London's footballing pedigree is unrivalled. The modern game began here, with the founding of the Football Association in 1863. Our city is home to Wembley, arguably the most famous footballing stadium in the world. More than a third of Premier League clubs are from London. But how is this rich history memorialised? Let's make like Neymar and dive right in...
1. Where it all began
Football, as we know it, was born in Covent Garden. As this plaque on Great Queen Street attests, the Football Association (FA) was founded here on 26 October 1863. Of course, people had been knocking balls around for centuries, but the emergence of the FA brought in organisation and standardisation of rules that did more to shape the modern game than pretty much any other development. Two things to note: (1) like all the best things, it happened in a pub, the Freemasons' Tavern; (2) this was the same year that the first Underground line opened.
2. The first FA football match
The FA didn't muck about. They had a set of 13 rules thrashed out by December, and just a few weeks later staged their first game. It took place in Battersea Park on 9 January 1864. The commemorative plaque, oddly, does not note the participating teams. The two sides did not have names, as such, but were instead cobbled together from various FA member clubs. One team was captained by the FA President and the other by the FA Secretary. The game finished 2-0 to the President's XI, with both goals scored by Charles William Alcock.
A rival claim for the first ever FA match can be made by the still-existing Barnes F.C. Their game against a team from Richmond on 19 December 1863 was the first to be played under the newly minted rules. However, the Richmond team was not a member of the FA.
3. England's first Black players
Lancaster Road in Stroud Green was home to Laurie Cunningham, in some respects the first Black player to represent England. The English Heritage Blue Plaque avoids citing this distinction because it comes with so many competing caveats. Two under-18s, John Charles and Benjamin Odeje, had featured in earlier England sides at junior level. Cunningham's own appearance, though aged 20, was for the under-21 team. The first Black player in the full senior team was Viv Anderson in 1978. Whatever the reckoning, Cunningham led a successful career, gaining six full Caps, and becoming the first British player to sign for Real Madrid. Tragically, his life was cut short by a car crash aged just 33. His statue stands outside former club Leyton Orient.
English Heritage's Blue Plaque scheme is woefully lacking when it comes to footballers. Only two others are memorialised by the scheme. World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore is remembered at his former home of Waverley Gardens, Barking, while a plaque in Haslemere Avenue, Hendon, recalls Herbert Chapman (best known as an Arsenal manager than as a player). Plaques to many other players can be seen around London, but these are the only three under the official Blue Plaque scheme.
4. England's World Cup glory
According to a Beefeater I once overheard, there are three dates in history that all English people remember: 1066, 1666 and 1966. England's only World Cup triumph still resonates in the popular imagination, more than half a century after Bobby Moore's boys lifted the trophy. The chief memorial to the triumph is not at Wembley, as you might expect, but on the Barking Road close to where West Ham's Boleyn Ground once stood (Moore being their long-time captain). The sculptural group features four of the players from the '66 team, Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters and Ray Wilson. It was designed by Philip Jackson.
5. More of Moore
You might have noticed by now that Bobby Moore presides over this article as he once presided over West Ham's defence. The legend not only appears in the World Cup sculpture just described, but he also features in this grouping outside West Ham's ground (which itself has a Bobby Moore Stand). With his own solo statue outside Wembley (also the work of Philip Jackson), Moore is one of the very few non-Royals to be the subject of three London sculptures. It doesn't stop there. The tile mural at the top of this article is part of the 'Bobby Moore Bridge', also at Wembley. Ripple Primary School in Barking carries a plaque to their star pupil, while the Bobby Moore Academy in Stratford further ties him to education. Meanwhile, a nondescript sliproad onto the North Circular in Barnet goes by the name of Bobby Moore Way.
There are dozens of statues and memorials to footballers around the capital, but how many referees get the nod? One who does is Ken Aston, an Ilford local credited with introducing yellow and red cards to the game. Indeed, this Edison of officialdom was behind numerous innovations. In 1946, he became the first referee to wear black with white trim — a style soon adopted by refs everywhere. In 1947 he pioneered the use of brightly-coloured linesman's flags, which could be seen even in London's ubiquitous fogs. He advocated substitute referees, numbered boards to help with player substitutions, a standard ball pressure and better consistency among referees. His red and yellow card system, developed in 1966, was inspired by a set of London traffic lights.
To mark his unrivalled contributions to the refereeing arts, Aston was rewarded with his own square, outside the remarkable Fulwell Cross Leisure Centre and Library. His plaque can be seen on the wall in the photo above.
7. The curious case of Dulwich Hamlet
Dulwich Hamlet have never been afraid to do things their own way. The popular amateur club is one of the few teams to have a kit that prominently features pink (the away strip is especially so). They were founded by a man named Lorraine "Pa" Wilson, who was one of the leading figures in London's amateur football scene at the start of the 20th century. But, most notably of all, the team was home to Edgar Kail, the last non-league footballer to play for England.
Kail's career peaked almost a century ago, but his reputation remains strong at the club for whom he scored 427 goals. To this day, fans chant "Edgar Kail in my heart, Keep me Dulwich, Edgar Kail in my heart I pray!". They watch home matches on Edgar Kail Way, and perhaps enjoy a pint of Edgar Kail pale ale.
8. Street art memorials
Street art provides a more informal, ephemeral style of commemoration. The mural above, arranged by MurWalls, appeared outside Vinegar Yard, London Bridge in 2021 following England's impressive Euro campaign.
This more optimistic image by JayCaes was briefly on display in Shoreditch in 2018.
Most impressive of all is this mural to two West Ham legends, round the corner from the former Boleyn Ground.
9. Flatpack heroes
London contains many statues to footballers, including this pair of flattened steel likenesses. That on the left depicts former Spurs defender Ledley King and can be found in Mile End Park. The one on the right shows Walter Tull — also a Spurs man and one of the first professional players of Afro-Caribbean descent. Tull had the added distinction of becoming one of the first mixed-heritage infantry officers in the British Army. Having survived the Somme, he fell in the final year of the first world war to enemy action. His statue stands in Downhills Park, Haringey.
10. And the other statues
The roll-call of cast-bronze ballsmiths doesn't end with the statues we've mentioned above. London contains so many footballing statues that you could make a complete XI, plus manager.
In addition, and as already noted, a statue of Laurie Cunningham stands outside Leyton's ground. Yet another tribute to Bobby Moore (perhaps a bit too abstract to be called a statue) can be found on Gale Street, Becontree, where he's accompanied by a blocky likeness of Alf Ramsay.
11. Celebrating women footballers
We've detailed around 20 statues to male footballers, along with numerous plaques and commemorations. But what of the women? London's Lionesses did the country proud with their Euro 2022 victory, so it's high time that women players received official recognition. We're aware of one plaque, to pioneering Black footballer Emma Clarke. It adorns a wall of Campsbourne School in Hornsey. But that's it. Of the 26 English Heritage Blue Plaques listed under 'sport', a grand total of two are for women (both tennis players, Dorothea Lambert Chambers and Kathleen Godfree). Someone needs to get their eyes on the ball.
All images by the author unless otherwise indicated.