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Netflix Series Provides A Window Into 19th Century Football

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The football isn't great, but The English Game provides a glimpse into a critical point in the sport's history.

Oxford United v Newcastle United - FA Cup Fourth Round: Replay Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

While it's true that football, like most sports, cannot really be traced back to one single origin point (for example, take the American legend of Abner Doubleday creating baseball after the Civil War...complete b.s.), it was the British who codified the modern rules and, through their expansive 19th and 20th century empire, exported it around the globe, planting the seeds of a game that would blossom into a sport beloved by billions.

While not everyone worships at the altar of the English Premier League, as the creators and stewards of the modern game, all football fans owe a debt of gratitude to the English. But how exactly the did game move from its roots as a somewhat barbaric game with kicking, arm tackling, scrums and more, in which towns would square off on a three-mile long pitch—which was really just the span from church to church—to the beautiful global game we see today?

You could venture off to your local library to discover the answer, but if you're not a fan of in-depth research and would prefer to learn about the history of the game in a more dramatic and narrative format, the fine folks at Netflix have you covered.

Released last week, The English Game, a six-part miniseries, chronicles football's transition from a gentlemanly game of leisure to the nascent days of professionalism. Using the 1879 FA Cup as a backdrop, the series primarily focuses on three football clubs: Old Etonians, your standard posh club filled with the sons of captains of industry, Darwen FC, a working class mill team, and later Blackburn Rovers, a similarly working-class team that was instrumental in the slow shift to professionalism.

The series begins with the 1879 FA Cup final contested between Old Etonians, led by captain Arthur Kinnaird (the son of a Banker/Financier) and Darwen FC, the mill club who had recently imported two ringers from Scotland: Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love. While they were ostensibly run of the mill...uh...mill workers, they were secretly paid by club owner James Walsh to play on the football club.

At this point in history, the Scottish played a more progressive form of football, closer to what we know today, while the English favored the more brutal and linear version of the game, making the inclusion of Suter and Love, the Messi and Ronaldo of the Industrial Revolution, truly a revolutionary moment.

Despite the inclusion of Suter and Love, and a reluctant acceptance of their style of play, Darwen were unable to upset Old Etonians to become the first working class team to win the FA Cup, which was due, in no small part, to Etonians refusing to allow extra time when the match finished in a draw (they conveniently had an FA board member in goal who shot down the motion).

Given that this series was produced by the same minds that brought you Downton Abbey, the actual football takes a backseat for much of the series, making way for your standard 19th working class strife issues—striking workers vs stuffed shirt aristocrats—and the de rigueur romantic subplots between Fergus and Martha Almond, a maid at the social club frequented by many of the posh players and their families.

While the actual football in the series is laughable at best (the keepers were apparently just for decoration and some of Suter's moves were probably still a bit anachronistic), the costumes, particularly the football kits—full length shirts, slacks and actual shop floor boots—were spot on, as were the old football grounds.

The latter half of the series, in addition to dealing with the class issues and entangling romantic alliances, focuses more on football's surreptitious transition from amateurism to full-fledged professionalism.

In the face of forced wage cuts at the mill, life in Darwen became exceedingly difficult, doubly so for Fergus, whose mother and sisters back in Glasgow were dependent on his wages.

Enter Blackburn F.C. (as they're called in the series). Having already recruited several paid players, which was against FA regulations at the time, Blackburn's president (a man simply called Cartwright in the series) approaches Suter with an offer he can't refuse: 100 pounds up front with a six pound per week wage. Suter, who had become a living legend in Darwen, initially balked at the move before reluctantly accepting the deal, earning the scorn of the townspeople in the process.

The remainder of The English Game revolves around three primary conflicts: The love triangle (of sorts) between Suter, Martha and Cartwright; Blackburn vs Old Etonians on the pitch; and the preservationists vs the progressives in the FA, which uses Kinniard's own inner-turmoil about the proper role of wealth in a changing society, as a narrative device.

The actual football likely won't satiate your need for the beautiful game (though, again, the period-accurate costumes and scenery are phenomenal), but The English Game is a fantastic, character-driven look at what life was like for a working-class footballer towards the end of the Victorian era, in addition to providing a glimpse at the inevitable death of amateurism in the sport itself.

As fans of the Italian game, this series isn't directly related to our passions, but the same scenes that played out in late 19th century Lancashire were likely mirrored in places like Genoa and Torino as the British imported the modern game to Italy in the late 19th century.

TL;DR If you're interested in the history of football, if you already enjoy period dramas and can stand a bit of maudlin Us vs Them moments and some saccharine "win one for the Gipper” speeches, then you'll enjoy The English Game.

I give it three out of five Tottis.