The not-so-beautiful game

BATTLE OF THE CLASSES: The English Game, coming to Netflix soon, is a drama based on the origins of soccer (or football) in the late 19th century.
netflix0503 BATTLE OF THE CLASSES: The English Game, coming to Netflix soon, is a drama based on the origins of soccer (or football) in the late 19th century.
Image: supplied
SCORE: Kevin Guthrie is a player on the working-class team.
kevinser SCORE: Kevin Guthrie is a player on the working-class team.
Image: supplied

Actors auditioning for Julian Fellowes's new period drama about soccer may have anticipated the need to show at least some flair for the sport.

But stars of the series were instead taught to play terribly to match the limited skill of 19th-century athletes who competed when the game was far from beautiful.

Fellowes revealed that his actors were specifically drilled in the dismal style of early sporting heroes, who slogged through matches in their pantaloons.

His first series for Netflix, The English Game, charts the class conflict between Old Etonians and toiling workers that forged the modern sport.

The writer believes the victory of the working class, with their innovations of actually passing the ball and being paid to play, set the British pastime on the path to global ubiquity.

Actors were dispatched to Manchester United's Carrington training ground to perfect the violent, cumbersome, antiquated game depicted in the series. A football expert instructed them in the style.

"It was much nearer (to) rugby," said Fellowes. "It was much more bruising. They played quite violently.

"This wouldn't be allowed for five seconds now."

The upcoming series stars Edward Holcroft as the aristocratic Arthur Kinnaird, a towering practitioner of early football who would later lead the Football Association.

Kevin Guthrie plays his Scottish working class rival, Fergus Suter, who helped bring the passing game to England, and is believed to be the first man paid to play soccer.

The conflict between their social classes and footballing styles drives the plot.

Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, said: "I didn't know that there was this class war at the beginning of the game. The fact that the working class essentially won it changed the shape of the game and gave it to the world."

Before the beautified game was adopted, players in a six-two-two formation would dribble with the ball, assisted by their intensely physical teammates blocking other players.

With even passing being a revolutionary innovation, the actors had to be drilled out of their own playing habits.

"We had to learn new skills," said Holcroft.

"We basically played a relaxed version of rugby. There wasn't a great deal of skill.

"Forget everything you know; forget all the football you know. Think about a ruck, how a rugby team would play. They were just smashing people."

Guthrie added: "The most challenging thing was dumbing the skills down, arrogant as that sounds, to just make passing the ball look difficult. It was a real challenge to make the game look less than what it is today."

Off the field The English Game shows social changes taking place in Britain in the late 19th century. Fellowes said football at this time was a "drama in miniature for what was happening in the whole of Western civilisation".

The series launches on Netflix on March 20. — The Daily Telegraph

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