Landing on Netflix rather ironically in a period when professional football has ground to a halt, historical drama The English Game documents the origins of the sport, in particular the roles played by two men – tough tackling toff Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft) and spirited Scot Fergus “Fergie” Suter (Kevin Guthrie).
But how true-to-life is the six-part series from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes? Here’s the truth…
Who was Arthur Kinnaird?
As portrayed in the series, Arthur Kinnaird was a principal of The Football Association and a leading footballer who played for the Old Etonians – and as the caption which closes the series reveals, he did go on to become president of the FA, replacing Major Francis Marindin (played by Daniel Ings) in 1890.
He was also, as in The English Game, renowned for being a tough tackler. In an October 1892 issue of sporting journal Pastime magazine, FA committee member Nicholas Lane ‘Pa’ Jackson noted of one match that “Lord Kinnaird’s energy was expended as much on the shins of his opponents as on the ball.”
However, much of the interpersonal drama seen in the series, including Arthur’s love of football causing tensions with wife Alma (Charlotte Hope) and his father (Anthony Andrews), appears to be invention by Fellowes, along with specific incidents like Kinnaird being pursued by angry mill workers after their pay is cut (as seen in episode two of The English Game).
Who was Fergus Suter?
Suter was indeed a footballer in the early days of the game and the first recognised professional player, earning a wage for his participation. As referenced in the series, he played for Partick before moving to England to play for first Darwen and then Blackburn Rovers.
However, Suter and Jimmy Love (played by James Harkness) did not actually join Darwen at the same time – in fact, Love joined first, with Suter following shortly afterward.
It’s true that many of Darwen’s players were millworkers – including Tommy Marshall (Gerard Kearns) – though Suter was a stonemason when he began playing for the team (though he gave up the trade soon after).
As with Kinnaird, much of the Suter family drama in The English Game – including the specifics of his relationship with his abusive alcoholic father – are an invention of Fellowes, as are the details of his romance with Martha (Niamh Walsh).
Who was Alma Kinnaird?
“Alma” is also a real-life figure, with Arthur Kinnaird marrying Mary Alma Victoria Agnew on 19th August 1875 in Lochnaw Castle near Stranraer, Scotland.
But much of what we see Alma get up to in The English Game again appears to have been invented for the purposes of drama, including the sub-plot in episode four where, having lost a child of her own, she helps a bereft mother recover the baby she previously gave away.
Who was Martha Almond?
“She’s a real person,” actress Niamh Walsh confirms. “[But] she exists in historical records only as a name.”
It’s documented that Fergus Suter married Martha, his love interest in The English Game, but the lack of information surrounding her life means that, again, much had to be invented for the series.
There’s certainly little evidence to suggest that, prior to their marriage, she and Suter were caught up in a love triangle with the manager of Blackburn Rovers, who’d previously fathered Martha’s child, as seen in The English Game.
“Because of the historical records, we know much less about the women than we do about the men – but happily, not in this show,” Walsh says
FA Cup final 1882 / 1883: how accurate is The English Game’s portrayal?
In The English Game, Jimmy Love is badly injured and almost loses his leg as a result of a dodgy tackle by Tommy Wallace. As a result, Love has to give up football and Wallace takes his spot at Blackburn for the FA Cup final.
In real life, Love only played for Darwen until 1879 – after which point it’s unclear what happened to him, though it doesn’t appear he ever played for Blackburn. (There’s some evidence to suggest he may have died of a fever some time after signing up with the Royal Marines.)
Though parts of how The English Game portrays the run-up to the FA Cup final is based on truth – the Football Association was investigating clubs for paying players, which was against the rules at the same – the outcome of the match itself has been massaged…
The English Game’s climax actually combines the events of several different FA Cup finals. In the 1882 final, Blackburn Rovers, with Suter as part of the team, did indeed play against Arthur Kinnaird’s Old Etonians, but actually lost the game 1-0. The following year, however, a different team – Blackburn Olympic – reached the finals and bested the Old Etonians, winning 2-1.
The English Game, though, ends with the Rovers beating Kinnaird’s team, allowing for a storybook ending where Suter lifts the FA Cup – which, in real life, he would go on to do in 1884, when Blackburn Rovers beat Queen’s Park.
It all sort of happened, then, just not quite how the Netflix series portrays it.