The makers of Downton Abbey are back with a new drama series about the blossoming of association football in England, writes Ed Power
With coronavirus plunging the sporting world into a nuclear winter, Julian Fellowes’ new soccer drama, The English Game has arrived at arguably the perfect moment.
This tale of toffs and oiks doing battle for the FA Cup in the 1870s won’t replace the thrill of pushing through the turnstile to watch your local club. Or even of plonking yourself in front of Match of the Day in your freshly-ironed replica jersey.
But The English Game unquestionably scratches some manner of itch. It isn’t unthinkable it might help sports devotees through the dark weeks ahead. Fans of Fellowes’ Downton Abbey will likewise enjoy a costumed caper packed with cads, bounders and soot-smudged humble working folk.
All that and it’s based on a real-life rivalry “I wasn’t aware of the story at the point of taking on the role. But as soon as it seemed that something might happen, I started to do some research into Fergus Suter,” says actor Kevin Guthrie.
Suter was a pioneering Scottish soccer player. He has gone down in history as the first professional to line out for a British team (at a time when payments were explicitly against the rules of the game).
He was a mould-breaker on the pitch, to boot. Suter is credited with inventing modern soccer formations and the emphasis on finding players in space. Until then, the game was more akin rugby. Teams of violent upper-class types form a scrum around the ball, jostling and kick – each other, more than the pigskin. It was brutal and horrible to watch.
“Suter implemented a style of the game that we know now to be the beautiful passing game,” says Guthrie, who cultivated an old school handlebar moustache in order to portray the flinty Glaswegian.
His nemesis in the series is Arthur Kinnaird, scion of a banking dynasty and star player with FA champions Old Etonians. He’s a toff with brass bells on and initially disdainful both of the upstart Suter and his more fluid tactic of pinging the ball around.
“Sport is part of culture and culture reflects the political and economic state of society,” says Edward Holcroft, who portrays Kinnaird as a man born to rule on and off the pitch.
“It’s a great foundation to build a story on. But what really baffles me is that this actually happened, the story of these two men. They come from total opposites – completely different backgrounds.
“The whole reason the Football Association was formed was so upper class people who’d learnt the game at school could play against one another under a set of agreed rules,” Fellowes said in a recent interview.
“But, from the moment the rules were established in the 1860s, the sport increased in popularity seismically, it was extraordinary. Every year there were 120, 130, 150 new clubs registering with the FA, and The English Game is the story of how these working class teams finally prised control of the sport from the public school boys.”
As Downton fans will testify, Fellowes is an expert at drawing out the nuances of class that underpin British society. Neither Suter nor Kinnaird are quite what they initially seem. The former, taking up a fake job at a mill in order to play for Lancashire’s Darwen FC, is assumed by his co-workers to be a cold-hearted mercenary.
Yet it is quickly established that his reasons for playing for money are more complex than they initially appear. And behind Kinnaird’s to-the-manor-born swagger lurks private heartache and a strained relationship with his young wife (Charlotte Hope, aka Myranda from Game of Thrones).
“There’s a line that this is bigger than football. It comes down to something more humanitarian,” says Holcroft. “Everyone is born with something inside that you cannot educate, you cannot teach – call it your spirit, your soul.
“You have to ask why do people do what they do, why do they break their mould? It comes down to the fact that people are all the same and that it doesn’t matter where you come from. You could put a whole bunch of people through the same school, the same education system, the same upbringing. They’re all still going to be different. And if it takes football to highlight that…well and good”
Fellowes is also keen to scrutinise the position of women in society. In dank, dusty Darwen Suter crosses path with unmarried mother, Martha, portrayed by Niamh Walsh. The actress was born in Australia to Irish parents and raised in Kuala Lumpur. “It means I’m good at accents,” she laughs of her exotic upbringing.
She didn’t know much about soccer going into The English Game, she says. But she researched the stigmatisation of single mothers in the late 19th century. “There were loads of single mums at that time,” says Walsh.
In The English Game the matches unfold on rudimentary 19th century pitches. The goalposts resemble giant match-sticks, there’s more muck than grass and supporter facilities are decidedly bargain basement (think Turner’s Cross circa 1985 if you’re looking for a closer-to-home equivalent). Despite the muddy environs, the games are surprisingly authentic – something that can be rarely said for the sport when depicted on the screen.
“We allocated a lot of time to choreographing those scenes,” says Guthrie, a lifelong Celtic supporter. “We were training up to eight hours a day. We did it at Manchester United’s training ground at Carrington. The Glazers [Man United’s owners] were big fans of Julian and of Downton Abbey.
“We spent a little time with the under-16s, under-17s, and under 21s. We didn’t see much of the first team squad. At the time we were doing it, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had just taken over and they were on that quest of those back-to-back wins. So I’m sure they were busy.”