Football and Beer

by Steve Renshaw

Do football and beer go together? Well, not if you’re playing. However, there’s certainly a very close relationship between them.

Football sells beer. That’s why the global brewers spend millions sponsoring clubs and tournaments. The Champions League is sponsored by Heineken, and we’ve now got the FA Cup with Budweiser. (Does anyone else feel uneasy about our oldest cup competition being linked to an American brand?) And pub landlords pay thousands to Sky so they can screen live matches to attract drinkers.

However, the relationship between beer and the beautiful game has not always been so straightforward. In Victorian times, churches and, in particular, the influential temperance movement, saw football as a way of attracting young men away from the demon drink. When the factory hooters sounded at noon on a Saturday, the workers would go to play or watch a match instead of spending all afternoon in the nearest pub.

William McGregor, who founded the Football League in 1888, was a committed Christian. Of the twelve original clubs, Aston Villa, Bolton Wanderers, Everton and Wolverhampton Wanderers had started out as church teams.

But pub landlords also recognised the business potential of the increasingly popular game. Pubs had rooms for club meetings and, in many cases, adjacent land that could be used for pitches. Pubs soon developed close relationships with local teams.

When the game turned professional and clubs became businesses, wealthy local brewers were often on the management boards. In 1892, John Houlding, a prominent Liverpudlian brewer, fell out with fellow board members at Everton. As a result, Everton moved from their Anfield ground and Holding established Liverpool FC. Closer to home, Lincoln City played on the John O’Gaunt’s ground provided by brewer Robert Dawber, prior to moving to Sincil Bank in 1895.

Although church involvement in professional football diminished, it continued at local level well into the 20th century. As a boy growing up in Sheffield, I would go to the rec on Saturday afternoon to watch the local chapel team playing in the Bible Class League.

But, from the 1960s, Sunday league football began to take hold. Pub leagues, as they were called, sprang up across the country. As church-going declined and licensing hours changed, young men could play a game on Sunday morning and then retire to the local for a reviving ale or two. Today, Sunday leagues are ubiquitous, while bible class leagues have long since folded.

Looking at the tables of the Lincoln Sunday League, it’s clear that the links with pubs are still strong. As I was doing my research, one result caught my eye. In a top-of-the-table Division One clash, Anglers FC had beaten Metheringham to maintain their 100% record.

The Anglers in Saxilby is a regular in the Good Beer Guide and landlord, Mike Brown, has recently won a long-service award from the pub company, Star Pubs & Bars (formerly the Scottish & Newcastle Pub Company).

The pub is at the heart of the village in all senses. The football club is one of many groups based there. On the evening we visited, they were getting ready for a poker session. And, as with all good community pubs, raising money for charity is a big feature. Over the years, Mike has helped raise thousands of pounds for St Barnabas Hospice.

And what about the beer? Good Elf (4.3% ABV) is a seasonal special from Thwaites Brewery in Blackburn. It’s a dark brown ale with hints of cloves and cinnamon, and just a suggestion of apple in the aftertaste.

Look out for the new edition of our magazine, ImpAle, coming to a pub near you soon.