FA Cup Quarter-Final Tie
13 February 1879
Venue: The Kennington Oval, London
Result: Old Etonians 5 Darwen FC 5
JULIAN Fellowes, creator of the multi-award-winning Downton Abbey, kicks off his new television series, The English Game, with the events surrounding this football match. It was a significant event in the history of the ‘beautiful game’. Never before had a working-class team, let alone one from the North, reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup tournament. The competition had been founded in 1871 and remains the oldest and most famous football cup competition in the world.
Fellowes provides something of a Boy’s Own version of the story. Coincidentally, The Boy’s Own Paper first appeared in the same year as this match. Fellowes condenses the historical fact of two replays into one. What is important for the drama, however, is that Lancashire’s gallant Darwen are eventually knocked out of the Cup by the posh boys from down South.
The message that comes through from defeat, though, is the story of Robert the Bruce and the spider – if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again. Since Darwen’s superstar player is the legendary Scottish forward Fergus Suter, the Bruce connection has a special relevance for wide-eyed boys like me.
How disappointing it was, then, to read the Guardian’s acerbic review of the programme. Its TV critic, Lucy Mangan, has clearly had a bellyful of Fellowes. His other new series, Belgravia, is also on TV at the moment. Mangan opines that ‘the government’s current health policy is that they want us to acquire herd immunity not to coronavirus but to Julian Fellowes . . . The latest infection site is The English Game (Netflix). It is about football . . . It is Downton Abbey for boys. It is terrible.’
There, of course, she gives the game away, so to speak, for this is the snarl of the sneering feminist, of the anti-white-male brigade.
It is an acidic parody of the drama to assert that it is simply ‘about football’. Central as the football is, there is a great deal more to it than kicking a ball about. As the Sunday Times points out, the story is ‘really about class’.
Fellowes exploits poetic licence, of course, to enhance the dramatic tension and this means that there are some historical gaps and inaccuracies. In particular, he may have been a tad harsh on the Eton old boys but he does redress this imbalance by making one of them, Arthur Kinnaird, football’s guardian angel.
Mangan’s Guardian review, sadly, is as unforgiving as it is unfair, inaccurate and unbalanced. She flogs to death, for example, her version of the drama’s Lancastrian accent without realising that she is actually mocking the Yorkshire dialect. I suppose that they are all northern oiks to her.
Here is an example:
‘Despite t’rickets, t’TB and t’whippet fever . . . Team Nemesis have made it through to t’quarter-finals. . . T’mill workers play t’toffs. They t’beat them to a draw after a bad start . . . But t’toffs turn out to be cads and bounders.’
If this bigoted and condescending tosh is supposed to belittle Julian Fellowes, it backfires badly. The northern vernacular heard in the drama is red rose Lancastrian, not white rose Yorkshire.
It is tykes (Yorkshire men and women) who are more likely to shorten ‘you’, ‘ye’, ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ to ‘t’. Its origins are in Old English and Old Norse. Mangan should take a look at Wuthering Heights if she needs convincing.
And when it is not Lancastrian, it is a Scottish accent that we hear since a sizeable portion of the action relates to Glasgow’s Fergus Suter and his family.
Fellowes presents viewers with a great story. He is not Charles Dickens but he shares Dickens’s theatrical techniques for presenting two-dimensional characters and narrative in a compelling way for a wide audience. The English Game is, after all, light entertainment for the masses. If, at times, it has a Roy of the Rovers comic book approach, that is part of the charm and appeal.
How daft, how blinkered and how snobbish to judge it by the Guardian journalists’ PC rule book and to diminish it on the grounds that it is ‘for boys’. It’s not meant to be Aeschylus, Shakespeare or Ibsen. It’s a ripping yarn with a moral dimension. During the sporting blackout it provides a fascinating window into the game, a ‘fix’ of footie for the soccer-starved but without Gary Lineker and today’s surrounding paraphernalia, as even the BBC points out in a piece by Ian Youngs.
Nor has Alex Finnis of the i newspaper signed up to the Guardian’s rule book. He understands that television drama does not always have to walk a PC and feminist tightrope. The early days of football make for a compelling story and great drama. He quotes Fellowes:
‘Workers worked six days a week, all day, they were paid little enough and apart from a few drinks and going home and eating and living mainly by the light of the fire that was about it.
‘And suddenly they had this weekly excitement of following the game and following their own favourite team and going to the next town and seeing them play.
‘And it put an energy into working-class life that wasn’t replacing anything – it was a completely new dynamic in lives that were being lived at a fairly low key.’
All of this should, of course, be meat and drink to the Guardian but these days the anti-male PC agenda trumps all. Fellowes is not playing their game and has, consequently, became fair game himself for out-of-touch feminist zealots.
Lucy Mangan appears to have found one episode in Fellowes’s storyline to be especially nauseating and ridiculous. It occurs when the Darwen club finds that it is unable to afford the train fare back to London for the replay against Old Etonians: ‘The whole of Darwen clubs together to buy them train tickets so they can come back the next weekend and replay the match. I told you. It’s terrible.’
Problem is though, Lucy, this is exactly what happened even if the Old Etonians and the Football Association threw in a few bob as well.
Through her Guardian review, Mangan signals her moral virtue to feminist intellectuals. Most people, fortunately, are not so screwed-up by notions of political correctness. Give us a break from your sanctimonious preaching, Lucy. On behalf of ordinary people across the country and to paraphrase a famous playwright and an infamous football chant: ‘Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, we cannot enjoy a good footie story on the telly?’ ‘You may hate us, but we don’t care!’
Readers, enjoy it!