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The English Game on Netflix
The English Game on Netflix

The English Game and the Dawn of Professionalism

In this edition, we address the question of who was the first professional? 

Fergus Suter? Perhaps the implication is there, but the Netflix drama does not explicitly state that Suter was the first professional, and there are references throughout the drama of ‘others’ being paid to play.  A quick internet search, however, would indicate that Suter probably was the first professional player.  Suter was by far the most famous Scottish import of the time.  Indeed, the epic 1879 FA Cup contest between Darwen and Old Etonians, fought over 3 matches (depicted as 2 matches in The English Game) caught the attention of the nation.  Suter would go on to play for Blackburn Rovers and win the FA Cup 3 years in a row, between 1884 and 1886, further cementing his place as the trailblazing Scottish pioneer and the flag bearer of early professionals.  But what of the ‘others’ referred to in The English Game.  There were certainly other Scottish imported players which had proceeded Suter and Love’s move to Darwen.  The key question that needs to be answered is:  Were they being paid to play?  Through painstaking research, Rough Jersey producer, and leading football historian, Mark Metcalf has uncovered information which establishes another pioneering Scot as the world’s first professional football player.



An article explaining the findings, co-authored by Mark Metcalf and Simon Mullock was recently published in the Sunday Mirror:

The English Game, the Netflix drama written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, tells of how two Scots, Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love, were tempted away from Partick in 1878 by the mill-owning benefactor of Lancastrian club Darwen.  The series depicts how football was wrested away from the gentlemen amateurs of the South by the working class professional teams of the industrial North and Midlands.


As both football historians and football fans, we at Rough Jersey are delighted that The English Game has brought that period of football to a wider audience, and has generated so much interest and debate about that era of football history.  We aim to contribute to the debate and have therefore identified several points raised by The English Game, on which, we intend to offer comment via a series of newsletters, in the coming weeks.

...By the time Suter and Love had made the journey south to Lancashire, fellow Scots Jimmy Lang and Peter Andrews were already settled in England - and thrilling fans on the opposite side of the Pennines.  Andrews was the first to move south of the border – in the autumn of 1876 – after playing alongside Lang in a Glasgow representative team that had beaten Sheffield and Hallam 2-0 in an annual challenge match played in front of a 6,000 crowd at Bramall Lane.  Andrews signed for Sheffield Heeley when he took residence in the city and made his debut against Thursday Wanderers in the Sheffield FA Challenge Cup on November 2, 1876.

For years, it was believed Andrews must have being paid to play.  But he was already 30 years old when he moved to South Yorkshire and his middle-class standing means it was unlikely that he would have accepted cash to play a game that was still strictly amateur.  Lang, who was 25 when he joined The Wednesday, was from more humble stock.  He lost an eye in an industrial accident while working in the Clydeside shipyard of John Brown and Co in 1869.  But that didn't halt his football career - and five yers later he was in the Clydesdale team beaten 2-0 by Queen's Park in the first-ever Scottish Cup final.


Lang had already won the first of two Scotland caps, scoring a goal in the 4-0 win over Wales in Glasgow, before making the 250-mile steam train journey to settle in Sheffield.  He was put on the payroll of a knife-making firm owned by Wednesday official Walter Fearnhough and made his debut for the club on November 25, 1876.  Newspaper reports confirm that Lang set up the Wednesday goal for Tom Butler, describing him as “the celebrated player who has come to reside here.” 



Match Review, 1876

The English Game

Fergus Suter & Jimmy Love - The English Game

It seems Lang was given considerable freedom to concentrate on his football rather than knife making.  He was even allowed to return to Scotland to play in another Scottish Cup final when his Third Lanark side were beaten 1-0 by Vale of Leven in 1878.  Lang helped The Wednesday win the Sheffield Challenge Cup three times and was also in the team that played in the club's first-ever FA Cup tie.  Later, he played for Attercliffe, Sheffield Zulus and Northwich Victoria.


Football historian Martin Westby said:

Peter Andrews did play before Lang but I am convinced by research done by fellow historian Graham Curry that Andrews was a middle-class man working close to the Heeley FC ground.  On the balance of probabilities this is a man who had no need for payment to play the game he loved and moved south for work reasons.  This is opposed to ex-shipyard worker Jimmy Lang, who in my opinion, travelled from Glasgow to Sheffield purely for football and remuneration reasons.


The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent

-28 November 1876


As stated in the article, Lang, a shipyard worker by trade, was given employment by The Wednesday director, Fearnhough, in his knife making firm.  Other reports of the period suggest that Lang, was given no formal duties at his place of work and spent his days reading the newspapers.  It is clear that Lang was, at the very least, a backdoor professional, and it's highly likely that word of Lang's status would have filtered back home to his native Scotland, precipitating the flood of fellow Scots pouring South of the border, such as Suter and Love.  It is for this reason that Jimmy Lang needs to be honoured as the World's first professional football player, and credited for putting in motion a chain of events which would lead to professionalism becoming legalised in the 1880s, giving young boys across the globe the dream of escaping poverty for a career in football,  and in turn giving us the game which we all know and love today.  



In Other News


Crystal Palace F.C. have caused quite a stir in the football world by laying  claim to the title of The World's Oldest League Club.  A claim which disregards Palace's own established founding year of 1905. 


Rough Jersey producers Clive Nicholson and Mark Metcalf have conducted a thorough investigation into the claim and compiled a 105 page report which details why the claims lack credibility.  The PDF report can be found on the website, or  downloaded directly via this link.