The Perfect Pub For Football – London and Environs

We all have our Platonic Pub ideal. Orwell’s Moon Under The Water comes closest to what most have in mind. But that’s a fictional tavern, and we know that when fictional taverns have the electricity applied to their nipples to bring them to life, terrible things result.

Some Platonic Ideals have remarkable shadows, however. The White Bear in Hampstead – open fires, wood-panelled walls, good food, a decent wine list and plenty of guest beers – is a remarkable shadow. So was this place, once. And, when it rises again, so too will my other corner of a domestic field.

But a football pub needs something that none of these have. A telly. And only a special kind of shadow can fit one in without destroying itself.

Ye Olde White Bear does have one, it’s true. But what a waste to go there for that. They’d have been better off throwing it in through the window of the Duke Of Hamilton next door and hiring deckchairs outside for prospective fans.

Pub plus telly plus fans must fit.

I watched England v Croatia here. They’d probably describe themselves as “environs” rather than London per se, and the television was rather winningly propped up on a chair with its cable trailing along behind. And it was a real “telly”, big, fat and hot, the kind which you’d have had to hit on the side to get it going thirty years ago. The pub’s buildings are older than they look from the outside, and there are many nooks and crannies from which the TV couldn’t be seen. But the gentle cries and groans in warm West Country accents spoke for England. (They did – and now whoever wins from the shortlist, England get a proper manager. It’s a rare no-lose situation for the national side. Let’s enjoy it before it’s spoilt by any actual football).

England v Germany, however, happened here, at what most people would recognise as a more central location. It’s an Arsenal pub, which I think helps although they aren’t my team. It’s one of Youngs’ refurbs, luckily one of those that took place after their wanton destruction of the Britannia in Allen Street. Leffe by the pint, that traditional British standby, and it’s the model for the Mother Black Cap in Withnail.. so the next MTMG meetup might happen here.

Lamb’s Conduit Street used to be the ultimate pub street in Central London. Not only was there the immortal Lamb, but the Sun with its huge cellars and tens of real ales on tap at once – and a trucker’s caff yards away that had kept its plastic decor despite having been bought up by a culinary genius from Bangladesh (now demolished for a new hospital wing – I hear the NHS made the genius a rich man: good). The Lamb is still there, and so is Vats. But no one has a TV, so either bring a MW radio (this is mine; recommended) or use the Force.

The last MTMG meetup took place in the Cardinal, near Victoria, on the evening of the Champions League Final. A great evening, but typical of the kind of year I’ve been having that they’d taken down their big screen and replaced it with Victorian lumber since my previous visit, and it was the next day before delegates learned ‘Pool’s terrible fate.

Sam Smiles’ pubs are odd, aren’t they? Don’t try the wine, but their draught cider is OK, and most other things are extraordinarily cheap. The Cittie of Yorke is a great football pub, if you don’t mind the fact that it isn’t – everyone has drunk under the beady eye of those huge casks and mankilling stoves in the back chamber. And that’s part of the trouble: everyone’s still trying to, and you are driven to the Olde Mitre, (attn. TG) which is actually in a different bishopric to the one you were in five minutes before. I like this – it reminds me of Magdalen days, when my Bedfordshire home was in the Bishopric of Oxford, but my college was under Winchester, and college statutes allowed you to assault poor Richard Harries should he ever step inside.

That’s five or six football pubs without a television, but one that does is the nearby Yorkshire Grey. But you’ll prefer the Ship and Shovell near the Strand at Charing Cross – a pub of two halves for a game notorious for something of the kind. I recommend the half on the northern side of the alleyway – really excellent beer lovingly kept and cheerfully served. And they show games… the Davy’s Wine Bar in the same alley isn’t bad, either.

The best wine bar for football in London – at all, in fact – is Gordon’s Wine Bar on the Embankment. I once found a slew of blacked-out photographs on my phone and wondered for quite some time what they were of – they were of Gordon’s, where every day is like the immediate aftermath of some great victory, and you lost in the crowd and crush, the bar out of sight, your head subjected to repeated blows from invisible assailants and you not caring. It’s not so much watching the match – and this medieval cellar has no TV, only ghosts – it’s like being at the match, or, if you sit outside, abruptly quiet..

