Friday, August 28, 2020

The English Game

I have just finished watching a six-part series on Netflix, "The English Game" about the early days of football in England, around 1880s. The series are very good as it includes a strong historical component beyond football on the industrialization of Britain and the enormous changes that English society underwent in the second half of the 19th century.
This was also the period when football started becoming the modern game that was to conquer the world, and this is exactly where the storyline is set: the FA Cup had always been won by aristocratic clubs, where Old Etonians dominate, including in the English Football Association (FA), setting the rules of the game. On the other side are the upcoming teams organised around industrial workers in Lancashire; despite professionalism being illegal, a factory owner "hires" two Scottish players for his team in Darwen. Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter make Darwen a competitive side, but when Suter receives a better offer from their rivals Blackburn it leads to drama and even to some of the first football violence.
With Suter as captain, Blackburn make it to the FA Cup final as the first workers' team ever. They successfully fight against the FA's attempt to throw Blackburn out of the competition due to professionalism, with the inspired help of Sir Arthur Kinnaird, Old Etonian's open-minded captain, and go on to win the first FA Cup final for a workers' club; 2-1 after extra time.

Of course, as a history and football fanatic I have looked up how far the history in the series is correct.
Lord Arthur Kinnaird was in fact the founder of Old Etonians, and still today has the record of being the man who has played most FA Cup finals: nine, of which he won five (three with another team, Wanderers, and two with Old Etonians). He was a prominent banker who also went on to become President of the FA for 33 years and was part of the 1882 Old Etonians team that won the FA Cup against Blackburn Rovers, which stands as the last time an amateur team won the FA Cup. Fergie Suter was indeed playing for Blackburn Rovers in that same match in 1882, but neither did he win or score the winning goal. It was however, as depicted in the series, the first time a workers team had made it to the FA Cup final.
In 1883 Old Etonians, captained by Kinnard, made it to yet another the FA Cup Final, this time to face Blackburn Olympic. Blackburn Olympic won 2-1 and became the first workers' club to win the FA Cup. As in the series they won 2-1, after extra time, which Kinnard had accepted to play instead of a rematch (as he does in the series). But contrary to the series, Suter did not play that match, since he was playing for Olympic's rivals of Blackburn Rovers!
Blackburn Rovers won the next four FA Cups in 1884, 1885, 1886 and 1887, with Fergie Suter on the team, but never against Old Etonians.
In the first part of the series Old Etonians and Darwen play an FA Cup quarterfinal that ends in a 5-5 draw, and later Old Etonians win a third rematch as they refuse to go into extra time, because Darwen must then travel from Lancashire twice for replays (2-2 and 6-2). This indeed happened in 1879, with Kinnaird and Suter also playing for each respective team. Old Etonians went on to win the 1879 FA Cup (defeating Clapham Rovers 1-0 in the final), but the title remains tainted by the otherwise legendary clash against Darwen.

While the issue of professionalism in the English game, as depicted in the series, was real, it was far from limited to Suter or Blackburn; many teams in industrial towns in the Midlands and northern England were at the time paying players to play for them (in particular Scots), and it had indeed become a contentious issue in the 1880s, although throwing out the FA finalists of Blackburn did not happen as described in the series. That said, in 1884 Preston North End (winners of the 1889 FA Cup and first winners of the Double) were indeed accused of professionalism by the London club Upton Park, who asked the FA to void the result. But Preston North End were a powerful club that threatened to withdraw from the FA alongside many other strong clubs that were more or less openly paying their players.
This threat also appears in the series by Blackburn and Darwen. But in real life it led to the FA in 1885 accepting that players were paid, thus opening the doors fully for professionalism in football.

Curiously, the leftover aristocrats did form an Amateur Cup in 1893, and even a breakaway Amateur FA in 1907. But as it was dominated by aristocrats it was completely isolated and had by the outbreak of WWI broken up and been reincorporated into the FA.
A more curious expression of the glorification of the Gentleman-Amateur in football was the creation of the Corninthian Football Club in 1882, as a team for the best amateurs in England. The team attracted some of the best players in England, but refused to lower themselves to play the FA Cup, where they would probably have been competitive with the players they had (they did beat Blackburn in a friendly match in 1884). When playing matches they even refused to take penalties, and put pride in not warming up or overextending themselves. Corinthian FC toured the world and were instrumental in bringing the game to other parts of the world (SC Corinthians in Brazil are directly named after them), but by WWI had fallen out as a final leftover of a foregone time.

Considering the global billion-dollar sport that football is today, "The English Game", despite its liberties with historical facts, is very interesting and entertaining for anyone interested in the history of football. But as with any historical TV show, do not believe it at face blank!

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