You can see how The English Game must have sounded in conception. It’s the birth of football. It’s toffs against proles, the rivalry of one of the great aristocrats of the early game, Lord Arthur Kinnaird, and the Glaswegian stonemason who was the first great professional, Fergus Suter. It’s about an idea going out into the world and being profoundly changed when it is taken up by the masses.
But Netflix’s new series comes nowhere near what it might have been, and is little more than a mishmash of Downton Abbey stereotypes and trouble-at-mill cliches. The toffs are habitually awful, the banks are always foreclosing, and the proles, salt-of-the-earth brawlers and charmers that they are, can’t help themselves but get everybody unhelpfully pregnant.
And the football? From the moment a minute in when Craig Parkinson, as the self-made mill-owner Walsh, tells Suter: “I’ve seen ’ow you play in Scotland. Your passing game is the future of football,” you know that subtlety, or characters who actually speak like real humans, isn’t what this is about. Still, for those who last saw Parkinson as the AC-12 officer Cottan in Line of Duty, where the plot revolved around the quest for the kingpin H and the implausible possibility that as he took his final breath he tapped out the letter in morse code, it’s something of a relief that here he eschews Hs altogether.
The English Game does improve slightly after a truly dire opening episode, but the interest really lies in themes that are glimpsed almost out of the corner of the eye, shoved to the margins by the heavy-handed central narrative. Suter, for instance, is offered a huge lump sum plus improved wages to leave Darwen and join Blackburn Rovers, which he accepts because he needs the money to rescue his mother and sister from his abusive father. Quite aside from the issue of whether it’s legitimate, without any evidence, to portray an actual person, albeit one who died more than a century ago, as a wife-beater, there’s a more universal question. Why shouldn’t Suter take the better offer? Darwen had paid to lure him from Partick and then they themselves were outbid: once professionalism has been accepted, why should there be a perceived need to give Suter an excuse for moving?
Other than giving one of the principal characters a troubled backstory, what is gained by blurring the central dilemma of professionalism, that without adequate checks money will dominate – something all too apparent in the super-club era – and that the transformation of the game into a job, while beneficial and necessary in opening it up to all, also inevitably erodes to an extent the camaraderie and athletic purity that are so central to the notion of sport as somehow spiritually improving?
It’s a thought that occurs now in discussions about a putative super-league. It’s easy to rail against it, to anticipate the potential tedium of the same super-clubs endlessly grappling with each other, to think of the social damage done to the non-super-clubs cast into permanent semi-irrelevance by exclusion from the main competition, to rage against the victory of capital over community, but there’s always also a thought of how history will view the debate. After 10 or 20 years of a super-league, and the brilliant football it would probably yield, would those arguments come to seem as irrelevant as those that once doubted the European club competitions, or British involvement in the World Cup, or, yes, professionalism and the formation of a league?
In The English Game, the toffs object to the working-class northern teams largely for reasons of status. And perhaps that’s how it was: after all, even leaving overt snobbism aside, it’s understandable that the university-educated teams who had codified the game not two decades earlier (in January 1864, the Football Association comprised eight south-eastern clubs plus Sheffield) would be resistant to an entirely different group of people taking over their game, particularly when they interpreted it in a very different way.
The tactical exposition in The English Game is clunkingly preposterous, but it’s not without substance: the passing game the northern teams came to favour (in part because they were smaller than their better-fed public school counterparts and so would have been seriously disadvantaged if they had no way of manoeuvring the ball away from physical clashes) was very different to the head-on charging practised by the game’s progenitors.
Although the point is not made explicitly in the series, the reason Darwen had to travel to London for their FA Cup quarter-final replay against Old Etonians in 1879 is that it was stipulated that all games from the quarter-finals onwards had to be played in London (the first match was not, as depicted in The English Game, played at Eton, but at Kennington Oval) – a not unreasonable requirement when most of the teams were based in the south-east. It’s notable that by the following season the regulation had been lifted, suggesting at least some flexibility on the part of the FA and a recognition that the geographic make-up of the game was changing.
And it would go on to change, spreading across the world. The English game became the Austrian game, the Hungarian game, the Argentinian game and, particularly, the Uruguayan game. It became everybody’s game, interpreted differently by every culture that embraced it. And that in turn created difficulties – as demonstrated in the tours made by British clubs to South America in the first half of the 20th century, which often became fractious with mutual misunderstanding, laying the ideological foundations for the controversy that would, for instance, overwhelm the 1966 World Cup quarter-final between England and Argentina. One of the fascinations of football is that it is simultaneously intensely local and utterly globalised, with all the tensions that brings.
But don’t expect to see any of that on Netflix, where the toffs drink claret and the proles drink beer (or whisky if they’re Scottish and having a bad time), the bank is forever foreclosing and an implausible number of goals are scored in the few seconds after kick-off. It’s a tremendous opportunity missed.