The English Game on Netflix, the new series from Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame, explores class struggle through the development of the game of football. The central character and star footballer who creates a bridge between the wealthy and working classes is Arthur Kinnaird, played by Edward Holcroft.
Kinnaird plays a version of the classic folk hero Robin Hood. There are many iterations of the Robin Hood story, but the one that most aligns here is that of a wealthy man who falls in love with a poor maid, then gets a glimpse into the unfair circumstances in which she lives. In response to this realisation, Robin Hood steals from his fellow wealthy aristocrats and gives the loot directly to the poor communities that need it.
Arthur Kinnaird’s love of football is what opens his eyes to the inequities between classes. The characters joke many times in the series that Kinnaird loves football more than his wife, something which in turn draws him to others who have an equal love of the game.
Kinnaird garners respect for a new style of football cultivated by two Scottish working-class players. They are brought into play for a working-class English team from the town of Darwin. Kinnaird’s high-class Old Etonians are almost defeated in a playoff match against them. Kinnaird is pressed early on to help expose the Darwin team for paying players as all football at this stage was strictly amateur. He, at this point, still believes in upholding conditional rules and elitism within the game. However, Kinnaird is too taken by the new style the Scottish players have introduced and seeks to see how it advances the game.
As a strike by the mill workers who play for the Darwin team unfolds, Kinnaird goes to the town to investigate. He works under his father for a bank that has forced a wage deduction on the workers. Workers chase Kinnaird from a rally as they go to riot due to terms not being agreed from their strike. Kinnaird is helped to hide by a local man who doesn’t believe violent riots are humane or will lead to change. That man goes to warn the head of the Mill Owners Guild that he is about to be attacked.
However, due to elitist prejudice, the man ends up being accused of breaking and entering into the head of the guild’s home. Kinnaird, through this whole experience, gets to see first-hand the way of life for working-class mill workers. He also gains respect for their determination. Kinnaird confronts the head of the Mill Owners Guild at the trial and defends his new friend, even agreeing to go into business with him. The judge drops the charges and Arthur embarks on a business partnership with the man manufacturing football jerseys.
Kinnaird as a character represents a person who is unfortunately missing from society. This is someone powerful and wealthy who actively seeks out an understanding of the way of life for the working class, one who offers to invest in and defend those from a lower social stratum than himself. Along the way, Kinnaird also learns that the working-class town has put money into a pot to pay the players while they are on strike. This is so they can travel to their next game because the team means so much to the town. Kinnaird then goes back to his daily life with a new point of view.
As a new championship game looms between Old Etonians and Blackburn, a newly formed super team for another working-class town, Kinnaird’s wealthy friends betray him. They vote to eliminate Blackburn from competition for paying players. They exclude Kinnaird from the vote due to their discovery of his newfound empathy and passion for the working class and their ideals. Kinnaird, at this point, stands up to his wealthy friends by defending the working-class players payment. He references the meaning of the game to these small towns. Kinnaird sees their necessity for the escapism football provides and how the sport can provide them joy in contrast to the hard work for little pay that is the population’s routine.
Most importantly, in response to their cheating accusations he explains how the wealthy teams have an unfair advantage in time to train, a full night’s sleep, and resources. Paying players, that would otherwise be unable to commit as much effort to football, only evens the scale. Kinnaird throws their privilege in their face and they respond by shunning him in a process he helped create.
Kinnaird appeals to the board who voted to disqualify Blackburn and threatens to break off from their league entirely with the working-class teams and be the latter’s new league president. This forces his wealthy friends to fold on their ruling and reinstate the working-class team into the championship game.
While Kinnaird is like Robin Hood in intention, his theft – rather than of money and objects – was of his wealthy friends’ ownership and privilege. They felt possessive of the game they had created and were stubborn about relinquishing control. Kinnaird’s threat, as the most significant player in the sport, to leave and stand with the working class, in turn, stole the game from the elite.
Like Robin Hood, Kinnaird was motivated to steal by his disillusionment with wealthy class pride. The rich held the power and resources to deny access to the poor. They were unwilling to share without force. Kinnaird believed that the game was becoming more significant than the small box that the elite wanted to keep it inside. He saw the potential of football to be a worldwide phenomenon and believed in inclusivity rather than entitlement.
In the real world now, the idea of a wealthy man engrained in that lifestyle intentionally becoming aware of the working-class struggle, then turning on his elitist peers to fend for the working class’ wants seems impossible. The English Game attempts to show real progress could exist with the help of someone like Kinnaird.
There is no proof that Arthur Kinnaird took any action in his actual life that measures up to what he does in the series. Yet his made-up existence is the most crucial of any character when it comes to giving the show purpose. The English Game challenges the aristocrats, the privileged, and the owners of the world to attempt to be open to and empathise with their workers. Then to, in turn, stand up for the latter’s rights with an inherent understanding that the wealthy live more uncomfortable lives.
The English Game shows that the results of this type of action could create something as significant to the world as football is now. The examples of an Arthur Kinnaird within society today and in history are somewhere from few and far between to nonexistent. As the wealth gap grows by the day, we can only hope a Kinnaird appears.