A history of work teams: The famous clubs with roots in industry

On the face of it, there are very few things that Atletico Madrid have in common with the tenth division of England’s non-league pyramid. If you look beyond the world-class players, 68,000-capacity stadium and string of major trophies, though, some links begin to appear.

When you hear the name ‘British Airways’, the first thing that springs to mind – naturally – is flights and aviation. Yet there is also a football team with the same moniker playing in the Combined Counties Football League, and – at least in their roots – there are similarities between the amateur club and Atletico Madrid, with both sides springing up as a leisure activity for a company’s employees.

While BA’s club still carries the airline’s name, many others do not. Atletico, for instance, gave up the Athletic Aviacion de Madrid tag they carried from 1939 to 1947 after merging with a team set up by members of the Spanish Air Force.

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There are several other examples around Europe. Manchester United fans may know that their club used to be called Newton Heath, but perhaps some are not aware that the name originated from a group of employees working for the carriage and wagon department of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway who went up against other railway companies. Arsenal are descendants of a work team formed from armaments factory Woolwich Arsenal in 1886, while West Ham are a club borne from the Thames’ largest shipbuilder, Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company.

Those distant histories may have quickly evolved into elite-level sides around the turn of the 20th century, but the heyday for work teams in Europe came during the interwar years. With limited travel during that time, football clubs were regularly being formed in places where lots of people gathered, such as neighbourhoods, churches or places of education.

It did not take long for companies to realise that leisure activities and sports teams were a good way to entice new workers to their firms; as well as that, the regular exercise afforded by such opportunities were beneficial for employees’ physical and mental well-being. Football pitches were the most common sight, but some larger companies built tennis courts, bowling greens and even rifle rangers in order to keep their workers in a positive frame of mind.

Their motives were not entirely altruistic, however; businesses soon saw the value that sport could have in promoting their brand, which in many cases led to an increase in investment in the side. Having a successful football team, it was reasoned, would attract publicity and custom. This sometimes led to clashes: should these sides be primarily for employees’ enjoyment, or should they seek out the very best players possible in order to increase their chances of success?

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It was not just the prospect of work teams drafting in ringers that caused controversy. Allegations that Morris Cars was forcing its employees to play for their side rather than other clubs in Oxford irked rivals, who believed that this monopoly went against the spirit of sporting competition.

That was the death knell for clubs in their current guise in England, with work teams either swallowed into insignificance by the growth of professionalism or morphing into sides who only carried faint reminders of their origins.

It was a similar story on the continent, with a handful of big names all forming as employee clubs. Eredivisie champions PSV have their roots in electronics company Philips; Bayer Leverkusen are the eponymous club of German pharmaceuticals company Bayer AG; and fellow Bundesliga outfit Wolfsburg were initially set up by Volkswagen workers.

Back in England, where a large non-league scene provides the platform for several weird and wonderful clubs, many former work teams still carry the names of their companies. As well as British Airways, a host of collieries teams represent the mining past of several northern towns and Stocksbridge Park Steels still carry the company name in the Northern Premier League.

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One of the most well-known examples of a former work team upsetting the odds is Vauxhall Motors. The Cheshire-based side punched above its weight for a decade in the Conference North, until they withdrew from the division due to “ever-increasing costs”.

Digging even further down the pyramid and it’s clear to see how football and society has changed. Names such as HSBC, Civil Service FC and Ibis Eagles compete in the Southern Amateur League each weekend, but only a percentage of these teams is made up of company workers.

Although the times of employees teaming up to take on their rivals on a football pitch may now be consigned to Powerleague on a Tuesday night, a few of the historic names live on.

This article was originally published on 8 February 2019.

A history of work teams: The famous clubs with roots in industry
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