When commerce had a heart and soul

Bank of England FC, winners of the AFA Senior Cup 1923-24
Bank of England FC, winners of the AFA Senior Cup 1923-24

THIS WEEK, I ended 41 years in the City, the last 26 of which have been as a writer and journalist. I started my career at NatWest, in the days when banks were certainly more respected institutions than they are today. They were also great sporting entities that provided non-league football with a few decent players.

When I was a teenager, turning out for NatWest, the name everyone used to mention was Ian Cooke, who played for Southern League Wimbledon. NatWest was more a rugby company and football was really seen as the game of the proletariat. Westminster Bank (one half of the merger that began NatWest) initially wouldn’t allow Cooke to play in the Southern League, but eventually, he was permitted to sign for Wimbledon.

The City was awash with part-time footballers, however, as well as the odd former professional player. One day, when I was talking to our head messenger in Threadneedle Street, a rather urgent little man came dashing into our lobby, asked for a signature and said he had to run. “Ex-Spurs man is Tommy,” said old George, our tyrannical head porter. He was referring to Tommy Harmer, who played for Spurs, Watford and Chelsea. I once tried to engage in conversation with him when he returned to 41 Threadneedle Street – to ask him if he had in fact scored Chelsea;’s vital goal in a promotion clash with Sunderland in 1963 with his groin –  and he just smiled and made his excuses to leave.

In later years, Terry Robbins, who played over 300 games for Welling United and was player manager at Bishop’s Stortford in a long career, worked for Lazard Brothers, an investment bank based in the City’s Moorgate area.

Anyone who has worked for an old City institution will be aware of the sports facilities that these organisations used to provide. If you flew across South London, Kent and Surrey in the mid-1970s, you would have looked down on acres of sports grounds comprising rugby, football and hockey pitches.

Sometimes, if you playing branch games or specially-arranged fixtures, you might come up against some really gnarled old campaigners. I once played a game against a military team, at Bromley’s Hayes Lane and scored in the very first minute. The gigantic defender whom I’d skipped past to score was not happy and said, “young ‘un, that’s the last time you do that…and it’s the last time you’ll try it.” At 18, I was scared witless and barely touched the ball again. In fact, I was subbed at half-time. But even today, if I go to Bromley, I remember that goal at what is now the Norman Park End. And the plunge bath!

After two years or so of playing for NatWest, I had some offers to play at a higher level. For me, the problem was that they were all south of the River Thames clubs and that was not easy for me to get to, so there was no future in it. I also didn’t feel I had the physical strength to play at a more serious level.

But corporate sport was quite popular in those days and companies liked to encourage fresh air and exercise. The banks might not have been as paternal as the likes of Cadbury’s or Lever Brothers, but there was a feeling that sport made people more rounded individuals.

Some of the corporate teams played in the Southern Amateur League and included half decent non-leaguers, but the further down the pecking order you went, the teams would be a rag-bag collection, most wearing variations on the NatWest colours that resembled a continental outfit.

Since those days, when if you were a football fan, people looked at you as if you had two heads, or – even worse – a hooligan, the City has become a hotbed of football patronage. Barclays Bank sponsored the Premier, as we all know and the age of the corporate box sees multitudes of bankers and other financial professionals profess a love of the beautiful game.

Not many of these people will be aware that the City of London does have a football team – called simply City of London FC. They play in the Amateur Football Combination Intermediate South Division and their home ground is in Catford, not a million miles away from where I once played. I may have to check them out!

Most banks sold off their sports grounds to cash in on property prices over the past 30 years. And with that, some of the heart and soul of these organisations was transferred to the balance sheet. Times change, but is all a far cry from today’s City of London, I’m afraid.

This article first appeared in the Non-League Paper on Sunday November 6, 2016

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