But The English Game, the new and enjoyably sentimental Netflix series co-created by Downton writer Julian Fellowes, examines the thrill of the sport by diving into its 19th-century point of origin. With co-creators Tony Charles and Oliver Cotton, Fellowes re-discovers why football can be exciting as much as important.
Whereas Fellowes’ recent, self-penned Belgravia felt tiring and stuffy with its opulent rooms and pompous clichés, this much more fulfilling drama permits more space to breathe – crossing in tales of football, masculinity, class divisions, injustices to women (especially mothers), and spirited individualism. And there's some cracking facial hair, too.
Kevin Guthrie stars as Fergus Suter
It’s 1879. Football hasn’t yet grown into an international sport; it’s only played in Britain, mostly by wealthy public schoolboys who discourage professional and/or working-class players from tainting their precious game. But there’s a cotton mill-owner in the small Lancashire town of Darwen who thinks differently, secretly paying two professional players to play for their team and reach the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup. No working-class team before 1879 had ever achieved that feat with their feet.
One of these ‘professionals’ is Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie), who’s doing it only for the money, apparently, but then the temptation to ‘knock these posh bastards off the perch’ becomes too much to pass up. Unfortunately, this builds to an underwhelming final episode, but the play towards that end attacks with an athletic pulse.
Edward Holcroft as Arthur Kinnaird
There are the familiar themes of rich vs poor, finding a cordial equality while also showing their respective dark sides. Fergus represents the working men and women of Darwen; Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft), head of the FA and captain of the Old Etonians, represents the posh boys who made and make the rules.
Arthur is a bit of a posh irritant, especially when his comfortable life rubs against the rough rattle-tattle of the Darwen mill-machines, but his empathy with his working opponents grows with each episode. It’s easy to see why – he’s stuck with interminably posh stereotypes. Arthur’s father, a banker, appears much like the callous Mr Banks in Mary Poppins: no concern for plights or feelings, only profit. Despite these cartoon depictions, it works with engaging sensationalism. This really feels like a war.
This is about more than just football
The common spread of aggressive masculinity that plagues the sport (hopefully decreasing with the growing popularity of women’s football) flows through the veins of the series. Love and affection between men is represented by more-than-momentary pats on shoulders. Holcroft delivers a vividly delicate performance as Arthur, his hard shell breaking bit by bit with every episode, working well against Kevin Guthrie’s harder-nosed yet no less emotional portrayal of Fergus Suter.
In these scary coronavirus days of prescribed solitude and encouraged community, the teamwork shown in The English Game – between north and south and rich and poor – inadvertently sends a message of solidarity in the current crisis.
Football was and is used as an invigorating distraction from the toil and tedium of everyday life. With theatres and cinemas and stadiums shutting their storytelling doors, this intriguing, exciting, and easily bingeable series offers escape as much as inspiration. On this rare occasion, this is about more than just football.
The English Game is available on Netflix from Friday 20 March
|What||The English Game, Netflix review|
20 Mar 20 – 20 Mar 21, ON NETFLIX
|Website||Click here for more information|