Julian Fellowes’ newest Netflix show, The English Game, tells the story of the early days of football in England, where the beautiful game originated. The show takes place in the 1880s and explores the clash between the high class, who sought to control and privatise the game, and the working class, who wanted it to be available to all. The English Game, which is based on a true story, details how the working class finally wrestled control of the sport away from the rich.
The founding father of the Football Association, a wealthy man who lived in the South, wanted to maintain control and ownership of the game and resisted attempts by Northern mill workers to participate in it. The working class came from humble origins and exemplified love for the game and professionalism.
They formed a team composed of mill company workers called Darwen FC, based out of Lancashire. They then managed to acquire a talented Scottish footballer, Fergus Suter, ahead of a crucial FA Cup clash against the Old Etonians, an upper-class football team. Fergus, along with another Scottish teammate, were the first players to be paid and are considered the first professional players in football’s history.
As mentioned above, the show is based on a true story, although it has historical inaccuracies.
To provide a bite-sized history lesson: the FA Cup was started in 1871 by then Football Association secretary Charles Alcock. It was said to be the oldest and most prestigious cup competition in the world but was exclusively reserved for the English upper class (as in the show). Football back then was an amateur sport controlled by the rich who feared that if players started to get paid, a team could hand-pick the best team and ultimately win (sounds a bit like modern Football, doesn’t it?).
The pivotal moment in history happened in 1883 during a final between Blackburn Olympic, not Darwen FC like the show portrays, and Old Etonians at the Kennington Oval in South London. Blackburn, the working-class team, made history by winning 2-1 after extra time. It was the first time in an FA Cup final that a working-class team, playing a what they called “combination game” of passing and dribbling skills, had triumphed over an upper-class team, playing the public-school tactics of rushing and scrimmages.
Two years later, the FA announced that it was “in the interest of the Football Association to legalise the employment of professional football players”.
The FA Cup has obviously become less prominent, taking a backseat to more important competitions such as the Premier League and UEFA Champions League. The FA Cup’s decline began in 1992, when the Champions League altered its structure and name from the European Cup. For bigger clubs, it was more crucial to qualify for a chance at European glory than to win the FA Cup, even if the FA Cup is the oldest knockout competition in the world.
Teams now prioritise the league and Champions League, and often rest star players, at least until the later stages of the competition, while they give playing time to youth academy talent. Priorities and expectations changed through time, although it remains an exciting competition that usually offers eye-opening upsets.
The Netflix series has, of course, been adapted to heighten the drama of the FA Cup. However, the show gives people a fairly accurate overview and an idea of how the rules of the game, as well as the tactics, originated. Both the Netflix show and the real-life events on which it is based had tales of rivalry and class feuds.
The working class stopped at nothing to make sure that football was everyone’s game. To this day, the FA Cup carries with it that spirit of equal opportunity. The FA Cup, and all other domestic cups in other countries that have been modelled after it, provide lower-division teams with the unique opportunity to bring down the giants of the top divisions who have infinitely more wealth.