The English Game (Photo: Oliver Upton / Netflix).
The English Game (Photo: Oliver Upton / Netflix).

Netflix’ “The English Game” Useful for History Teaching

Netflix series reviewed by three history teachers from three countries

One of the latest Netflix specials is called “The English Game” and deals with the origins of the game of football. Reviews have been appearing from societal viewpoints (The Guardian) as well as the more history-oriented fact-checking. We, however, chose to have a virtual sit-down with three history educators from Northern Ireland, The Netherlands and the United States for a review.

Denver Charles (DC), history teacher, is Head of History and Citizenship at Magherafelt High School Belfast, United Kingdom and President of the History Teachers Association of Northern Ireland (HTANI).

John Grech (JG) is a history teacher at El Molino High School, San Francisco Bay Area, United States.

Marcel Put (MP) is a history and economy teacher at the Bernardinuscollege in Heerlen, The Netherlands

In conversation, they all attribute different purposes to the series: As a tool to discuss human interactions during the Industrial Revolution, or as a way to relate better to young people today who have a large interest in the world of sport? Our history educators also see a series like this as an opportunity to explore how the romanticisation of history, asking – for example – if factories were really that clean in the past?

What is the series about?

DC:   It is really just a very light series about the expansion of football into working class areas in the late 19th Century. Does it really give us any great insights into what really happened? Probably not. It is a dramatisation of what may or may not have occurred and how the passing game overtook the scrummaging Old Etonian style to propel football into the hearts and minds of the working classes, from Darwen to Blackburn and beyond to the world. I have a feeling that it took a few more years to promote the pass and move game that is depicted. I did say that it is not really the most in depth study of football, but it might be the need of football that is instilled by this lockdown that made me hope that Darwen would win that Quarter-Final. Of course, I am driven to wonder how much truth there is in any of it and this will lead to further research.

JG:   That very research, inspired by curiosity, is exactly what I hope my lessons spark in students. While the purpose of all film is to entertain, building on it by learning the real history and appreciating it as a catalyst for discussion and thought is up to us.

MP:   Problems, opportunities, choices. How do you make the right decisions and by doing that stay loyal to your family, friends, community, club, class and yourself? In other words how can you do what in your own opinion is the right thing to do without alienating yourself from others? In the The English Game the main characters, Scottish working-class man Fergus Suter and banker’s son Arthur Kinnaird, face these challenges at the end of the nineteenth century. Normally the chance of them meeting in that time of history would be zero. But in the English Game it is made possible because they share the same passion: football. Around 1880 a young sport which is spreading gradually over the British isle. It is through football that their lives will be intertwined. And not only their lives but the lives of several other people. Against the background of early football in the second Industrial Revolution people love and hate each other, become friendly, jealous, aware, responsible, compassionate and understanding. And as far as the main characters are concerned football will create a kind of respect, even friendship between them. The last being a mildly anachronistic and sentimental feelgood message to the viewers. But before that happens there are a lot of problems and obstacles to overcome. These are partly of a personal kind. It concerns for instance the relation between father and son and how to be a responsible adult man who is sure of what he believes and sticks to it, even when it means risking to lose your best friend. Other problems are broader: who has the power? The power to pay low wages and demand that men work 12 to 14 hours a day in a factory and all the problems that come with that for the working class like poverty, ‘fatherless’ children, violence and denying the working class man to play for money and so give them the chance to become good football players. And there is of course the power of men over women and the power to make the rules of a game, in this case football. The question that rises is of course: will there be change? And if so what will that change be?

How could it appeal to young people today?

DC:   It is fun. Two great footballers are brought to a sleepy town and they fight to be accepted by the local Darwen mill team, where they change the philosophy of the game through an uncomplicated football that is pass and move, predating Shankley and Paisley at Liverpool. There are references to playing in a pyramid where you can hit the opposition on the break and the importance of width makes a huge difference. Lofty statements abound throughout such as ‘the game feeds the soul, nothing else.’ Pity help us if we are knocked ‘out of the bloody cup.’ After dealing with an aggressive style of football that almost unleashes an angry mob, a more nuanced and skillful form of football emerges and wins the FA Cup. The FA Cup is still the real cup for many football fans, especially Spurs fans like myself. I think it is fun and it shouldn’t be overly lauded as an in depth look at the birth of the game nor overly derided for just being a piece of fluff. It is somewhere in between. A solid 5 or 6.

