With many of the nation suffering withdrawal symptoms from football, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 are showing classic games from the FA and World Cups over the past 50 years. Netflix meanwhile, is taking us back over 100 years to the FA Cup of 1883. The English Game recounts the story of how Blackburn Olympic became the first working class team to win the FA Cup. Created and written (with others) by Julian Fellowes, it really is like Downton in football boots.
In typical Fellowes fashion, we have the upper classes and the workers. The upper class establishment in this case is the FA which is run by a collection of Old Etonians. Most of them play for a team called…The Old Etonians (these days they would be called the “Etonian Eagles” and play at “Dubai Bank Stadium”). They are very posh. They all dress in white ties for dinner, pass the Port to the left and have upper lips that are stiffer than their starched collars. The workers are based in Lancashire; Darwen and Blackburn to be precise. They all work in mills and are passionate about football…and hating each other. The modern-day football rivalry is between Blackburn and Burnley (12 miles apart) but in Victorian times there was fierce rivalry between the teams of Blackburn and Darwen (6 miles apart). Well I suppose the M65 has made it easier to have your nemesis a bit further away.
The series starts with the manager of Darwen, James Walsh, (played by him from Line of Duty…you know, the bad ‘un that died at the end of series 3) “employing” Fergus Souter from Partick. In these days the game was totally amateur, and players could not be paid, but that didn’t stop Walsh from paying Souter on the quiet. The show is called The English Game but really it was all about the Scottish game as Souter brought with him ideas such as passing the ball, the Christmas tree formation and first coined the expression “sick as a parrot”. (Not all of those facts may be strictly true).
It would appear that Fergus was the great grandfather of Yosser Hughes from Boys from the Blackstuff and he sported an amazing moustache. Actually, all the men had amazing mo’s and James Walsh and Arthur Kinnaird were on trend with their “lock down” hair.
Arthur was one of the Old Etonians who always played in long trousers; presumably so they could instantly switch to a game of cricket if the mood took them. One of the Old Etonians also trained in an overcoat and with a pipe. I don’t think you see enough pipe smokers in the Premier League these days.
As well as football, there was also a sub-plot about an orphanage, a drunken father and a rebellious son. All very Downton. Some of the comments were a bit on the nose re players wages, replica shirts and football hooliganism, but overall it was a very enjoyable watch. You can stream the whole series on Netflix now; but personally it only feels right to watch it on a Sunday at 9:00pm. It’s what the Dowager would have wanted.
As a footnote, The Old Etonians never won the FA Cup again, while Blackburn won it a further 7 times. Darwen never even made the final.
The English Game is streaming now on Netflix.