With elite football suspended because of the coronavirus, fans can still get their fix on TV – in the form of 1880s matches in a new Netflix drama from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes about the men who sowed the seeds for the beautiful game.
It’s the 1883 FA Cup final, and Old Etonians captain Arthur Kinnaird wins the ball deep in his own half before running the length of the pitch, beating three opposition players and firing a screamer towards the top corner.
He lets out a roar of celebration, followed by backslaps and handshakes with his team-mates.
It’s all captured in glorious high definition by a cameraman carrying a Steadicam, the hi-tech stabilised TV kit usually used to film the Premier League.
A few minutes later, Kinnaird does exactly the same thing again. Tackle, run, score, roar. This time it’s caught in all its glory by a drone camera buzzing overhead.
The actual 1883 cup final wasn’t televised, obviously. This is a re-enactment, and it’s taking place in August 2019 on the set of The English Game, the new six-part drama about the birth of professional football.
That match was a historic clash between the former Eton public schoolboys and the mill workers of Blackburn.
It was also a pivotal moment because two Lancashire-based Scots had become the first to be paid for playing, at a time when the public schools wanted to keep the game strictly amateur.
For their money, they ushered in new tactics, and set football on course to become the all-conquering spectacle we know today.
The 1883 final was played at the Kennington Oval in south London. But Netflix has recreated it in a suburban Victorian park in Altrincham, near Manchester.
Rather than the estimated 8,000-strong original attendance, there are just 60 extras cheering on the teams from a temporary wooden stand. Half are wearing top hats, the other half are in flat caps. More are due on set in the coming days, and they will be digitally reproduced to bulk out the crowd.
The Eton players wear light blue, Blackburn claret. All are in authentic Victorian ankle boots and three-quarter-length trousers – all except Kinnaird, who apparently preferred long trousers.
In their midst when the cameras aren’t rolling is a man wearing modern football gear. Mike Delaney, a former professional player in Germany’s third tier and an England Futsal international, has the official title of “football choreographer”.
His job is to co-ordinate the on-pitch action sequences – like Kinnaird’s goal – to make sure they look realistic on screen.
He has previously worked on TV adverts starring idols such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Here, he has the extra challenge of showing how football was played 137 years ago.
“I’ve tried to make it as authentic as possible,” he says. While football teams today might play a 4-5-1 or 4-4-2 formation, Old Etonians played 1-1-8. “Which seems crazy to us nowadays,” Delaney says.
In the 19th century, public schools such as Eton, Harrow, Charterhouse and Rugby all played with different rules. They eventually came together to settle on a standard set of rules and form the Football Association – although some, like Rugby, preferred to keep playing with their own hands-on rules and funny-shaped balls.
Even those who didn’t pick up the ball, like Eton, played in a style that had similarities with rugby. According to Delaney, the eight players in the 1-1-8 formation would move together, passing the ball closely as they rushed as one towards the opposition goal.
“The Eton players were bigger and stronger [than Blackburn] and had this thing about protecting the ball and moving a bit like a rugby scrum,” he says. “And the other [public school] teams had a similar version of that.
“But it was not until some of the Scottish players became more involved that they started to understand how they could find a way around this. They could pass the ball around this moving scrum. Because they couldn’t match them for power or strength, they had to find another way.”
The man credited with bringing this revolution in football tactics was Fergus Suter, one of the Glaswegians who moved to Lancashire in the late 1870s. In the Netflix show, he’s played by Kevin Guthrie, known for his roles in Sunshine on Leith, Dunkirk and Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.
“Nowadays, what they play is a version of what I guess Suter introduced to the game,” he says.
“But with Kinnaird and the Old Etonians, visually it’s something that we’ve never seen before, which is a hybrid of football and rugby. So it’s a real revelation on both parts. We’re playing two extremely different games. The difference is vast.”
As is the dramatist’s prerogative, Julian Fellowes has taken some artistic licence. The 1883 FA Cup Final was contested between Old Etonians and Blackburn Olympic. But Suter never played for Blackburn Olympic.
He actually played for local rivals Blackburn Rovers, who went on to lift the cup for the subsequent three years. For the purposes of the TV show, the two teams have been merged to make one club simply called Blackburn.
But Fellowes is right in picking out that moment as a turning point. Public school teams dominated the early years of he FA Cup, but in the wake of the Blackburn clubs’ new tactics, teams from the north and midlands went on to dominate. The Eton era was over and their style of play became extinct.
Perhaps another bit of artistic licence is in the show’s name – The English Game. Or maybe it’s a small irony on Fellowes’ part.
“Hopefully it’s a bit of a revelation that it’s two Scots who come down and reinvent the game,” says Guthrie, from East Renfrewshire, with a smile.
“This [style] isn’t new for Suter at all. This is how they play in Scotland, in Glasgow. Far be it for us to be famed for that nowadays, but passing football started in Scotland. That’s certainly what I believe to be the case and that needs to be the story.”
But he adds that there is more to the TV show than the historical clash of tactics. It’s also about the relationship between Suter and his upper-class nemesis Kinnaird, played by Kingsman star Edward Holcroft.
“It’s about two men,” Guthrie explains. “It’s about rivalry, it’s about class and separation. It’s about the fight.
“But ultimately, it’s about the similarities that they both share in extremely different worlds, and that I think is much more important than selling the idea of the game.”
The actors troop off the pitch, but will return tomorrow to film extra time.
They already know how this game ends up. Not just the final score, but the supreme skill and multimillion pound wages of the modern players – some of whom are at home in their mansions just a couple of miles from Netflix’s makeshift Victorian pitch.
The English Game is on Netflix from Friday, 20 March.