JG:   I give it a 6 precisely because I do see it resonating with young people today. As they find their roles and interest in and out of the world of sports, deciding what they have to contribute to a team or a company, they will be heartened to know that the struggle they feel does not originate with them. Navigating conflicts with classmates, parents, or teammates is integral to maturity. Young people sense this and are drawn to scenarios of a hero’s journey. How the heroes in this series come from multiple age groups, social classes, football clubs, and political persuasions is important in defining what it means to be heroic, wherever we start in life.

MP:   Yes. First because it is about people and their feelings. The main characters are trying to find out who they are and what is important in (their) life. Young people, age 12 to 25 are facing the same identity questions. Secondly it is fun to watch and as a viewer you want to know how things will end for the characters you are introduced to. The way you learn about their lives is quite light-hearted. The characters are a bit one-dimensional. This makes the series easy to watch and to understand. Thirdly there is something for everybody. Rivalry, romance, good and bad guys, friendship, married life, upstairs-downstairs, costumes, history and of course football.

Are there stories in the series that illustrate societal issues, such as migration, diversity, identity? If yes, what do they show and tell?

DC:   The more interesting elements that are depicted by the series include the changing economic environment during the later Industrial Revolution and how ebbs and flows affected the lives of the workers. There is no doubt that this was a more militant age of worker involvement in wage bargaining and the series does give a portrayal of what life would have been like for the workers, possibly not as grim as it actually was, and quite a bit of it seemed to be spent down the pub. I do like the fact that societal issues such as adoption of children who were born out of wedlock formed a part of this series, as this was certainly a real issue for many decades beyond the Victorian period. The depiction of a sort of ‘noblesse oblige’ spirit as the Kincaird family intervenes in once case, may be a romantic ode to the birth of One Nation Conservatism. However, these issues were real and at the core of this very light series, it does depict the real class divisions that existed in 19th Century Britain.

JG:   I was moved by the main character’s struggle to overcome his wretched father. The need to succeed despite less-than-perfect parenting is central to growing up. Sure, alcoholism was portrayed simply and one-dimensionally but Fergus Suter’s success on and off the pitch could really be a source of inspiration for today’s youth going through not so dissimilar life challenges. I was also struck by the fear of change we see in many of the characters. Looking back, it’s easy to see change toward professionalism as inevitable in a capitalistic world, but fear of the unknown is very real in every time period, especially for people finishing school during the Covid-19 fear. Fear of the transition from student to worker for pay is virtually universal but we manage it and grow internally from the challenge. Here is where sports, and the series, contribute to validating our identity and sense of self.

MP:   The same is to be said about the societal problems of the late nineteenth century. Society is presented in a simple, not over complicated way. There is a strike and a riot because of a wage cut for the millworkers. But the underlying economic reasons for the wagecut are no part of the story. Understandable, The English Game is a drama series with people we must be able to relate to and not a documentary. Therefore the factory looks clean and bright, a young widow with no job lives in a nice little house, the workers spend a lot of time in the pub and travelling goes pretty easy (and sometimes very fast). Another storyline, besides the football, is about unmarried mothers, their children and charity. And there is the everlasting struggle with change: will it be enforced by the people who want something else or can it be stopped by the conservative powers in society. The change we see in the series mainly concerns the football. Do the workingmen get a chance to compete seriously in football, in other words will payment in football be allowed? Will the conservative gentlemen, here the Old Etonians, share what they consider as their game with the common folk? The outcome of this struggle is clear. The old Greeks stated already ‘panta rhei’ (everything is in motion), so the well-educated Old Etonians, should have known better.

Are there elements which are useful for usage in history education?

DC:   It is possible that this could form part of a background to illustrating conditions during later 19th Century Industrial Britain. However, perhaps it could be used as a way of inspiring students to go and investigate fully what the true story of the birth of football was. This could possibly become a project to investigate the early clubs, the early figures and the conflicts that existed in the early period as football was about to expand. I think that it can be used as an obviously flawed stimulus material to further work.

