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Trains and Football

Football Specials

There was, of course, a close association

Between late Victorian railways

And the formation of football clubs:

Manchester United FC grew from

Newton Heath LYR FC

(The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway):

The founders and players were all railway workers –

But we’re not bothered about that story,

Our tale is of the Robins from Wiltshire,

‘The Railwaymen’ at Swindon Town …

Salubritas et Industria …

So, this is, perhaps, a signal moment

To compile a history of ‘Football Specials’ …

The first football specials were run by

The Great Western Railway Company,

In 1927, from Cardiff to Paddington

(Cardiff City beat Arsenal 1-0

At Wembley in the FA Cup Final:

‘The Cup’ left England for the only time);

Over fifty trains powered through Swindon –

What a day out for the miners of South Wales

So soon after their lock-out and the General Strike,

As Welsh coal took them up to Wembley and back

On locomotives built in Swindon!

Even though JB Priestley waxed lyrical

About travel by coach in the 1930s,

It was still commonplace to see players,

And supporters in scarves and rosettes

Share the same trains right through to the 1950s,

But the history of football specials

Has become half-mythologised since

The days of sepia and black and white,

As memories become tarnished with time,

And supporters aren’t quite sure whether

That particular excursion was by coach or train …

Madeleine moments and Arkell’s 3 Bs …

But let’s kick off with a coach journey in the Cup,

To Southampton in 1948,

Courtesy of my brother-in-law:

‘My Uncle Ivor who did a bit of coach driving for Wellington Garage arranged a party of his GWR workmates to go to the match and took me along perched on a beer crate behind his driving seat. We’d only got as far as Ogbourne St. Andrew when the coach radiator leaked water and overheated. Ivor got out to get a bucket of water at a cottage which was poured in and off we went. At Southampton, he stopped to ask the way to the Dell then moved on leaving the copper in a cloud of steam. Sadly, we lost that game and also lost wing half Kaye in a tackle with Alf Ramsey. I remember the programmes were printed on one side only on a sheet of paper handed out free – must have been free for I had no money and ended up with a sheaf of them. The trip home was a boozy one with several crates of beer onboard and many stops en-route for ‘Hedge Tickets’ …

I now jump on nearly twenty years

To the age of mods, skinheads and diesels:

I was there as a little mod travelling

To the Swindon away games in the Cup,

Chastised by my History teacher:

‘You shouldn’t be attending this wretched gladiatorial combat.

Attend to your studies instead, boy!’

One Speech Day, we were isolated

In the gym, with close circuit TV,

As we were leaving early for the train

To take us to an FA Cup replay;

We were told in no uncertain terms,

That we were letting ourselves and the school down –

How we silently cheered when the guest speaker

Said how pleased he was to see so many of us

Would be leaving early to support ‘the Town’ …

We lost 3-0 as it happens …

Floreat Semper Schola …

O tempora! O mores!

The Football Special era occurred when it did,

As all the right ingredients were in place:

British Railways with surplus rolling stock;

Teenagers with surplus disposable income;

The impact of England winning the World Cup in 1966 …

But who could have foreseen what would happen,

When bescarved young men congregated in carriages?

(Who could have foreseen the semiotics

Involved in the tying of football scarves

Around The wrists rather than the neck?)

Why the smashing of windows?

Why the institutionalised hurling

Of toilet rolls out of the windows?

Then there was the incidental, sometimes

Organised, and pre-arranged, violence

Attendant and consequent to arrival

At the railway station, and the walk to the ground,

Often with an attendant phalanx of police,

Both in the days before, and after, the miners’ strike;

Police horses, too, standing sentinel:

It wasn’t a walk in the park back in those days.

And here are some recollections from some fans

Of ‘The Railwaymen’ of Swindon Town:

But firstly, a voice that will speak for many:

‘Not being a local and being a little younger than the football special … I’d love to see whatever is discussed …never even been on a supporters’ coach.’

‘Pockets full of coppers …Can’t remember a special that ever had any toilet rolls after the first couple of miles … light bulbs too! Seemed like all part of the day out in them days.’

‘Carlisle was mental. Burnley was mental. Witnessed some daft things on the trains – the stuff getting chucked out of windows as the train went through small stations could have seriously injured or killed someone. Always had the welcoming committee waiting at the station, never realised the volume of the away fans breaking through the police escort out of the station.’ ‘Have a soft spot for northern outposts. Much prefer them to the southern games.’

