The FA and London Underground have more in common than you'd think

The Football Association is 150 years old this month - so, too, is the London Underground. But the similarities don't stop there.

Ron Greenwood.
Former West Ham manager Ron Greenwood holds the FA Cup on the tube in 1964. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

At first sight and first thought there is absolutely no connection between association football and the London Underground. How could there be – one is a popular ball game and the other is a transport system located in London. But they do have, by chance, at least one thing in common: each was created in London exactly 150 years ago, in 1863. The FA’s 150th birthday is next week, 26 October. Well done, FA.

They are two of Britain’s more important contributions to life on the planet. Not only did our football go round the world, so did the Tube. Two years ago, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea. How about doing a combined biography?

In fiction, it is quite common to be following the stories of different people who, in the end, somehow come together – or not, depending on how artsy the novel. Why can’t a non-fiction book have two different narratives, running side by side? I have around 2,000 football books, mags and souvenirs. I’m also fascinated by the Tube and collect old Tube maps, my best stuff being some original artwork by Harry Beck. In 1933, he produced the Tube’s iconic map, one of the greatest ever creations of graphic art.

Why did it take so long? The various lines that made up the London Underground had come together to promote themselves in 1909, yet until Beck, Tube maps looked like a plate of spaghetti. In football, I have always puzzled why it took until 1888 for the Football League to be formed, introducing leagues and points, when organised football had been going since 1863. Mysteries, mysteries.

There is an interesting coincidence at the very beginning. The first official international football game ever played was in Glasgow in 1872, between Scotland and England (result: 0-0). The first underground railway outside London was guess where? Glasgow – opened in 1886. They each spent money and hired the best contemporary architects, letting the world see how grand they were. A Scotsman called Archibald Leitch built many of the great football stadiums, such as Highbury, Hillsborough, Stamford Bridge and Craven Cottage, most of them now listed buildings. Many of our pre-war Tube stations, with their distinctive tiling, are now also listed.

The Tube system, as it expanded, helped the rise of a new human species: the commuter. It led to the growth of the London suburbs. Football created football reporters, football newspapers and now Sky TV.

The Tube and football combined when it came to big national events. The Tube laid on extra transport for the millions wanting to watch the first FA Cup final at Wembley in 1923 and the London Olympics of 1948. In 1933, football and London Underground histories coincided when Gillespie Road Tube station, at the suggestion of the Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman, was renamed Arsenal.

The First Word War brought workingclass women into the munitions factories, who played football in their lunch hour and then formed teams. Some 53,000 turned out at Goodison in 1920 to see Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, from a Preston factory, play St Helens Ladies. A similar thing happened with the Tube – when the men went off to war, women were recruited to replace them. In 1915 the newly opened Maida Vale Tube station was run entirely by women.

In 1956, London Transport sent recruitment officers to Barbados who came back with 70 new members of staff. At the time, there were no black footballers in Britain. British coaches considered black players soft, unable to stand our climate and culture. Today, 32 per cent of the Underground’s non-clerical employees are non-white, which, by coincidence, is similar to the non-white proportion of players in the Premiership.

George Orwell and John Galsworthy set scenes on the Tube, as did Iris Murdoch. John Betjeman wrote several poems with a Tube setting. Arnold Bennett and J B Priestley both had long descriptions of football games in their novels. Oh, what fun I’d have had, what riches to write about. But every publisher said: Nah, boring. People who like football don’t want to read about the Tube. And vice versa. Ah well, got a column out of it.