Last month, Alsager Town hosted Vauxhall Motors in a North West Counties Football League Division One South match. It was a cool autumn evening, but the football kept the hundred or so spectators warm. Two honest sides gave it their all, with plenty of entertainment and no little controversy, with the struggling home side matching the Motormen – the division’s early pacesetters – all the way. Vauxhall Motors took the points, winning the game 1-0, but Alsager Town could point to a harshly disallowed goal and their best performance for a while. It was a great game, and a great advert for the semi-pro game.
A visit from Vauxhall Motors is always interesting. Even before becoming involved in the semi-pro game, I’d always kept an eye out for their results mainly due to their quirky name and the club’s history.
Vauxhall Motors was formed in 1963 following the opening of the Vauxhall Motors car plant in Ellesmere Port becoming the plant’s works team, initially playing in local leagues before becoming the town’s ‘local’ club despite the presence of Ellesmere Port and Ellesmere Port Town. The club eventually made its way into the semi-pro leagues, rising up to what is now the National League, and making the Second Round proper of the FA Cup, beating Queens Park Rangers in the First Round.
The legendary Stoke City manager Tony Waddington said that football is the “working man’s ballet”, and while he was referring to the working man as spectator, when you begin to scratch beneath the surface of the game, you begin to understand that it is much more than that. Sometimes a team is much closer to the working man.
There are currently nine clubs competing in the Premier League or Football League that originated from works teams, while in the football pyramid below the Football League, there are a further ninety-seven clubs that originate from industries as diverse as mining, munitions, railway engineering, the police force, and financial services. Before the decline of industry, there were hundreds more, clubs formed to provide workers with exercise and entertainment.
The country’s most famous works team – or former works team – is, of course, Manchester United, who were formed in 1878 as Newton Heath LYR by workers at the Newton Heath depot of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. The club’s original colours were green and gold – the colours of the railway company – which Manchester United have used as change colours during the Premier League era, while supporters protesting the Glazer brothers’ involvement in the club have used green and gold scarves to register their displeasure at how the club has been run.
The Premier League is home to three other former works teams: Arsenal, West Bromwich Albion, and West Ham United.
Arsenal were born in 1886 when fifteen workers at the Royal Arsenal munitions factory formed Dial Square, which is where they worked at the heart of the Royal Arsenal complex. They very quickly renamed the club Royal Arsenal and became the first London club to turn professional. The club changed their name for a second time in 1893, becoming Woolwich Arsenal, and went on to become the first southern member of the Football League. In 1913, they were relegated to the Second Division and took the decision to move to the new Arsenal Stadium in Highbury. Twelve months later, they changed their name for a third time to The Arsenal. The club dropped the ‘The’ from their moniker two years later.
Arsenal’s fellow London club West Ham United followed in 1895, founded by Arnold Hills, owner of the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company, and his foreman, Dave Taylor. The club was originally named Thames Ironworks FC and informally merged with Castle Swifts, who were Essex’s first professional team. For the first three years of their existence, Thames Ironworks competed on an amateur basis, turning professional in 1898 when they joined the Southern League Second Division. Thames Ironworks folded in June 1900 due to financial issues and disputes over the running of the club, but a month later, the club was reformed under the name West Ham United FC.
Not many people may realise it, and there aren’t much in the way of clues in the club’s name, but West Bromwich Albion also began life as a works team. Founded in 1878 as West Bromwich Strollers, the club’s founding fathers were a group of workers from George Salter’s Spring Works, a firm that made the first spring scales in Britain. The club was renamed West Bromwich Albion in 1880, becoming the first club to use Albion in their name. Just as the football club continues to thrive, Salter Housewares – as George Salter’s old firm is now known – thrives too, and continues to manufacture kitchen accessories which are sold all over the world.
Outside of the Premier League, former works teams are Coventry City, who were formerly known as Singers FC, Singers manufactured cycles. Millwall were founded in 1885 as Millwall Rovers by workers from JT Morton’s canning and preserve factory on the Isle of Dogs. Wycombe Wanderers were formed in 1887 by a group of young furniture tradesmen, and both Doncaster Rovers and Stoke City were formed by railway workers.