‘A mate of mine is a retired police officer and was on the Burnley special (Cup game) under cover and doing surveillance.’

‘Late 70s/early 80s went to Aldershot, Exeter, Blackpool, Liverpool, Wimbledon, Torquay, Slave Traders … Virtually everyone on the specials were young lads, pissed or glued up. Stewards taking booze off everyone and then drinking it with their mates. Lots of money won or lost in card games … The rolling stock was the absolute dregs because it had a good chance of being trashed.

Liverpool was fun. The walk to and from Lime Street. A little reception committee waiting for us after the game … I missed the Wrexham one, that was supposed to have been the one to be on.’

‘I missed the Liverpool cup trip when the scousers raided the train during the game and stole possessions from supporters’ luggage.’

‘One that sticks in the memory was the special train to Millwall (Old Den) for the night game on Saturday April 7 1970 … the scruffy old train went all the way to New Cross or New Cross Gate (forget which). There was a short walk to the ground. A very scary place in the pre-crowd-segregation days … At 2-0 down in the second half, Don Rogers scored and the Town fans were spotted by the home fans who you could see moving from the home end, heading for where we were. I went and stood somewhere else before they arrived. I headed back to the station before the end of the game and as I was walking down the road, a Millwall fan started talking to me about how good the Lions had been when there was a roar from the ground. Millwall had scored a late 3rd goal … I tried hard not to give away that I wasn’t a home fan. A memorable trip for a callow youth.’

‘Even now, it is great when you get a critical mass of fans on the train. Coming back from Hartlepool after the 3-0 win in the Garner season was brilliant.’

‘Getting to the ground and missing most of the first half wasn’t much fun. Losing to top it off absolutely took the biscuit.’ ‘Which game was that?’ ‘Wrexham away the mid-70s.’ ‘Jesus. Wrexham away. Now that was a day out.’

‘Off the top of my head, I remember going on these specials: Liverpool and Wrexham in 1976/77, Arsenal 1979, Spurs 1980, Reading 1982, Burnley 1983, Carlisle 1984, Bristol City and Bristol Rovers at least three times in the 80s and early 90s. Newport three times in the late 70s early 80s. Crystal Palace in 1989 for the play off.

I am sure there are a couple I have forgotten in there too, but they were great days out. The Burnley special when the window was broken in the front carriage when a passing train’s door was left open was an experience.’

‘As a teenager in the seventies I visited Ashton Gate regularly via the train to Temple Meads and then the delightful 2.5 mile walk to the ground. I can recall hundreds of us marching along singing … One year we arrived and found the perimeter fencing etc adorned with STFC graffiti … Attempts to pay a visit to the East End was always short lived although we did manage to actually get on the terraces one year. As for the football, the first game I saw we drew 3-3. I recall the ref gave a penalty against Rod Thomas for handball when the ball hit the bar not his hand! That’s the only time I have seen us get a point at Ashton Gate. The rivalry was far more intense with Bristol City than it ever was with Oxford in my “naughty” days as a Town fan. Still have an intense dislike for them even now.’

‘If anyone fancies passing on their Wrexham memories then all will be treated with confidentiality’ …

‘Hopefully a few … will talk about the football special to Wrexham in the mid 70s.

I’ve heard a few stories about it but it’s best coming from anyone who was on it.’

It would appear that silence is golden with regards to Wrexham …

But as regards Wimbledon:

‘Football in the late 70s and early 80s was still a predominantly working-class pastime and,

as such, fans were not seen as customers, but yobbos to be kept at arm’s length. It was this line of thinking which British Rail used to compose their trains to transport supporters around the country in their 'Football Specials'. A wheezing, old, diesel locomotive was the unit normally used to pull the train. The coaches were a mishmash of old rolling stock, some of which I'm sure were in the livery of the old GWR. Heating in the coaches seemed like an optional extra and with dodgy windows, which failed to shut properly ensured that, if you chose unwisely your coach for the journey, you would be completely refrigerated by the time you got to your destination. ‘

Now as LP Hartley said:

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’

And as William Faulkner put it:

‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’

