Football’s greatest underdogs take to the stage

by James Haddrell, Artistic & Executive Director of Greenwich Theatre

We all love stories of underdogs and their successes. In this country more than most, or so it seems, the idea of the plucky upstart striving to confound expectations is hugely popular. Whether we are a nation of people who do not expect to win, or whether we like the drama of the unexpected victory, we love to see a David take on a Goliath.

Last year, on my annual pilgrimage to the Edinburgh Fringe, I discovered a show about a whole team of underdogs – aptly named The Giant Killers – and on 15 October for one night only I am delighted to be bringing the show to Greenwich.

Presented by Long Lane Theatre, the show tells the inspiring story of Darwen FC, the first ever working man’s team to compete in the FA Cup, who took on the ‘poshest’ side in the country, The Old Etonians.

The show was written by Andrew Pearson-Wright and his wife Eve, who are both in the cast of four. “I’d been writing a football script for a while” Andrew told me. “I had been scouring football history books as research when I came across a paragraph about the match that is at the centre of our play. I told Eve and we started researching together. We felt like detectives, discovering one amazing plot-twisting clue after another. The more we dug, the more gold was there. We spent every day saying ‘I can’t believe nobody has told this story before’.”

“The play isn’t just about football. It’s about class and inequality, it’s about family, bereavement and community. As all of those things took form we realised something else – we were writing our own story. We felt like underdogs, we had to scrimp and save and scrap and beg to get this story told. It’s been a long journey but we truly feel connected to this story.”

The Giant Killers is set in the early years of Association Football and follows the mill workers who defied all the odds to become the first working-class team in the country to play in the FA Cup.

“Left tired and despondent from the cotton famine of the 1870s, this small group of northern lads found pride and hope in a game that up until then had been reserved for the upper classes,” said Andrew. “Darwen FC rose up against prevailing social prejudice and the might of the Football Association to earn a place in history as the first real ‘giant-killers’ in English football. They scored a massive moral victory for all working class people. The team proved that passion and spirit is worth more than wealth and privilege. When the battlefield is the football pitch, everyone is equal, and this contest was where it all starts changing. It was the start of the working classes discovering football as a way out of the drudgery. And slowly they claimed it as their own.”

“In many ways football has improved” he concluded, “but it’s definitely not as accessible as it once was. This play is a throwback to the days when players and fans used to drink together in the pub after the match and the game was a compulsion not a business. If you like Brassed Off, Billy Elliot or The Full Monty then this is the play for you.”

The Giant Killers plays at Greenwich Theatre on 15 October.
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