Victorian Football

London FA and The English Game

by Ian Wallis, Deputy Chair of London FA
How Netflix's latest drama series has a backdrop of great relevance to London FA

With so much enforced leisure time, many of you will have been bingeing on an excess of Netflix programmes and may well have watched the six-part mini-series 'The English Game', written by Julian Fellowes, a member of the House of Lords who made his name with another historical drama, 'Downton Abbey'. 

This, his latest production, purported to be the story of the transformation of football from the amateur game, enjoyed and controlled by the upper classes from the universities and public schools in the South of England during Victorian times, into the truly national and later international sport that it remains to this day. The story is in fact a mixture of fact and fiction and the production itself somewhat clunky, but it is worth watching and is of particular interest to anyone connected to the London Football Association.

The London FA connection comes about because of the two central characters in the drama. One is Arthur (later Lord) Kinnaird, founder and the first President of the London Football Association, while the other is Fergus Suter, believed to be the first-ever professional footballer, while the story itself deals with the FA Cup competitions of 1882 and 1883.

To provide some historical perspective, the FA Cup was started in 1871 and was the brainchild of then FA Secretary Charles Alcock. It is the oldest and most prestigious cup competition in the world but in the early years was the exclusive preserve of the English upper classes. Alcock was an old boy of Harrow school and captained Wanderers, the winners of the first two FA Cup finals. They were a club created by a group of Old Harrovians. Kinnaird himself was an Old Etonian, while other teams that flourished in the early years of the FA Cup were the Old Carthusians and Oxford University.

'The English Game' commences with the quarter-final tie between the Old Etonians and a team of Lancashire mill workers from Darwen. They have ruffled a few feathers at FA headquarters by importing two Scottish footballers, Suter and Jimmy Love, to bolster their team, but still end up being eliminated after a replay. This really did happen, but in 1878 and not 1882, as historical accuracy goes out of the window in favour of dramatic license.

The Old Etonians eventually go through to the 1882 FA Cup Final where we are told they will play Blackburn at Kennington Oval, because it will of course be another 40 years before Wembley Stadium is available (it has not been built yet). 

Controversially, Fergus Suter is now transferred from Darwen to their rivals Blackburn so he can play in the final and ensure that the Northern mill workers can put the Southern toffs in their place. Playing for two clubs in the same season, surely not? 

We will let that pass however, as we struggle with Julian Fellowes's latest re-arrangement of history. 

The 1882 final paired the Old Etonians with Blackburn Rovers, but despite the inclusion of Suter, the Old Etonians scraped home by 1-0, so Fellowes got that bit right. 

It was the following season however, when he really takes liberties to make the facts fit his story as the Old Etonians prepare to play Blackburn again.

There were of course two leading Blackburn clubs in the 1880s and it was Blackburn Olympic and not Rovers who competed in the 1883 FA Cup Final. Fergus Suter never played for Olympic at all but stars in 'The English Game' version, scoring the winning goal while Arthur Kinnaird is seen battling away and putting in a series of tackles that would have made the late Norman Hunter proud. In reality Suter did not play in the match because he was now a Blackburn Rovers player but picked up three FA Cup-winning medals when his new club won each of the next three competitions. One fact that was correctly stated however is that 1883 was the last year that any of the old amateur teams got through to the FA Cup final, and just five years later The FA launched the Football League and the game moved forward into the modern era.

And what of Arthur Kinnaird? 

His playing career had been outstanding and he played in a record nine FA Cup finals, winning five of them. Those records looked as if they would stand forever and it was only as recently as 2010 when Ashley Cole became the first person to gain a sixth FA Cup win. Kinnaird also played international football for both England and Scotland, but it is as a top football administrator that he is of greatest interest to us.

In 1882, he became the first President of the London FA, a position that he held until his death in 1923. There have only been 10 London FA Presidents in the past 138 years and the present incumbent David Richbell has held the position since 2014. Long may he continue in office. 

The names of the Presidents and Vice Presidents are listed every year in the London FA Handbook and if you take the trouble to count them you will see that there have been exactly 100 Vice Presidents since Charles Alcock (that man who started the FA Cup and also in his spare time arranged the first-ever international football match, the teams being England and Scotland). When Graham Etchell became VP number 100 in 2018, he was continuing a noble line that travels back all the way to those aristocratic amateur gentlemen footballers who did so much to standardise the laws and create football as it is played today.

We at the London FA have done a lot to modernise ourselves in recent years but also need to remember our history and be proud of where we have come from.