This article contains spoilers for “The English Game.”
Sports histories can often be labeled as pedantic and tedious, but “The English Game,” a new miniseries by “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes, concisely seeks to explore the hidden stories within the early days of soccer, or what is known in the U.K. as “football.” This show presents a compelling, personal account of soccer’s rise as a sport in the U.K., while demonstrating the class divide present in the 1880s.
The series follows the true story of two Scottish soccer players, Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie) and Jimmy Love (James Harkness), who are recruited from Glasgow to play on the Darwen Football Club — a working-class team in Lancashire — and promised work in a factory in addition to their team stipend. Conflict arises between Suter and his fellow players, as well as between Darwen F.C. and the Old Etonians F.C., and composer Harry Escott heightens this tension with his gritty yet powerful soundtrack.
Consistent character development deepens the overall plot and raises the stakes for viewers rooting for the working-class team’s victory, for we see how momentous such a win could be in the Lancastrians’ lives. Initially, Suter finds a formidable rival in Old Etonians F.C. player Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft); over time, however, the two players realize how much they have in common and come to respect each other as both fellow sportsmen and individuals. Both characters mature and undergo significant outlook changes, with Kinnaird realizing the hardships working-class people endure and Suter claiming his own agency and strength.
As with many of Fellowes’ other works, the writer and producer focuses heavily on social inequality and class division. Historically, the Football Association promoted professional soccer as a sport for wealthy, educated men, until Suter entered the scene and set a precedent for working-class individuals. The series’ fifth episode is a prime display of how Suter must work to overcome these setbacks. Both he and Kinnaird argue that working-class players must overcome twice the number of obstacles as their wealthier counterparts, giving the show a political edge with socioeconomic commentary. Directors Tim Fywell and Birgitte Stærmose use visuals to illustrate this divide brilliantly, showing the lavish pretournament dinner the Old Etonians enjoy juxtaposed with the rowdy pub celebration the Darwen players hold.
Thematically, “The English Game” demonstrates the importance of sportsmanship and sports’ power to unite people across various boundaries. Although Kinnaird and Suter initially have a tense relationship as opposing players, they manage to bridge their differences. Even Tommy Marshall (Gerard Kearns), the hotheaded Darwen player who clashes with both Suter and Love, learns to set aside his hostility and play for the greater good of the game. Although soccer initially appears to be a gendered domain meant for men, the entire town of Lancashire begins to take interest in the sport and root for its team — its victory is a symbol of persistence against the class divide.
Unfortunately, “The English Game” delves into many subplots that it cannot fully resolve. For example, Margaret Alma Kinnaird (Charlotte Hope), Arthur’s wife, begins supporting a refuge for working-class single mothers and their children, but this storyline is not developed further than surface level. Writers give the audience some resolution when Martha Almond (Niamh Walsh), a strong, independent single mother from Lancashire, begins working in the women’s house, however, it is regrettable that this character was not given more space to show her progression.
Overall, “The English Game” is successful at presenting a succinct history of soccer in the U.K., although it feels too brief to fully delve into all of the plots it introduces. Nevertheless, the show’s production, writing and acting all work together to create an original, compelling tale that has likely never been heard before.