There aren’t many links between Atletico Madrid and the tenth tier of England’s non-league.
Yet while the Spanish giants can count a string of major honours at home and on the continent, they share a lot in common with a side plying its trade in the Combined Counties Football League – in their roots, at least.
As two clubs originally formed as work teams, los Rojiblancos and non-leaguers British Airways might be miles apart in terms of geography and quality, but they both represent a small band of sides whose heritage stems from an employee leisure activity.
While BA’s club still carries the airline’s moniker, many others don’t. Atleti, for example, gave up its Athletic Aviacion de Madrid name they carried from 1939 to 1947 after merging with a team set up by members of the Spanish Air Force. Although what is consistent is that neither club calls upon pilots to make up their starting XIs anymore.
It’s far from uncommon, with many of the network of former work teams that still exist in different guises across Europe ever giving a nod to their more humble pasts in any way. In fact, it’s possible that most fans of Manchester United, Arsenal and West Ham have no idea that their clubs spawned from work teams at all.
While most United fans know they used to be called Newton Heath, 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.
The Gunners and the Irons have more obvious associations with their past. Arsenal are descendants of a work team formed from armaments factory Woolwich Arsenal in 1886 and the Hammers 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 inter-war 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.
Employees soon cottoned on to the fact that welfare programmes, including sports teams, were a good way to attract employees to join their companies and retain them by keeping them fit and happy. Some larger industries even built recreation grounds for employees’ friends and families to spend time together out of work, with tennis courts, bowling greens and even rifle ranges situated near football pitches.
That popularity soon started to cannibalise itself though. Companies realised that, rather than just being a leisure activity, successful work team provided great promotion for their brand – leading to a tug of war between whether clubs should be elite or remain as a team for workers.
It wasn’t 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 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 that only carried reminders of their origins.
It was a similar story on the continent, with a handful of big names all forming as employee clubs. Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven came from electronics company Philips (and still carry the name as their sponsor), Bayer Leverkusen are the eponymous club of German pharmaceuticals company Bayer AG, and Wolfsburg were initially set up by Volkswagen workers. In Ukraine, a large proportion of the clubs competing in the nation’s Premier League were factory teams at first.
Back in England, where a large non-league scene provides the platform for several weird and wonderful clubs, many ex-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 Jamie Vardy’s former club, Stocksbridge Park Steels, still carry the company name in the Northern Premier League.
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 resigned their place in 2014 due to “ever-increasing costs” in a situation that wasn’t helped by its inability to attract many locals through the gates to support the team.
Digging even further down the levels 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 the teams now have to be employees, with a higher number of bankers lining up for HSBC in the thirds or fourths than the first team.
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 names still live on.
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