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.

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.

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

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Tory right-wingers are furious about Big Ben – but it’s their time that’s running out

They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock.

Jeremy Corbyn, it is often said, wants to take Britain back to the 1970s.

The insult is halfway to an insight. It’s true that the Labour leader and his inner circle regard British economic policy since the late 1970s as an extended disaster that led to the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the European Union: a “failed experiment”, as Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s influential policy chief, puts it in his 2014 book of the same name.

The Labour leader views the 1970s not as a blighted decade waiting for a saviour, but as a time when trade unions still had teeth, privatisation was not treated as a panacea and inequality was lower.

Theresa May doesn’t see the past four decades in quite the same light, but she does believe that the Brexit vote was, in part, the destabilising consequence of an economic settlement that has left too many people in Britain without a stake in society. This means, for now at least, an ideology that was until recently a consensus has no defenders at the top of either party.

May’s successor might conceivably be an unrepentant cheerleader for free markets and the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, but as things stand, whoever replaces May faces an uphill battle to be anything other than a brief pause before Corbyn takes over. Because of the sputtering British economy and the prospect of a severe downturn after Brexit – coupled with the Labour leader’s rising personal ratings – it is the opposition that has momentum on its side, in both senses of the word.

All of which might, you would expect, trigger panic among members of the Conservative right. Neoliberalism is their experiment, after all, the great legacy of their beloved Margaret Thatcher. Yet while there are a few ministers and backbenchers, particularly from the 2010 intake, who grasp the scale of the threat that Corbynism poses to their favoured form of capitalism, they are outnumbered by the unaware.

For the most part, the average Tory believes, in essence, that the 2017 election was a blip and that the same approach with a more persuasive centre-forward will restore the Conservative majority and put Corbyn back in his box next time round. There are some MPs who are angry that Nick Timothy, May’s former aide, has waltzed straight from the 2017 disaster to a column in the Daily Telegraph. That the column is titled “Ideas to Win” only adds to the rage. But most generally agree with his diagnosis that the party will do better at the next election than at the last, almost by default.

And it’s not that the Conservative right isn’t panicked by anything, as a result of some state of advanced Zen calm: many are exercised by the silence of Big Ben during its scheduled four years of repairs.

Yet you don’t even have to go as far back as 1970 for a period of silence from Elizabeth Tower. The bongs stopped ringing for planned maintenance in 2007 and for two years from 1983 to 1985, and the Great Clock stopped unexpectedly in 1976. What distinguishes this period of renovation from its predecessors is not its length but the hysteria it has generated, among both the right-wing press and the Conservative right. The Brexit Secretary, David Davis, described letting the bells go quiet as “mad”, while James Gray, a Conservative backbencher, went further, dubbing the repairs “bonkers”.

The reason why the bongs must be stilled is that they risk deafening and endangering the workers repairing the bell. Working around them would further extend the maintenance period, potentially silencing the clock for ever. The real divide isn’t between people who are happy for the bell to fall silent and those who want to keep it ringing, but between politicians who want to repair and preserve the bell and those who risk its future by squabbling over a four-year silence. There may well be “mad” behaviour on display, but it certainly isn’t coming from the repairmen.

The row is a microcosm of the wider battle over parliament’s renovation. The estate badly needs urgent repairs to make it fire-safe and vermin-free – in the past year, the authorities have had to spend in excess of £100,000 on pest control, with bed bugs the latest pest to make a home at Westminster. If it isn’t made safe, it could burn down.

The cheapest and most secure option for MPs is to decamp down the road to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, just a few minutes’ walk from parliament. But the current delay, facilitated by Theresa May, increases the cost of repairs. The Prime Minister has also weighed in on the row over Big Ben, telling reporters that it “cannot be right” for the bell to go quiet. Westminster’s traditionalists, largely drawn from the Conservative right, talk up the importance of preserving the institution but their foot-dragging endangers the institution they want to protect. As for May, her interventions in both cases speak to one of her biggest flaws: while she is not an idiot, she is altogether too willing to say idiotic things in order to pander to her party’s rightmost flank. That same deference to the Tory right caused her to shred or water down her attempts to rejig the British economic model, ceding that ground to Corbyn.

A Labour victory at the next election isn’t written in stone. The winds blowing in the opposition’s favour are all very much in the control of the government. The Conservatives could embark on a programme of extensive housebuilding, or step in to get wages growing again or to turn around Britain’s low productivity. Philip Hammond could use his next Budget to ease the cuts to public spending. They could, in short, either declare that the experiment hasn’t failed and vigorously defend it, or write off their old project and create another one. They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock, oblivious to the reality that their time is running out. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia