The English Game: separating fact from fiction

The first ‘new’ soccer to hit our screens in a while came recently with Netflix Original, The English Game.

The English Game sees Julian Fellowes giving the Downton Abbey treatment to the beautiful game. Based on a very real period of soccer’s history, the advent of professionalism and the sport becoming more accessible for the working classes.

The six-part series follows the mostly-true story of Fergus Suter, a Scottish footballer who joined Darwen FC in the late 1870s, becoming one of the first professional footballers at a time when soccer was purely an amateur sport. He’s cast against Arthur Kinnaird, a well-to-do future President of the Football Association who played in nine FA Cup finals in an 11 year span.

As with all things Fellowes touches, there’s a great deal of societal drama between Suter’s working class and the Eton-educated Kinnaird and co. If you’ve yet to see it, the trailer is below and then it’s beware, spoilers begin in this space.

The story begins with Arthur Kinnaird scoring in a scrimmage and facing admiring fans and the media. Okay, that stuff definitely happened. He was a leading player of the day. As soon as we get the introduction that Kinnaird’s Old Etonians are to play Darwen FC in the FA Cup quarter-final, we cut to the grim north.

Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love arriving in Darwen, with mill owner James Walsh tempting the pair across the border from Partick FC with a secret salary.

The reality was a little different.

James Love

Love’s story was lost but for the work of Andy Mitchell, who had traced the winger as having a street sweeping business that fell into bankruptcy. Rather than face bankruptcy court in Scotland, Love fled to a Lancashire town that he was familiar with. Darwen and Partick played a series of friendlies after former Darwen player William Kirkham took a job in Scotland and helped to found Partick FC.

Love spent a year with Darwen before a brief cameo for Blackburn Rovers. Good news, he didn’t break his leg. Facing arrest in Scotland and with nowhere else to turn, Love enlisted in the Royal Marines as a 19-year-old in 1880. Two years later, while serving in Egypt, Love fell ill and passed away.

Fergus Suter

Fergus Suter (Lancashire Evening Telegraph)

Suter too wasn’t exactly headhunted by Darwen. The stonemason was left redundant after his employer went bankrupt as part of the City of Glasgow Bank collapse in 1878.

Probably in the knowledge of Love’s early success in Darwen, Suter reached out to the club. He worked as a mason in England for a very short period before quitting. After all, they were professional footballers, if they worked in a mill or anywhere else they wouldn’t be among the game’s first professionals.

Suter spent two years with Darwen FC before departing for Blackburn Rovers.

The Blackburn FC that The English Game depicts never existed but was rather combined real events from both the former Premier League champions and Blackburn Olympic.

Julian Fellowes’ drama shows Suter forced to accept an offer from Blackburn FC in order to get his family away from his abusive father back in Scotland. That part appears to be fictionalized, although Suter’s brother was one of several players that made the move down from Lanarkshire to play in Lancashire.

The reason for the move was that Suter simply felt he was worth more than Darwen were paying him. There was also a rumor that the Scot had just found out that a servant girl had become pregnant with his child and he needed to leave town. In the show he forms a relationship with a servant girl named Martha, who had a child by the Blackburn FC owner. Suter’s real life wife was called Martha, so another case of blending stories.

Suter would go on to win the FA Cup three times and spend nine years with Rovers before retiring.

Well, we had no settled wage, but it was understood that we interviewed the treasurer as occasion arose. Possibly we should go three weeks without anything, and then ask for £10. We never had any difficulty.

Fergus Suter interviewed by the Lancashire Daily Post, 13 December 1902

Lord Arthur Kinnaird

Lord Arthur Kinnaird, photographed circa 1905 (Bassano Ltd/National Portrait Gallery)

Ah, Arthur Kinnaird. The football-obsessed rich guy who can’t see past the end of his nose at the start of the show. His redemption story arc sees him embracing his wife’s needs after they suffer a miscarriage, helped ensure the money of the future Barclays Bank went to some good use, saw the side of the common folk, and even fought to reinstate Blackburn FC in the FA Cup.

