For Brian Clough, it was milk, one sugar. Kenny Dalglish liked his white. Jürgen Klopp and Ruud Gullit? They would have a coffee. So would Bobby Robson, though he liked his a little sweeter than most.
For the tea ladies and tea boys of British soccer, those are the orders that stick in the mind, like unstirred sugar at the bottom of a mug. For decades, their job meant not only memorizing the brew choices of famous managers, but also brewing cuppas for directors and scouts, equipment men and coaches, journalists and photographers.
Through that mix of granular knowledge and small-town charm, the tea lady — or tea boy — became synonymous with the ground-level, working class makeup of the soccer clubs they came to represent.
Even as players and managers became ever richer and the game ever more professionalized, the tea ladies remained the bedrock. They knew anyone and everyone, their wide smiles and hot cuppas the fuel that kept things ticking, their dressing-downs a stop-in-your-tracks rebuke to any manager who dared cross them or worse, damage one of their kettles.
Such is their mythic status that when the Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy rejected a move to Arsenal last summer, he told reporters that his reasons for staying included “every single thing down to the tea lady” — even though Leicester no longer employed one.
Still, the comment showed how the role remains a symbol of cohesion within clubs, even as more and more canteens resemble industrial operations run by a catering staff.
But in a few places, hidden down stadium tunnels and in press boxes, there remain a select few who turn up on match day to warm the kettles. They may be volunteers now, making beverages for the working media, or stalwarts who have been welcoming friend and foe alike with a hot drink and a smile for decades, but they all have a good story (or two) to tell.
They just need a minute to put the kettle on first.
“You get to know the reporters from all over the country, what they have. One of the media will come in and just say, ‘O.K. then, the usual.’ It’s lovely.”
Marion Ward, Swindon Town
After her role operating the County Ground’s scoreboard came to an end in the late ’80s, Ward, 69, was reassigned to tea-making duties in 1989. On match days, she looks after a group not always accustomed to sympathy on match day: the media. “A lot of them have traveled a long way,” she said. “Anything they need, I’ll try to help them out.”
As well as serving up rolls, biscuits, chips — and, of course, warm cuppas — Ward also hands out the lineup sheets and makes sure the coaching staff and the ball boys get their brews at various points during the day. It’s the ideal job for a longtime Swindon fan, she said. It was through soccer that she met her husband, Stuart,…