not an official history of the FA Cup and that it was first and foremost a drama, but I really could not understand why they decided to make-up games and events that they did.
The fabricated ‘Final’, with a generic Blackburn team and with Suter playing and scoring for the northern side (he didn’t it that final) and Kinnaird scoring for the Old Etonians (he only did that for The Wanderers), was created to complete the story arc. I guess I can forgive Fellowes for doing that, although to wipe the name Blackburn Olympic and their historic achievement from the FA Cup records is inexcusable.
However, other events were either unnecessarily wrong, or criminally underplayed.
Take the opening sequence regarding the Old Etonians versus Darwen FA Cup matches, recognised now as the turning point of the transition of the game. The coverage didn’t truly reflect its true impact on the people of Darwen because it missed out one of the three games, the critical second one that ended two apiece, the game that really raised the profile and interest in the town’s football team.
That two-two draw showed that the late comeback in the original encounter wasn’t just a one-off fluke. It showed that the northern club could go toe-to-toe with the establishment and that change was coming. And as all three games took place in Kennington Oval in London, the financial strain for the Darwen team to take part in all three games was immense.
It was that seemingly unfair need to travel down to London for the third time that generated financial support from the townsfolk of Darwen.
Other inaccuracies were also deliberately put in place to help the story move along as Fellowes wanted it to, but some other ones he put in seem weird and unnecessary.
For example, the First Round FA Cup match between Darwen and Brigg occurred two seasons after the Old Etonians versus Darwen trio of games and two seasons before the one that ended with Blackburn (Olympic) defeating Old Etonians in the Final.
The drama suggested the Brigg game and the Final both took place in the season after the Old Etonians versus Darwen games.
Bizarrely, the writer then created FA Cup matches that never even happened, and which seemed to have absolutely no bearing on the plot, which beggars the question as to why they were included. Old Etonians never played Darlington in the FA Cup, nor did Darwen ever play Derby St Luke’s. It’s unfathomable as to how and why these were written in.
But my real issue lays with the fact that the whole premise of the series was around the illegal payment of players and how that would cause a club to be expelled from the competition, whilst at the same time making a critical part of the story arc that Suter and another Darwen player switched to play for ‘Blackburn’ in the FA Cup in the same season that they played for Darwen.
It has always been a rule of the FA Cup that players can only represent one club in the FA Cup in the same season. If a club was found to have fielded an ineligible player the club would at best be requested to re-play their match, or at worst be expelled.
My worry is that many people will watch the show and accept it all as fact, especially as it closes with some facts (that also aren’t completely true), making the output of FA Cup statisticians such as me, more difficult to attain credibility.
How long, therefore, before the FA Cup entry in Wikipedia is updated with ‘The English Game’ cited as the source for the information?