NETFLIX is notoriously secretive when it comes to publishing its viewing figures. Everyone's favourite streaming service did so for the first time ever in January last year, long before lockdown became part of the every day lexicon. However, in the absence of access to such information, a not-so bold prediction: the number of visitors to the platform will surge over the coming weeks as self-isolation becomes routine.

It's heartening to learn, then, that there are plenty of sports programmes at the fingertips, the latest of which entitled The English Game, aired for the first time on Friday. The story is told through the eyes of two men, Arthur Kinnaird and Fergus Suter, and focuses on the role each had in the transformation of football from gentleman's pastime to professionalism and the all-encompassing game that it is today – idolised by millions globally and greatly missed as part of the Coronavirus shutdown.

Written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, The English Game is, as one would expect, a lavish if slightly jarring period drama. The six-parter centres on a series of FA Cup ties between the dominant side of the late-1800s Old Etonians (Kinnaird's team) and Darwen, Blackburn Olympic and Blackburn Rovers (Suter's teams, of which the latter pair are contracted to Blackburn FC).


In the first episode, Kinnaird, played by Edward Holcroft, is painted as a conflicted individual, caught between admiration for a new style of play as deftly practised by Suter (Kevin Guthrie), a Scottish footballer of some renown, and a loyalty to his Eton contemporaries, who favour a rumbustious, brutal game not unlike rugby without handling.

At one point, after an FA Cup tie against Darwen ends in a draw with Kinnaird refusing the team of upstart millworkers the chance to play extra-time, he tells a gathering of dinner guests: “We took a raggle-taggle pastime, with different rules wherever it was played and we turned it into a proper game . . . for gentlemen.”

As is often the way with period dramas, dramatic licence triumphs over fact. Kinnaird is portrayed as antagonistic in that first episode. Yet history demonstrates that it was Francis Marindin, the Football Association president and Old Etonians captain, who denied Darwen extra-time and insisted on a replay, which was drawn before the holders won at the third time of asking.

In real life Kinnaird was not just one of the best English footballers of his day but a man of some substance. A keen sportsman, he still holds the record for most FA Cup final appearances and won honours in tennis, athletics, swimming and canoeing.

In his re-released book, Arthur Kinnaird: First Lord of Football, the author and football historian Andy Mitchell, relates that “he did more to popularise soccer than any man who ever lived”.


Mitchell, formerly the head of communications at the Scottish Football Association, says: “He came on to the FA committee in 1868 when he was at university and stayed on the committee for the rest of his life. He was thoroughly involved in the complete transformation of the game from this public park pastime to crowds of 100,000. He died in the year Wembley Stadium was built, 1923, that was [an indication] of how much the game had been transformed in his lifetime, on his watch.”

The son of a Scottish MP, he was a banker in the family business, an evangelical Christian who aided the disadvantaged during times of epidemic, helped to set up schools to educate poor children and was a champion of better treatment for women. His liberal outlook came from his father – an advocate for the abolition of slavery in thre US and greater rights for Scotland - and informed his own opinions on what would become football's existential crisis.

“He had an enormous social conscience and I don't know how he fitted it all in with a job as a banker playing football and going off to teach in ragged schools at night and doing all this work for charity but he seemed to have a huge amount of energy and fitted it all in,” says Mitchell. “He was a great guy and deserves more recognition – not just for his football achievements but for everything else that he did in helping the poor and disadvantaged in late-Victorian society.

“The way he was brought up was to be very inclusive and to see the worth in everyone. His mother was very busy in charity and you can see this coming through. He took on his parents' charities after their deaths, running the YMCA, the YWCA, he did a lot of charitable work for women and he made a lot of speeches calling for better treatment of women in the workplace, better wages and this is pre-First World War. So, in some respects, he was ahead of his time.”


Mitchell, who worked as a consultant for The English Game on “specific stuff like how goalposts were put up”, says the series should be viewed as a social drama, rather than historical documentary.

“I didn't have much influence over the script itself. Every pocket historian is going to say 'that's not right' as is the way with any period drama. If you were so inclined, of course you could pick holes in the history. Basically it is a social drama showing how this transformation took place over a period and how the passing game came to be introduced to England and although the main protagonist is Scottish – and people say 'Oh, it should be called the Scottish game' – in fact, it is all about football in England and how that was transformed by the efforts of the Scottish players.”

One of the main changes that followed the appearance of the first Scot was the advent of professionalism. Suter had been lured to Darwen with the promise of a job after losing his own as a stonemason following the collapse of the City of Glasgow Bank. Jimmy Love his team-mate had been a local contractor in the city before he, too, found work had dried up.

If some of this sounds eerily indicative of the uncertainty facing all of us today, there is a crumb of comfort in the discovery that Kinnaird, the son of a Scot, and Suter, who became known as one of the Scotch Professors (the name given to the trailblazing Scots who changed the way football was played) ushered in a new era while embracing a style that retains many of those hallmarks today.

However, the main objections to the presence of Scots in the English game was not about the manner in which they played the game but a rather more insidious problem; the use of ringers or paid professionals by northern teams which prompted a switch in the balance of power away from the traditionally dominant London clubs.

“The top players, like Fergus Suter and Hugh McIntyre at Blackburn were given very soft loans so that they could buy a pub,” adds Mitchell. “Quite a few of them end up in the licensed trade, a fair few of them went bankrupt – through their own lack of skills and knowledge – but they were set up in business. And, if you're running a pub, you can take time off, you can play football. It was a means of getting people down, making them available for the football team but also giving them a decent living. This went on and on.”

In 1884, with more and more players appearing from Scotland, the Football Association, faced with a tide they could not turn back voted to embrace professionalism, something that Kinnaird was, given his liberal sentiments, thoroughly at ease with.

“He had no regrets,” says Mitchell. “Some of his contemporaries thought it was appalling the way the game had been spoiled by professionals and it was a shoddy concern but Kinnaird was very positive. Charles Alcock [the FA secretary] and Kinnaird led the charge and worked together to make sure that professionalism was adopted.”