Fellowes‘ The English Game – how true is the story?

The new mini-series by Julian Fellowes, The English Game, is available on Netflix since 20 March 2020. As already announced in the trailer, the story is based on true facts. But how much?

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CN: Spoiler & Demytification

(yes, the word demytification actually exists)




Football matches in English Game

The game was in the FA Cup this season and the first game ended in a draw, the last one was won by the Old Etonians. However, a second draw was left out. This game was scheduled to be played three times.
Based on the narrative, one could assume that Blackburn FC won the FA Cup in the 1879/80 season against the Old Etonians. However, no year is shown before the start of the match. For here Fellowes mixed a lot for the series final:

  • In the 1870/80 season, Clapham Rovers won the FA Cup in the final against Oxford University, the Old Etonians lost to the eventual winner in the 5th round and Blackburn Rovers won against Darwen FC in the 2nd round but were eliminated in the following round.
  • Suters Blackburn Rovers only played in the FA Cup 1881/82 in the final against the Old Etonians, but lost.
  • First in 1883 a workers‘ club could win the FA Cup, but not Suter/Blackburn Rovers, but Blackburn Olympics (against Old Etonians).
  • There was no Blackburn FC.



Kind of football play

The way how playing football is presented can be discussed. But it does not deviate too much from the reality of the time, I think. The rules are also largely correct, although Fellowes has not exhausted everything, for example the choice between throw-in and shot from the touchlines, which was possible in 1879. According to the FA Rules, there was no referee yet, but he existed – only in the FA Cup and not on the field, as the umpires. And as you have seen, the FA committee consists mostly of active football players – and you could arrange some things before the game (like replaying matches), but basically the FA Rules were binding.

Two things I missed: The mention that football was common throughout the UK in 1879, not just in the London area and the North West of England. These were hearts of football, but Sheffield was one of them.

And I would have briefly mentioned in a dialogue that the Old Etonians‘ playing style was typical Etonian football game and that other clubs did not play so physically. The football game at Eton College has (had?) the rugby typical scrimmage (called bully in Eton). This was the kick-off. The ball was also slightly smaller so that it could fit better between the feet. Old Etonians, or Eton alumni of other clubs, were mainly used as defenders, because their school play allowed them to play duels very well and fairly. The football game of that time was generally characterised by much more physical effort, but the Old Etonians‘ game was particularly „hard“.

Arthur and Alma Kinnaird

Alma and Arthur Kinnaird existed and both Arthur and his father had a bank which was absorbed into Barclay’s Bank before Arthur’s death in 1923. Arthur was an Eton alumnus and on the FA board, he even later succeeded Marindin as FA President for several decades.

What is wrong in The English Game is the family situation of Alma and Arthur shown. Probably Alma Kinnaird did not lose a child in 1879 and in any case she already had a 3 year old child with her husband that year. Another one was born in 1880.

The social commitment of the Kinnairds is attested to, but it is somewhat changed in the series. Alma did not have to urge her husband to help those in need, as he took over this commitment from his father of the same name. Kinnairds were devout Christians, originally from Scotland, who ran some charities and YMCA. More on this topic Sport and YMCA in this article.

It was en vogue to get socially involved as a gentleman and lady. But Arthur Kinnaird Jr. was socially involved beyond all measure at that time and helped a lot in schools for a better education, was committed like his father to the abolition of slavery in the USA, to more rights for Scotland, to better treatment and payment for women and, yes, also to further develop football so that it could be played beyond the 19th century. And this in addition to his job as a banker and as a versatile sportsman, because Arthur was not only a successful football player, but also won prizes in lawn tennis, swimming, canoeing and as an athlete.

Alfred Lyttelton

Alfred Lyttelton is in The English Game the gentleman with the moustache staged in the series as the antagonist of Arthur Kinnaird. I myself have never read about him before, but I have now come across Phyllis Welivers (professor at Saint Louis University) comparing the historical Lyttelton with his serial character, which I would like to interweave. Her assessment: „Visually, the character hits the historical person well, but otherwise … well.

Here is the link to the whole article of Prof. Phyllis Welivers: click.

His wife Laura, who becomes a central character in The English Game towards the end, existed, but the two did not get together and married until 1885, a good half decade later. The fact that Laura died giving birth to her child in 1886, on the other hand, would have fitted the script thematically well.

And similar to Arthur Kinnaird, Alfred Lyttelton was also a charitable activist and also a public supporter of the proletariat and had „honed a deep respect for the right to individual opinion“. Weliver describes the dichotomy between Kinnaird and Lyttelton as frankly ridiculous.

Weliver: „However, his personality was unlike Henry Lloyd-Hughes’s characterization, as can be glimpsed by comparing the directness of gaze in a photograph of the real Lyttelton with a screenshot of Lloyd-Hughes’s haughty visage from the opening of Episode 2 (Figs. 5 and 6) [in the linked article]“.


James „Jimmy“ Love

There is a reason why I mention Jimmy, who reminds me a lot of Samwise from Lord of the Rings in the series, before Fergus: he was with Darwen FC before him and, moreover, only until 1880. Fergus stayed about half a year longer. Jimmy also died in 1883, though not of a wounded leg, but of intestinal fever in Ismailia, Egypt.

Jimmy did not move with Suter to Blackburn, but became a soldier. Nor did he marry the widowed housekeeper with whom he lived as a lodger. There was also no football match where he was deliberately fouled and suffered a serious leg injury, which is why he was unable to play football afterwards.

