By John Sloop (@NCAMookie), columnist.
In Esquire, Tom Nicholson says that, like a lot of us, he is missing live football with a passion. As a fix, he decided to watch the new Netflix miniseries, The English Game. He left the six episodes wishing he had never started and suggests that you don’t make the same mistake.
I ,on the other hand, found it worth the time (and, by the way, it’s only 6 episodes of less than an hour each, so it’s an easy binge). While I understand Nicholson’s playful critique, the benefits outweigh the costs.
If you aren’t aware, The English Game was created by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and focuses on football’s early days in the late 1800s as the game transitions from an amateur game played by “gentlemen” to a professional game played, and championed by, the working classes. Summaries of the characters and plotlines abound, and I leave it to you if you like a fuller storyline before you dive in.
Nicholson’s critique of the show is that, while based on a true story (very loosely), the narrative simply has too many soap opera elements (my term, not his) and far too many inaccuracies in its depiction of football. It’s a fair critique, but it misses the point. Given the creator, you knew to expect some version of an upstairs/downstairs drama. This is Downton Abbey, just on the pitch and in board rooms and factories rather than at the Abbey itself. It’s a drama with cardboard upper and lower class characters, and a large number of contrived family plot lines. Hell, when O magazine’s Elena Nicolaou begins her review with, “You don’t need to know a thing about soccer to appreciate The English Game,” you know you’re not watching a movie about soccer; you are watching a drama with soccer as a plot device.
That said, I enjoyed watching it, as have a number of my friends, so I’m more inclined to give you reasons to watch rather than an excuse not to, especially during the middle of a pandemic. I need all the distraction I can get.
1 - THE HISTORY
Ok, if you expect to learn the history of soccer from watching the show alone, you’ll end up with a sorta distorted view. Yes, yes, some of the struggles and changes are represented in the field in epic fashion (e.g., the change from possession to passing, the move from amateurism to professionalism, the beginnings of paid sponsors, the creation of unique kits for specific games, the first steps toward inverting the pyramid), all of these changes are taking place in this show over the span of one year. More, while some of the characters are “real” legends of the game, the narratives around them are largely made up. However, what the show will do is encourage you, especially if you are as nerdy as am I, to begin doing a little more research and reading on those years. I’ve read a number of histories of the game before, but this gives you a narrative that allows you to chew on “real” history a bit easier.
2 - THE COMMUNITY AND EMOTION
I’m a complete sucker for any story about football that highlights and embraces the community that supports the club. The English Game emphasizes (overly so) the ties between the team, the individual players and the surrounding community. These are factory workers in a town who also play for the factory supported team. They live, eat and suffer with the community. The players are indeed the guy you drink with at the pub. So, while that sense of community has changed over time, we sill have it, and this does a lovely job of highlighting its origins.
3 - THE BEAUTY OF THE GAME
Over the course of the 6 episodes you have multiple moments when characters try to express just what it is that they love about the game. And while the numerous “game” scenes are a bit hokey (for what’s it worth, so was the first fight between Rocky and Apollo), you feel a kindred spirit as the characters talk about what a beautiful game it is.
4 - THE CLASS DRAMA
While very heavy handed, the ways in which the posh boys are forced (especially one of them) to come to understand the working class world is interesting in the sense that the show shows a great respect for the laboring class. While things keep working out a bit too nearly for my tastes, it works regardless.
5 - THE BREVITY
I loved the first season of Downton Abbey but a few episodes into season two, I had tired of all the soapy storylines and was ready to move on. Given that this is only 6 episodes long, and that I liked the individual characters a great deal, I even found the love/hate, will they/won’t they storylines moving.
Do yourself a favor and watch it. Sure, go ahead and watch Tiger King first, but get around to The English Game. The more movies and tv series featuring soccer, the better.
Photo courtesy Oliver Upton/Netflix.