Starting with the good news. The Kinnairds had at least three children by the time the show was set, and seven in total, so hopefully some of that emotional roller coaster was just for dramatics. Their second child was still born which may have inspired the miscarriage.

History tells us a lot about Kinnaird. He was married to Alma and was a director at the bank. He was a tough-tackling player who was a legitimate star. He would go on to take over as FA President from Maj. Francis Marindin and serve in that role for 33 years until his death just months before Wembley Stadium opened.

In the show, Marindin was the guy with the beard on the Old Etonians team. He, nor any of the other board members, played for Old Etonians but it certainly adds for some drama right?

There were a couple of little details that I liked in the show. Did you notice that Kinnaird was the only player to play in full-length pants? That was something he was actually known for, always wearing ‘cricket whites’ for soccer games. He also does a headstand goal celebration which Kinnaird really did once. There’s a statue of him in the pose at the National Football Museum in Manchester.

The FA Cup

The FA Cup 1896-1910 design (Wikipedia)

Firstly, the FA Cup in the show is different than the one we see today. The old one was given to Kinnaird. It’s a replica that was used for 14 years then given to Kinnaird after the original was stolen.

With the original trophy now commercially copied, the new design was brought in.

The trophy given to Kinnaird was bought by West Ham co-owner David Gold for around $500,000 and is shown on the right on display in the National Football Museum in Manchester.

In the show, plucky little Darwen take the game to the Old Etonians with a 5-5 draw and the hosts refusing to play extra time (FA Cup replays have been a thing for the entirety of the competition after all). Rather than the current rule, Darwen would have to replay the game in London and lose 2-1. The two teams actually played three games with a 2-2 draw sandwiched in between those fixtures in the 1878/79 competition.

Fellowes compresses the next couple of years for the sake of the flow of the series.

The next two years weren’t particularly significant for the story, but 81/82 is where Fellowes starts to draw from. Blackburn Rovers are the first Northern team to make the FA Cup final as the Suter v Kinnaird showdown finally happens. In the show, Blackburn FC wins 2-1 but in reality, Blackburn Rovers would lose 1-0.

Blackburn Olympic did go on to beat Old Etonians in the following year’s final with that 2-1 score.

Suter’s Rovers then won the next three FA Cups and Old Etonians never made another final as Kinnaird’s team were all in their mid-to-late 30s by this point.

Neither Blackburn team was expelled then reinstated. Some clubs were expelled for paying beyond the expenses listed in the rules, but vagueness in those rules gave enough leeway for Darwen and Blackburn to operate.

The game itself & observations

Obviously we’re watching it for the soccer, not the Downtonesque drama.

The big benefit of the Scottish players was that English soccer hadn’t separated itself from Rugby in terms of packs of players chasing the ball. The Scots played in combination, passing and moving.

The football sequences are shot in a chaotic manner to follow the chaotic nature of the kick and rush style. Bonus points for not having goal nets, something that was still a decade away.

Arthur Kinnaird (blue) runs at Fergus Suter (black & gray hoops) in The English Game (Netflix)

The show also acknowledges the changes the kits are going through with Old Etonians starting off with those bloody great big sweaters while one of the Darwen players starts making more modern shirts. While that player isn’t a figure from history, his fledgling sportswear business that Kinnaird invests in is effectively the story of Bukta, a famous British manufacturer.

A character who we didn’t see much from is Darwen captain Tommy Marshall. We know he didn’t break James Love’s leg as the story tells. Instead, Marshall was a player who actually did work at a cotton mill, and was a member of the England national team known for being a pacy winger. Fellowes perhaps undersold Marshall but got the facts largely right on him.

It is tough to tell the David v Goliath story when both sides had a number of players represent England at the time.

On the balance of things, it’s like any TV series or movie. The main points are what they are, and there’s a story woven in to appeal to more than just us core fans.

Suter and Love were the first professional players that we know of, and they did bring a revolutionary style of play. A team from Blackburn did swipe Suter away, he did get his FA Cup final against Kinnaird. A team from Blackburn did beat Old Etonians in the final.

More 1880s kit nerding please!

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