(Still off to Paddington to see Swindon

Beat Arsenal 3-1 at Wembley, 1969),

And I think what we see here,

Is a generation of men looking wistfully back,

In almost startled amazement at what they did,

And the things that went on towards the end

Of the 20th century

(Sliding Doors or The Road Not Taken),

There is no glorification of it at all,

More a football fan’s detached observation

Of football scarf rather than madeleine moments,

Marcel Proust on a red and white football special,

A la recherche du temps perdu …

Toilet rolls … light bulbs … the aggro …

But now, to some recollections from a friend,

A fellow walking footballer,

A Liverpudlian who taught himself

To read and write with percipience

From Liverpool football programmes:

‘Between 1971 and 1976, we used to organise travel for the Liverpool supporters based in London. We used to be able to just phone up Euston and say, “I’d like to book three carriages on the 7.20 a.m. to Liverpool, travelling back at 8p.m.” We set up an account and would collect 120/150 tickets from the office and hand out tickets to the members on the concourse. I never saw one incident but had so many great journeys … The concessions we used to get were amazing. A £5 ticket would be sold to us for about £3. Great days.’

Now, those days are past and won’t return,

But here’s a proposal for the future

And a new type of ‘football special’,

And a new relationship between railway companies,

And football clubs and supporters:

A season-ticket supporter’s rail card;

Perhaps a family season-ticket supporter’s rail card.

Read on … here’s the outline below:

Season-ticket holders at football clubs

Take their I-D to a railway ticket office

Or pursue the transaction online,

And for a fee of ???? pounds

Obtain their football special railcard,

(Bearing the Give Racism the Red Card legend),

Thereby obtaining the usual concessions

For railway travel throughout the country.

This, of course, boosts the coffers of all:

Railway companies, football clubs and supporters,

And, it gets people off the roads and motorways,

Using public transport and boosting fitness,

With walks to and from station and football ground,

With consequent public health benefits,

And climatic ones too …

It can also help change the old gendered link

We used to associate with railways,

Football supporters and travelling:

Families, women, men, boys, girls,

And any choice of personal pronoun,

All aboard!

It’s a win-win-win-win-win-win situation,

With the ‘Football Special Railcard’:

Just look at the Swindon Town FC badge …

Remember the heraldic motto

‘Salubritas et Industria’.


I think what we see here,

Is a generation of men looking wistfully back,

In almost startled amazement at what they did,

And the things that went on towards the end

Of the 20th century

(Sliding Doors or The Road Not Taken),

There is no glorification of it at all,

More a football fan’s detached observation

Of football scarf rather than madeleine moments,

Marcel Proust on a red and white football special,

A la recherche du temps perdu …

Toilet rolls … light bulbs … the aggro …

So why did it happen?

And before we condemn …

Jude the Obscure Supporter

Now I’m not sure if there’s a debate here about determinism and free will, Or whether there’s just some sort of reflection on 60 years spent going to the match, That LS Lowry feeling of being lost in a crowd, That loss of sense of self that meant that strangers were friends And friends were never strangers, For all was empathy and understanding, And the boot was never on the other foot. And you can talk as much Sociology, Psychology or Philosophy as you like, But the reason you trudged fortnightly to the game Was because you enjoyed it and because, really, How could you do anything different? Who would do anything different? You went because you loved the game, And because you had loyalty to your mates, And because you had a loyalty to your home town, And because you had loyalty to your team, And because the team was your town and your town was your team, And because really your team was you and you were your team And so you were your town and your town was you In a syllogistic spiral that counted for nothing when you put your scarf on. - For the minute wage differences that existed in a one industry town, And the fact that footballers didn’t earn much more than anyone else, Meant that a happy commonality and solidarity suffused the town of Swindon! And so you never imagined that your carefully choreographed movement To and from the ground through the red-brick terrace streets of England Was like some sort of scene from The Wasteland, Nor did you see it as some sort of extension Of typical male industrial working class historic traditions, So that even when you were wearing the height of mod fashion, You were in fact an anachronism, For who would think like that? Nor did you think, when you carefully read your programmes at half time, Or when you re-read them at home, Or swopped them, or used them, So as to build up a store house of memory and fact and knowledge About every facet and aspect of the game of Football That you were, in fact, following in the footsteps of working class autodidacts, The people who caught a glance at the classics within the rhythm of the pistons, Or studied art or poetry or philosophy behind the foreman’s back Or beneath the chief clerk’s nose or by the ganger’s shovel, Or by the candle in the attic; And now just think, how many brilliant minds there were, In that faceless crowd of so-called untutored intellect, Living lives that The News Of The World never ever dreamed of. Where are they now?

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