The English Game – Netflix’s Exciting Football Series Analysed

Thanks to a sleepless night, I got to listening to the latest Stacey West podcast in the early hours of this morning, writes Richard Godson.

Glossing over Gary’s guilty pleasure and if I never shake his hand again it won’t be down to the coronavirus, I heard Ben and Gary touch on the current Netflix series, The English Game. Gary was not particularly enthusiastic, hardly surprising after Ben’s description of it and opined that he probably wouldn’t watch it. I think he should and here’s why.

Ed – Pictures for this article have come from the book Ladybird ‘Easy-Reading’ Book “The Story of Football” which you can buy on the link. Hopefully, by pushing the book, they won’t mind too much we’ve borrowed some of the graphics. Hopefully. 

The Background

The series is set around the turn of the 1880s and is based on the metamorphosis of football from the southern, middle and upper class, amateur game it had hitherto been into the initially northern, but generally working class, professional game we recognise today. Up until the second half of the nineteenth century, football was the preserve of privileged, privately educated gentlemen who had played the game at their schools formed teams comprising fellow old boys of their respective schools, such as Eton College (Old Etonians) who still exist and play in the Arthurian League and Charterhouse School (Old Carthusians). Around this time, the men who worked in the northern mills and factories began to form their own teams, still amateur, so they too could play the game and pass what little spare time they had.

Up until 1863 teams had their own set of rules, few of which were the same as each other’s. Regionalisation of rules had taken place. For example Sheffield Rules were adopted by teams in the north of England. Probably the only universal rule was that the ball should never be carried, except among those teams who played the style pioneered by Rugby School from 1823. In those days up to 20 men played in a team. Incredible as it may seem, one other rule they apparently worked out before 1863 was what constituted offside. The formation of the Football Association in this year brought about a standardisation of the laws of the game with the number of players being reduced to 11, Teams consisted of a goal keeper, a full back, a half back and 8 (yes eight) forwards who played what I suppose could be described as a kick and rush style of football. Any opponent who got in the way, whether he had the ball or not, was brushed aside, knocked over or otherwise physically assaulted. During the course of the next two decades the game evolved into the 5 – 3 – 2 formation that endured into the early years of my life when a centre half was a midfielder.

An inaugural game using the new FA rules was initially scheduled for Battersea Park on 2 January 1864, but enthusiastic members of the FA could not wait for the new year and the first game under FA rules was played at Mortlake on 19 December 1863 between Morley’s Barnes team and their neighbours Richmond (who were not members of the FA), ending in a goalless draw. The Richmond side were obviously unimpressed by the new rules in practice because they subsequently helped form the Rugby Football Union in 1871

The Football Association Cup was inaugurated in 1871 at which time the likes of Old Etonians, Old Harrovians and Old Carthusians still dominated. Charles Alcock of Harrow School who played for Wanderers and became secretary and treasurer of the FA in 1870, had masterminded its creation. Fifteen participating clubs subscribed to purchase a trophy. The very first Cup Final was held at The Oval on 16 March 1872, fought between the Wanderers and the Royal Engineers (RE), watched by 2,000 spectators.


The 1880 – 1881 FA Cup competition around which the Netflix series is set features some interesting teams and here are a few of the first round results:

Darwen 8 – 0 Brigg
Sheffield 5 – 4 Blackburn Olympia
Brentwood 0 – 10 Old Etonians
Blackburn Rovers 6 – 2 Providence
Old Carthusians 7 – 0 Saffron Walden Town
Stafford Road 7 – 0 Spilsby
Calthorpe 1 – 2 Grantham

I have selected these results deliberately, not only to include some of the teams featured in the series but also to show that teams from Lincolnshire were taking part in the competition’s earliest days. One of the games shown in an episode is that between Darwen and Brigg.


  1. Same here Kelvin, did all the episodes over 2 days, I found it quite enjoyable, really showed the divide between the working class and the public school boys.

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