But the vast majority of former works teams that are still around can be found beneath the Football League in the lower reaches of the football pyramid.
As with Vauxhall Motors, Avro compete in the North West Counties League after spending most of their existence in the Manchester League. They were founded in 1936 by a group of workers at the Failsworth factory of the British aircraft manufacturer Avro, though the club now plays its football in nearby Oldham at the Whitebank Stadium.
One of English football’s most curiously named clubs can be found in the North East. Billingham Synthonia play in the Northern League Division Two, the tenth tier of the football pyramid, and I’m fairly confident that they are the only football club in the world named after an agricultural fertiliser. The product was manufactured by ICI, who the team was once associated with, and provided the club with their home. The Synners, as they are known, were formed in 1923, and have a decent pedigree at this level of the game, winning the Northern League Division One title on four occasions, and reaching the First Round proper of the FA Cup seven times. The club traditionally played their football at Belasis Lane, which was part of the ICI sports ground, a ground that hosted the North’s first floodlit game when the Synners beat an RAF team 8-4 on 11th November 1952 in front of 3,000 spectators. However, they left Belasis Lane in 2017 due to the high cost of required upgrading works and now play their football at the Norton Sports Complex, a few miles out of town. The team is currently managed by former Middlesbrough and Manchester City midfielder Jamie Pollock.
Back in the North West, one of the semi-pro game’s longest established names is Cammell Laird, or Cammell Laird 1907 as they are now known. The Cammells were established in 1907 as Cammell Laird Institute Association Football Club and were the works team of the Cammell Laird shipbuilding company in Birkenhead. The club still plays their football in Birkenhead at Kirklands and compete in Division One South of the North West Counties Football League, and are one of the league’s most decorated clubs.
Elsewhere on Merseyside, Pilkington of Division One North of the North West Counties Football League were formed in 1938 and originate from the famous Pilkington Glass factory in St Helens. And In nearby Prescot, Prescot Cables were formed in 1884, and though strictly not a works team, took their name from the largest employer in the town, British Insulated Cables. Prescot Cables compete in the Northern Premier League Division One North West and are now a supporter-owned club.
In the Midlands, the exotically named Coventry Sphinx was formed in 1946 as the works team of the Armstrong Siddeley engineering company who specialised in luxury vehicles and aircraft engines. They were originally known as Armstrong Siddeley Motors Football Club, changing their name to Sphinx Football Club in 1960. They became known by their current name in 1995 when they won promotion to the Midland Combination Premier Division.
One of the most prominent semi-pro sides in recent times, thanks to the exploits of one of its former players, is Stocksbridge Park Steels of the Northern Premier League First Division South East. The player in question is, of course, Jamie Vardy, who joined the Steels after being released by Sheffield Wednesday as a youngster. Vardy has achieved big things since leaving Bracken Moor, winning the Premier League and the Golden Boot with Leicester City, and winning numerous England caps, and the club’s main stand is named after him. Stocksbridge Park Steels was formed in 1986 when the works team of the local British Steel plant merged with another local club, Oxley Park Sports.
Coal mining was once upon a time one of the country’s most important industries, producing the fuel that powered the nation, and collieries across the Midlands and the North produced dozens of works teams. But while the mining industry disappeared, many of the former works teams are still alive and kicking, in clubs like Atherton Collieries, Bedlington Terriers, Coalville Town, Frickley Athletic, Maltby Main, Pontefract Collieries, and Nostell Miners Welfare.
Over the past three decades, football has been increasingly taken away from working-class people, particularly when it comes to the upper echelons of the game, which has become a gentrified ‘product’. But at semi-pro and grassroots level, there is still a thriving movement which works teams play a big part of. Of course, the vast majority of those works teams are works teams in name only; but their players, the club officials, the volunteers that keep them going, and their supporters are working-class people that keep English football’s grassroots strong.
Those former works teams that sit around the game’s top table may be completely detached from their roots, but there are still dozens around the country that are truly rooted in the communities in which they were born, providing opportunities for working people to remain involved in the national game.