Football (soccer), a sport played in just about every country and loved by over 4 billion fans worldwide, had a more insulated and niche beginning. Netflix’s “The English Game” is a six-part series that tells the origin of the game as we know it today and the men who changed the game for the better and transformed it into a global powerhouse. Written and produced by “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellows, this series brings to life the bridging of the class divide in the early days of modern football while also giving viewers a glimpse of lives of the men and events that changed the game forever.
Starting as a “gentlemen’s game” of leisure, football began in the mid-1800s for amateurs, manly college boys against the backdrop of a time of growing political and social tensions between the classes in Industrial Revolution England. By the 1870s, the Football Association (FA) had formed, composed of wealthy gentlemen who loved the game and its privileged sanctity, to mold a formerly rowdy pastime into a more “civilized” game with rules and adjudicate any disputes between the clubs. “The English Game” focuses on the lead up to the 1879 FA Cup, the finals that changed the game indelibly forever.
Edward Holcroft (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”) stars as Arthur Kinnaird, the wealthy son of a banker, whose love of the game is all-consuming. Kinnaird serves on the FA along with his fellow friends and classmates, including Alfred (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) and Francis (Daniel Ings), and in the lead up to the cup are tested when a working-class team from the North tests their resolve on and off the field. Mill and team owner Mr. Walsh’s (Craig Parkinson) love for the game and for the working-class people he comes from leads him to poach two of the best players (Kevin Guthrie’s Fergus Suter and James Harkness’ Jimmy Love) in the game from a Scottish team by paying them to come and play for his Darwen team, a violation of the amateurism rules. Walsh breaks the rules to try and level the playing field while showing the country that the working-class men are just as good as the “gentlemen” and worthy of recognition. It’s much deeper than the game and is more about pride, dignity, and respect.
That initial violation snowballs when Fergus is poached again by the owner of the Blackburn football club, Mr. Cartwright, (Ben Batt) when Darwen is knocked out the the cup. This move leads to other unfortunate events that test friendships and bonds while ultimately changing the lives of everyone involved. While all of this is going on, the FA continuously tries to thwart the efforts of the Northern, unruly and uncivilized teams while trying to protect the purity and respectability of “their” game, ultimately pitting friends against friends. There’s even a brief glimpse at the beginnings of football “hooliganism.” After spending time in the North amongst the working class, Arthur comes to really see the plight of the people, their love and need the game and writings on the wall that the game is changing the FA must change with the times or be left behind.
But “The English Game” is much more than just a story about football. It is also a story of love, redemption, social constructs, fatherhood, and classicism in changing times. The women in this story, although not significant parts of the football story, a major player in the lives of all the men involved in changing the game. There is Arthur’s devoted and socially conscious wife, Alma, who helps him become a man, forge a healthy bond with his father, and embrace the game he so loves while becoming a champion for unwed mothers in Victorian-era England. Then there’s Martha (Niamh Walsh) who tries to keep her brother (Sam Keeley) on the straight and narrow and Fergus true to himself and his love the game, which is much more than just a game to him but a way out of the dire situation for his family. Often relegated to the background and to playing their often stifling roles during this time, the women in this story are actually major figures that play out in the foreground and challenge those societal constructs.
The series is well cast, and the actors do a great job of evoking the tensions, despair, and hope of the time period. The characters are flawed and complex but draw the viewers in and really connect with the viewer. The production and costumes are beautiful and transport viewers back in time in this engaging historical drama. There is high production quality with Downton Abbey-esque drama with thrilling, high stakes game sequences throughout. The team does an excellent job of mixing the two and making the series binge-worthy for both football fans and good drama fans alike.
The creators of this series do an excellent job of mixing the history of the sport with the history of the times while weaving in several different storylines and character arcs (especially Aruthur’s, Alma’s, and Fergus’) that move the story forward off the field of play. It is those storylines that bridge the divide of the two worlds for a better future that make this an interesting and engaging watch and makes it enjoyable for the non-sports fan. Football is just the backdrop on which life, history, and change play out. It is the story of unity and hopes that we so desperately need today. “The English Game” teaches us to focus on what we have in common, not what separates us, and in this case, its the love of the game worldwide.
“The English Game” is currently streaming on Netflix.
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