The character Jimmy Love in The English Game is far from the real Jimmy Love. The character only serves as a sidekick for Suter and that’s probably why he reminds me so much of Samwise in the series.

He was born in Glasgow in 1858, his family moved to Partick in 1876, and founded a street cleaning company, played football on the side and probably did a pretty good job. But his business flopped, creditors wanted their money back, forced sale, bankruptcy proceedings were threatening. Finally an arrest warrant was issued against Jimmy. But the warrant could not be served, because Jimmy had moved to Darwen in the summer of 1878 – unknown to him – because they had heard about his football skills and gave him shelter. He obviously had acquaintances here. A few months later, but still in the 1878/79 season, Fergus Suter also came to Darwen.

Darwen FC had only just switched from rugby to association football (our present day football), but was mostly a cricket club that played football during the cooler months to keep fit. (It was this very connection between cricket in summer and football or rugby in winter that was very common in England.)

After a few games for Darwen FC in the 1879/80 season, he moved on. Perhaps his past had caught up with him in Darwen. In any case, he took advantage of one, and possibly the only, opportunity to escape and joined the English army. As a profession in the army he claimed to be a painter, but it is not clear how he earned money in Darwen and whether he needed it at all with his salary as a football player.

Andy Mitchell has described and researched his life here in detail.

Fergus Suter

He was not the first paid footballer in England and did not move from Partick to Darwen with Jimmy Love. But Fergus Suter had found out in Partick how well Jimmy had earned money as a football player in Darwen, how he had provided for himself and wanted to do so. There is the assumption that Suter was not asked to play for Darwen, but he applied for it. He was also no more a mill worker than Jimmy was. Suter was a stonemason and also worked as a stonemason in Darwen. But only for a short time. It is said that the composition of the stone in Darwen damaged his hands – well, he said it.

It is much more likely that he too was paid so much as a football player that he did not have to work on the side. Jimmy and he were not paid weekly, but were paid ten pounds after three weeks without pay (workers earned an average of two pounds per week). Darwen FC also organised a charity match for Fergus and Jimmy to pay them.

I have not yet been able to find out if there were any strikes by Darwen mill workers, but Fergus was certainly not that involved.

Martha Almond existed and she became Fergus Suter’s wife. However, nothing else is known about her. The triangle with John Cartwright is therefore also fiction.

What is also not true, is Fergus‘ family relationship. In any case, he not only had only sisters, but also a brother. For Edward Suter played for Darwen FC from 1880. It is not known, however, that Fergus‘ father was an alcoholic and did violence to his wife and daughters. Nor did Fergus‘ take the money from Cartwright/Blackburn FC to bring his mother and sisters to England. He accepted it because he could earn more.

From the 1880/81 season Fergus played for Blackburn Rovers for several seasons, and won the FA Cup from 1884 to 1886, but not before.

More about Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love has been published by Andy Mitchell on his blog one day after the series was published.

Blackheath FC in The English Game

As already mentioned, this club is constructed, namely a mixture of Blackburn Rovers (where Fergus Suter played) and Blackburn Olympics, who won the FA Cup even before the Rovers.

The professionalisation of football in England

Yes, the trend towards professionalisation from the late 1870s onwards took place in England. The FA initially imposed fines on clubs from the north of England because of the particularly high wages paid to football players there. But there was no sharp border between North and South England, nor between workers and gentlemen. Entrepreneurs invested in sports and football was even quite late in life.

The spiral began: Entrepreneurs invested money and wanted to succeed so that more spectators would attend the games, i.e. to increase their income. From the higher income one could afford better players, who hopefully were worth their money and brought success, so that one could buy even better players.
But the spiral better not be broken. Many players suddenly became destitute and some clubs went bankrupt. The predecessor club of Manchester United, a works club, is one of them. Here the brewery owner Davies saved the club from bankruptcy in 1902, converted it into a joint-stock company in 1907 and financed the construction of Old Trafford in 1908.

Many pub owners also took advantage of the hype for sports – this is also shown in the series. They offered a results service and naturally attracted many people to their pub and generated turnover.

But what is not really discussed in The English Game is the role of Preston North End. Its chairman, brewery owner William Sudell, was the driving force behind the professionalisation. It was precisely here that a conspicuously large number of „Scottish Profs“ arrived by train, who unfortunately, unfortunately, had missed their exit, now had no money for a ticket back home and were looking for a job opportunity locally – so the myth. In reality, some of them were invited to the clubs, some of them came like Suter on a whim. But they all mastered the typical Scottish combination game, which was not yet widespread in England. (And because of which Scotland regularly won against the English selection in the late 1870s).

For what was written in „Scottish Profs“ is not certain. It can stand for professional, that is, professional footballers. But I think the other variant is more likely: professor, because the combination game was contemporary called a scientific game, i.e. a scientific (sophisticated) game. You would say magic football today.

I have written for 120 minutes in detail about the concept of modern football and the early days of football in England (from the section „Paid football in England“ – not available at the moment). Here and in a podcast episode of HSV Talk (only in 🇩🇪) I went into more detail about the beginning of the professionalisation of football in England.


So much for my list of historical errors.

But one must not forget when reviewing that The English Game is a story, not a documentary. It is not necessary for everything to be exactly right, otherwise it does not entertain. How historically correct it should or could be is a matter for debate. It is only important to me to present and collect the differences between fictional history and verifiable history.

If something is still missing, I will add it.

Kategorie: English


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