The Wellesley Arms was my local, once, the only pub I have ever had where I never had to name my drink. I saw England qualify for the 1998 World Cup here, in that incredibly exciting 0-0 draw in Rome against Italy. Just as happiness writes white, so 0-0 draws don’t Youtube, so if you can’t remember, and it was nine years ago so many intelligent readers will be pushed to bring it to mind, it was the kind of game that got me reprimanded for standing on the tables (alongside my poor, new, Italian friend who found himself surrounded by drink and sympathy when the final whistle came). The pub has a secret passage to.. the Old Church or somewhere, allegedly.

So, no 0-0. Have some live Stones instead:

The best pub in Chelsea – like a good half of pubs in the area that I once knew – has closed. It was the King’s Head and Eight Bells, but for our purposes it was very much a rugby pub. One corner of it was devoted to the remnants of a cafe called the Blue Cockatoo, which closed in 1939, and had been home to a group of local artists and poets (the area around is still thronged by working studios, Julian Barrow’s stamping ground); the ancient leftovers from this would come in for shaky shorts and chasers every month, and I’d sit there in their absence.

Once upon a time, Wimbledon was a place to go for watching football in civilised but beery surroundings. The Hand in Hand was where I saw Holland take apart Yugoslavia in Euro 2000 before not marching to the title itself. But it chavs me out, now, and the Crooked Billet is the place, for all the lack of a TV. (Look for the Edwardian photograph on the wall in the side corridor – the family in a woodland – striking and mightily hard to interpret. I’d like to know, though). For football, you go to the Rose and Crown, where I was once interviewed on the subject of hangovers. It’s almost too good for purpose – you have to bar-hang to get a good view of the screen, but the regulars are friendly and knowledgeable.

It might seem odd to have discussed so many football pubs in which you can’t actually watch football. But consider. In 1999, my team completed the “treble” with an ending to a Final at once so unlikely and now so hackneyed that surely it is etched onto the memory of every fan who was there or who was, like me, in the middle of an ecstatic crowd.

It must have been one of my great moments. I had it here. In the Marlborough Arms in Bloomsbury. I went back there this year to see England beat Russia, the time that they did. Beckham, both times. But my memory of the evening is of afterwards, chewing coffee in another bar nearby, trying to muster up some feeling for the event.

When England lost to Argentina on penalties, I was in O’Neills in Sutton. It was a passionate crowd, chanting in unison, greeting each England penalty-taker with a roar of…something. This was English pride on display, English commitment. We are England!

Batty missed. Everything went quiet. I took my hands from my eyes. Everyone had left. Immediately.

That was probably the moment when I stopped listening to tales about passion and commitment. My pain at defeat was real, though – it was a long time, years before I could bear to watch England again. And when the football is on, and you can’t bear to watch it, and can’t bear to linger at home waiting for the shouts and groans to reach you from neighbours’ windows – that’s when you need a good football pub, one that doesn’t have any football.

One like this, or this.

UPDATE: Mentioning the Mother Black Cap above had me hunting around, and I think I’ve found the ultimate clip to tie this post together. It’s a realistic facial animation, in line with Paul Ekman’s research into emotion (see this site’s reading list for more from Ekman), based upon the episode in Withnail. All it needs is Kenneth Wolstenholm and I can die, my work complete. Here it is – the first part only is silent:

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2 responses to “The Perfect Pub For Football – London and Environs

  1. Samuel Smiths’ pubs I think, although to be honest a brewery run by the whig historian and author of “Self-Help” also sounds quite attractive!

  2. For fans of prem teams the best pubs are the local pubs with an illegal rig, so you can watch you team play any time regardless of sky, all be it with commentary in Arabic, or even worse aussie. Which is often easier to understand than pleatish..

    As a spurs fans the beehive in Seven Sisters ticks the boxs.