'The English Game' on Netflix: The True Story Behind the Julian Fellowes Football Drama

As a follow-up to his TV series about the British class system Downton Abbey, writer Julian Fellowes has created another TV series about class, this time for Netflix.

Though Downton did feature real historical events, Fellowes' new TV show The English Game is actually based on real events that led to the birth of modern soccer (or as they call it in the U.K., football), which moved from being a game played by the upper classes to the national game of the United Kingdom.

Leading the Netflix series are two actors playing real people who were crucial to the development of soccer in the late 1800s. Edward Holcroft (Kingsman, London Spy) plays Arthur Kinnaird, the son of a baron who was educated at the prestigious Eton College during the time when Eton was one of the public schools pioneering the game of soccer. He would go on to be one of his generation's best players, first for Wanderers and then for the team he is part of in The English Game, the Old Etonians.

Fantastic Beasts star Kevin Guthrie, meanwhile, plays Fergus Suter, another noted soccer player of the time who came from a much more humble background. Born in Scotland, Suter was a stonemason who played soccer in Scotland, where the technique of passing the ball from player to player across the field was perfected. Players in England at the time preferred to attack their rivals in a block, hoping to get the ball from one side of the pitch to the other using brute force.

In the first episode of The English Game, we see Kinnaird and the Old Etonians take on Suter, playing for Darwen in an FA Cup quarter-final match. This was a real game that took place at Eton in 1879, when Darwen were the first working class team to make the quarter finals of the FA Cup. They would go on to be one of the first working class teams to win the competition.

the english game true story
Edward Holcroft (standing) plays the real-life character of Arthur Kinnaird in 'The English Game' on Netflix. Netflix

Later, the series tackles a controversy in the game that put Suter into soccer history books forever. When Suter moved from Darwen to Blackburn Rovers, the former accused the latter of paying Suter to play for them—something that at that time was illegal in the game, and would be until 1885. However, Suter would go on to become one of the game's first professional players.

Andy Mitchell, a football historian and consultant on The English Game, told The Telegraph of this: "Suter was one of the first professionals. There were people at Sheffield as well who may or may not have been professionals, but Suter was definitely the first one to admit to it.

"He opened the eyes of English clubs—he was a middle-ranking Scottish guy who could vastly improve a team, so they started looking for other footballers who were of a certain talent and available to come down. And before you knew it, there was a flood of them."

It is this point, The English Game argues, that soccer becomes the national game. At the moment that working class people could make money playing the game, it opened soccer up to everyone, as working class people did not have to train whilst also holding down the intense manual labor jobs that most men did in the 19th century.

The game also transformed working class leisure time, as Fellowes detailed to The Telegraph: "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."

The English Game is streaming now on Netflix.