It’s painfully ironic that Netflix is bringing us a drama series based on the true events that helped shape modern football in a period where the sport has effectively ground to a halt – in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, the Premier League, EFL, Champions League and Europa League have all been suspended, with Euro 2020 to be restaged next year.
But this uncertain spell might actually be the perfect time for The English Game to kick off – and not just because of the absence of any actual footy from our screens…
The series itself – a dramatisation by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes of the earliest days of professional football which explores the conflicting attitudes and playing styles of two icons of the game, Arthur Kinnaird and Fergus Suter – is a fairly lightweight and undemanding offering. You don’t need to be aware of the real history to know how the story’s going to play out, with its well-worn tale of an underdog being dealt early losses before triumphing against a better-funded rival holding few surprises.
That sense of familiarity extends beyond just the familiar tropes of sporting drama, too: anyone familiar with Fellowes’s recent work will recognise here the portrayal of class divide painted in broad strokes.
With a few notable exceptions, the toffs are all heartless bounders with sinister moustaches (Henry Lloyd-Hughes, cast as politician and sportsman Alfred Lyttelton, seems to be making such parts his stock-in-trade, having popped up recently as a similar scoundrel in The Pale Horse on BBC One) while the working class that opposes them is chiefly made up of plucky, good-hearted, salt-of-the-earth types.
Despite their airs and graces, the well-to-do Old Etonians play a brutish game and have much to learn from the flair and grace of a working man’s team (the real Fergus Suter is noted as one of several Scottish players of the era who developed quick-passing team tactics to outwit larger English opponents).
This is not a series that deals much in ambiguities or shades of grey – it might be launching on a trendy streaming platform, but The English Game would feel equally at home on ITV in the cosy Sunday night drama slot previously occupied by Fellowes’s Downton and now taken up by his series Belgravia.
But with all that having been said, the whole thing remains really rather watchable. Much of the credit for that has to go to the cast – particularly the two leads, Edward Holcroft and Kevin Guthrie, who lend a good deal of a vigour to proceedings.
The supporting characters are mostly thinly sketched, but that’s not a massive issue since the heart of The English Game is in the contrast between Fergus Suter and Arthur Kinnaird, the inventor of the passing game and the notoriously tough tackler who together made football what it is today, and though he’s far prettier than the genuine article, Holcroft brings both a twinkly charisma and an affecting vulnerability to the part of Kinnaird, while there’s a a steely-eyed commitment to Guthrie’s performance as Suter which helps dilute the earnest nature of the show somewhat.
At just six episodes – all of which run under an hour, most less than 50 minutes – The English Game is also perfect binge-watch material. Yes, it’s all rather obvious and overly sincere, but it’s also slickly-produced with strong performances – simple, solid, diverting fare that has its roots in sport but that won’t alienate anyone who’s not a season ticket holder.
For all its flaws then, the show feels like it has the potential to be a breakout hit when it launches this Friday – not just because football fans will be looking for something to fill the void, but also because while it’s far from adventurous, this sort of comfort food telly could be just the ticket at a time when the world is throwing challenges enough at all of us.
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The English Game launches on Friday 20th March on Netflix