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WITH MOST PROFESSIONAL sports on hiatus, many of us are watching replays of classic basketball, football, and baseball games. In The English Game, writer and producer Julian Fellowes takes viewers even further back into sports history: to the years soccer changed from a gentleman’s pastime to a sport professionals play and the common man cheers.
The show’s premise might not intrigue most American viewers. But many will remember that Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame) has a gift for drawing audiences to characters from another time and place, masterfully bringing alive their hopes, dreams, and fears. And he has done so in this six-part Netflix series as well.
In 1880s England, graduates of upper-class public schools like Eton College and Charterhouse School—whose teams won the national Football Association (FA) Cup most years—dominated soccer. These players had enough leisure time to practice together, while working-class amateurs labored long days: They had little time to hone their skills. This changed when some mill owners who sponsored teams hired talented players as nominal employees, bolstering their local clubs’ forces.
Arthur Kinnaird, one of those “Old Etonians” and a banker’s son, loves the sport with passion matched by his skill. He and his teammates have won the FA Cup multiple times, and they form most of the FA Board, charged with enforcing rules. These regulations forbid any professional athlete from participating in the annual tournament, and rumors circulate that the northern mill towns in Lancashire are paying their star players.
Fergus Suter has fled his abusive, alcoholic father in Glasgow to play soccer for mill club Darwen. He and best friend Jimmy Love make an immediate impact, and the team’s fortunes turn. But Suter needs more money so his mother and sisters can join him in Lancashire. Neighboring town Blackburn tempts him with an offer for more pay.
Meanwhile, Kinnaird and his wife, Alma, have lost their first baby and are sick with grief. They visit Darwen on business, as Kinnaird works on financing for the mills in a difficult time of labor unrest. Alma finds new purpose supporting the local shelter for unwed mothers. The Kinnairds grow to appreciate their countrymen’s tough lives and the joy they get from their local soccer clubs.
This clash between the old guard of aristocratic teams from London and the newer, rougher clubs of the mill towns plays out through all six episodes. But the human stories of suffering, sin, and struggle intertwine and captivate. While mostly suitable for families, the series does have some profane language that mars an otherwise entertaining effort.