JG:   One of the more challenging units to resonate with my World Civilizations students is the Industrial Revolution. Going from an agricultural-based economy and largely rural society to ones based on factory technology and wage labor so fast must have been a mind-blowing time to be alive. There were Luddites, fighting advancements at every turn, as well as the Andrew Carnegies of the world driving the inevitable momentum toward mass production. Clearly a point of entry for young minds observing the incredible changes taking place in their world today is the evolution of sports. When I consider how my formal education just 30 years ago prepared me for the professional world compared to demands of high school and college graduates today, I am left very unsure of myself. High tech skills needed for today’s jobs are changing by the minute it seems. The evolution from amateur to professional football must have been a similar shock to the human condition, right down to the skills needed to play the game. Perhaps what the wide pass was to soccer, the home run was to baseball: effective, popular and transformative in how we see the game, much like how we see a changing economy. And how that all plays out politically in the series is also a fascinating look at the working class vs. aristocrats then, much like democratic vs. authoritarian leadership today.

MP:   Because The English Game is dramatized history almost everything can be used in history education. The only question a history teacher has to ask is ‘What in the series is (not) based on historical facts and insights we have at the moment?’ and ask for an elaborate answer on how things were around 1880. Because there is so much it is sensible to assign a few topics to the students. Here it helps that there is ‘something for everybody’ as I earlier stated. It is this research that learns students a lot about history. Not only facts, at least not in the first place. But why people act as they do in certain circumstances, how they deal with each other and with (problems in) society as a whole. The historical facts will come to them in that way and probably stick better in their memories. Through their research they will find out what the real living conditions of factory workers in Lancashire were at that time, what influence the starting globalization had on Lancashire, Britain and the world, that there was no welfare state but poor people depended on charity of the rich and that the story told about the (professionalizing of) football is not a scientific account of historical events, but a (mis)use of facts to be fitted in an imaginary plot. The result is (hopefully) that they will look more critical at history-themed movies and see that in a lot of ‘historical drama’ it’s not about history, but about the human sensation and emotion. The chosen historical setting is (mostly) just there for appearance, not to present past as historians have unravelled it. For that account a similar story could have been told in the Germany of the nineteen thirties or Northern Ireland during the Troubles. But then the racial doctrine or faith would have been the historical theme, not football. But with all this useful content there is a problem. This is by the way not exclusive for The English Game, although it being six episodes long makes it even more difficult. I’m referring to the length of a movie or series and the fact that we all want to see it all. For the lessons to be learned as stated above it will be enough to select some scenes and ask specific questions about them. But for the students this is most of the time very unsatisfying. It helps if the scenes the teacher wants to use are preselected and put together, so the students don’t know (immediately) that there is much more. And an advantage of this age is that students can watch the film on their own devices in their own time.

Are there elements which are useful for youth work and non-formal education?

JG:   As students near the end of their formal education, transition from the classroom to the workplace can be furthered by projects, internships and job training that all take place outside of school. School sports here in the States border on obsessive and fanatical when, at the high school level, the stakes are objectively very small. (University sports are a different matter.) But they don’t feel that way. The English Game revealed a message I hope all young people take to heart: acting on a cause, using your skills, whatever they are, can effect substantive change. In the series those changes ranged from a more just, compassionate child adoption process and mothers’ rights to democratizing rule-making bodies like the Football Association. The other message I took that has professional importance is that how we conduct ourselves often matters more than what we know. Controlling our passions of the moment is central to our success in jobs, whatever they may be, and in personal relationships so key to our happiness.

MP:   Outside the classroom The English Game can be used as a means to start discussions in a group about loyalty, power, (in)equality, change, human relations and values people hold. The in the series depicted world of football in around 1880 Britain/Lancashire functions as a small society which can be viewed at, commented on and be compared to students’ own lives. For those who are very much into football I would recommend to compare the football tactics of that time by carrying them out. The arrowhead versus the passing game.

In conclusion

In our Football Makes History team, an avalanche of interest in football and its history. The English Game, among others, is an opportunity for the public at large to explore this past.

In history education, time is a scarce resource, but the pre-existing interest in sport and football, and the availability of high quality production, makes it interesting for teachers to bring past eras to life through something very recognisable: kicking a ball on a pitch.

In our conversation, the teachers have shown that there is more to say about the utility of such a work of entertainment for learning than facts or accuracy. There are matters of perspectives and human stories.

We look forward to see more and other works of fiction on the history of football, in particular in relation to cultural and/or social changes and challenges.

The only question a history teacher has to ask is ‘What in the series is (not) based on historical facts and insights we have at the moment?’ and ask for an elaborate answer on how things were around 1880.

Let’s review

The English Game (Photo: Oliver Upton / Netflix).
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