Julian Fellowes’ new Netflix drama The English Game helps tell the story of football’s early days.

The series includes the dramatic 1879 FA Cup quarter-final between upper class team Old Etonians and their working class opponents from Lancashire, Darwen FC as they battled to an incredible 5-5 draw.

Darwen FC played a key role in the early days of football, alongside local rivals Blackburn Rovers.

While Rovers have gone on to become English champions three times and six-time winners of the FA Cup, neighbouring Darwen FC’s story is not as glittering.

Darwen FC began life in 1870 playing rugby football rules, before switching to association football midway through the decade.

During this time they recorded a number of firsts including the first team to play a match under floodlights (1878), the first northern team to reach the FA Cup quarter finals (1879) and - allegedly - the first team to pay a wage to a footballer. It’s alleged because paying footballers as professionals during this period was not allowed so any payments had to be concealed.

The arrival of two Scottish players now thought to be professionals, Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love, from Partick FC in 1879, helped inspire Darwen’s cup run.

That season they travelled to The Oval in London to take on the gentlemen of Old Etonians in the FA Cup quarter-final. Despite trailing 5-1 at the interval, a second-half brace from Jimmy Love helped the Lancashire side pull off a stirring comeback to draw the match at 5-5.

The two sides couldn’t be separated in the replay which finished 2-2, and it took a third match to settle the tie with Old Etonians running out 6-2 winners.

Darwen FC in 1879 with Fergie Suter lying down at the front
Darwen FC in 1879 with Fergie Suter lying down at the front

Nevertheless a marker had been laid down. Darwen’s run helped change FA Cup rules which at the time said the final three rounds had to be played in London.

In 1881 they went a stage further, going on a run to the semi-finals which included a 15-0 victory over Romford in the last eight.

In between those cup highlights Darwen also became the first ever winners of the Lancashire Challenge Cup in 1880 when they beat bitter rivals Blackburn Rovers.

Love and Suter also left. Love joined the Royal Marines Light Infantry before dying in Egypt in 1882 while Suter made the controversial hop across town to join Rovers.

Darwen missed out on an invitation to join the newly-created Football League in 1888, having to wait another three years when they joined for the 1891-1892 season.

Their stay didn’t last long; they finished bottom of the table and were not re-elected to stay in the league for the following season.

The club then yo-yoed between the First and Second Divisions, being promoted in 1893 and relegated again in 1894.

Darwen stayed in the Second Division until 1899 when they were relegated out of the Football League entirely, never to return.

Football league exit

Their final season in league football was an ignominious one; they went on an 18-match losing run which included three 10-0 defeats. Other defeats included three 6-0s, a 7-0, an 8-1, and 8-0, a 9-2 and a 9-0.

Darwen’s season ended with two wins out of 34, 22 goals scored and a whopping 141 conceded, leaving them with an embarrassing goal difference of -119.

After leaving the Football League, Darwen then spent most of the 20th century playing in Lancashire competitions. From 1899 to 1904 they were in the Lancashire League, winning the competition in 1902, before joining the Lancashire Combination in 1904.

Darwen remained in the Lancashire Combination leagues for more than 70 years, becoming champions four times in 1931, 1932, 1972 and 1975.

Darwen's FA Cup highlight in the 20th century was a third round tie away at league champions Arsenal in 1932 where they lost 11-1
Darwen's FA Cup highlight in the 20th century was a third round tie away at league champions Arsenal in 1932 where they lost 11-1

Their FA Cup highlight during this time was a third round tie away at reigning league champions Arsenal in January 1932. Despite an 11-1 defeat, Arsenal were so impressed with their opponents' sportsmanship that they presented the club with a set of their own red and white playing colours, which Darwen adopted as their home strip.

After joining the Cheshire County League in 1976 they then became one of the founding members of the North West Counties League in 1982, made up of clubs from Shropshire up to Cumbria and across to West Yorkshire. In 1998 the club was relegated to the second division of the North West Counties League.

The end of Darwen FC

The first attempt to wind up Darwen FC came in December 2003 over unpaid brewery bills.

The club escaped liquidation, but in April 2008 another winding up petition was brought by The Bee radio station, with the club owing £8,000 for advertising.

Darwen FC went out of business in 2009 after 134 years of playing football
Darwen FC went out of business in 2009 after 134 years of playing football

The club paid up two days before the case was set to go to court.

But it was a case of third time unlucky for Darwen in May 2009. Thwaites Brewery and ING Lease UK claimed they were owed £13,000 for bar and £9,000 for grass-cutting equipment respectively.

Owner Kevin Henry - who took over in July 2008 - said the debts related to the tenure of previous bosses. His offer to personally fund providing creditors with 25p in the pound was turned down.

On May 14 2009 Darwen FC was wound up and ceased to exist after 134 years of playing football.

AFC Darwen

Immediately after the liquidation of Darwen FC a new club, AFC Darwen, was formed with the aim of regaining a place in the North West Counties League.

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The FA announced that AFC Darwen must start at step .. in the football pyramid, with their debut season in the West Lancashire Football League.

At the end of its first season the club was elected into the North West Counties League, playing in Division One North where they stayed until 2015 when they won promotion to the North West Counties League Premier Division.

AFC Darwen stayed in the Premier Division for three seasons before relegation back into Division One in 2018, where they remain.