FA CUP matches involving Darwen Football Club have been just about the only soccer on television over the past couple of weeks because of the world-wide cancellations due to the pandemic. Fans lapped it up and it didn’t seem to matter that the games came from over 140 years ago.

The long-awaited Netflix production of Julian Fellowes’ The English Game tells the story of how mill-team Darwen played a part in turning a sport for toffs into a game for the ordinary working man.

The first part was screened two weekends back and four more episodes are on their way.

Viewers just have to remember that it’s a drama not a documentary, but based on fact and entertaining in an “us-and-them” sort of way, focusing on the quarter-final clash in the FA Cup of 1879 against the Old Etonians captained by Lord Kinnaird.

The Darwen star was stonemason Fergus Suter, backed by his street-cleaner pal James Love.

They had travelled down from Partick in Scotland to join Darwen with the promise of being well paid when times were hard as cotton mills were struggling in the aftermath of the Cotton Famine of a decade earlier.

Suter and Love brought their quick-flowing, passing game south and helped to transform the game in England where ‘kick-rush-clout” more aptly describes it.

But if the Partick pair were the first professionals, who was the chap who paid their generous wages?

Writer Fellowes – Gosforth Park and Downton Abbey – is quite clear in naming their benefactor as James Walsh, who took over from his father Nathaniel in running Orchard Mill and Darwen Paper Mill in the 1870s.

James and his three brothers had been keen footballers at Harrow and Eton.

Once they returned to Darwen, they set up the town football club’s headquarters at their home, Orchard Bank and then later at the Alexandra Hotel. Darwen’s ground was just across the way, off Hindle Street.

Darwen historian Tony Foster and a pal Andy Boocock reckon, however, that the first man ever to finance football players was probably another Darwen worthy – Charles P Huntington of Belgrave Mill.

He would have been very rich and certainly well able to support the team.

It is known that CP helped to finance several expensive trips to London for Darwen players and officials - trips which were also supported by the poor working folk whose pennies and sixpences quickly mounted up.

There were fund-raising evenings at the Co-operative Hall in School Street and everyone played a part in the David v Goliath encounters.

The first recorded match in Darwen was in the winter of 1870-71 when a team from the Walsh family’s Orchard Mill – Perspex company Lucite occupies the area now – and a side from New Mill which was in Union Street.