Enter Suter, a Glaswegian footy wizard who has been revolutionising the game back home and has been recently brought to England by Lancashire cotton mill owner James Walsh (Craig Parkinson), whose workers make up the local side, Darwen FC. But there’s a catch: Walsh is actually paying Suter to play football, an act that goes against the basic ethics of the pre-professional era.
Now is perhaps a good time to admit that Julian Fellowes's fixation with a particular period in British history has gone a bit too far
Bolstered by the arrival of Suter and his second-in-command, the less dexterous but equally effective Jimmy Love (James Harkness) from Partick FC, Darwen set out to become the first working-class team to claim the FA Cup. They somehow manage to hold the Etonians to a pulsating draw in their first game after Suter morphs into Johan Cruyff at half-time and tells his teammates: “You don’t always have to run the ball forwards!” They respond by inventing a weirdly unpalatable form of Total Football in the next 10 minutes and blow the toffs away. Nonetheless, they get hammered in the replay after the Etonians choose to play rugby instead of football with Suter, and keep wrestling him to the ground. Basically, this is the football version of Downton Abbey minus the endless luncheons — and it’s not very good.
For a football show, the sequences featuring the sport itself are embarrassingly weak. Nor is there any tactical insight about how the game was played in those early days, apart from Walsh telling Suter somewhat unconvincingly early on: “I’ve seen how you play in Scotland. Your passing game is the future of football.” Thankfully, such scenes are in short supply, with a number of supposed subplots involving impoverished pregnant women, their terribly “unfortunate” offspring, and more pregnant women — this time, well-to-do ones — hijacking the main narrative.
The series improves a tad when Suter is lured away by Blackburn Rovers. But again, The English Game falls prey to clichés. His teammates call him out for his betrayal — a typical working-class loyalty test that an ambitious, up-and-coming footballer like Suter was always destined to fail. To make an already platitudinous plot worse, Suter is given a grim backstory that is shown to be an alibi for his actions. But none of this, perhaps, is as disappointing as the fact that Suter’s “dazzling” football skills never really come through. Half the time his head is not in the game, and the other half he’s being knocked off the ball like a drunkard trying to direct traffic on the city’s busiest street.
The English Game could have been truly great — a precious glimpse into how the game went from being played by just the rich to one being eventually dominated by the masses; perhaps even a prescient warning on how too much money could ruin the game in the years to come. Unfortunately, it offers none of that, and that’s awfully sad.