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A league of their own

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Four amateur football teams are battling it out for the inaugural GTR Railway Football League title.

Brighton Train Crews and South Western Railway Train Crews kickstarted the season with an entertaining 6-6 thriller at the Brighton Aldridge Community Academy on March 3 while rivals Great Northern Train Crews came up top in a 3-2 clash with Thameslink and Southern a week later.

League co-founder Michael D’Santos, a Great Northern train driver, couldn’t make it to the league’s first game, but he wished he had. 

“Brighton and South Western Railway kicked it off with a proper Super Sunday game,” said Michael, who manages Great Northern Train Crews. “It was definitely one for the neutrals. Both teams have formulated from nothing, just train drivers, train guards and station staff from each company thinking ‘let’s give this a go.’”

Credit: James Richardson.
Credit: James Richardson.

Over the last few years it had become traditional for a football team from Great Northern to play two or three games a year against a team from Southern. When a number of other train crews started joining in, with a series of friendly matches being played each year, Michael and colleague Mark Webb, a test and commissioning driver who, like Michael, is also based at Three Bridges depot, decided to set up something more official. 

“GTR’s quite a big franchise and since the 2018 timetable change we’ve been interlapping each other so we see each other more and more. I’ll now see more Southern colleagues and the Southern colleagues will see more Great Northern/Thameslink colleagues and there’s just a camaraderie between ourselves. It’s still very much competitive but friendly.”

With the support of Govia Thameslink Railway, Michael and Mark approached the local football association for help in getting a league up and running for “a good bit of exercise, a social and a good laugh”. What was particularly important to them was to have a flexibility to move the fixtures because of the nature of the players’ shift work, which they’ve been able to put in place. 

Aside from that, the fixtures are standard 11-a-side games played across 90 minutes, with each team playing each other twice in the league. Plans are also in place to organise an end of season cup competition in November.

Credit: James Richardson.
Credit: James Richardson.

“There is a half decent standard of fitness,” added Michael, who said there are more than 80 players in the league, including train drivers, stations staff, shunters, platform staff, guards and cleaners. “We’re trialling this format this year. Some of our players have played football in the past but they’re in their 40s now so once every month or six weeks is absolutely perfect for them. It’s not something they could do every week because they’d be crippled.

“Next year we’re looking into starting walking football, women’s 5 and 6-a-side and mixed 6-a-side. The possibilities are endless, we just need to get it out there, which is very much where GTR have come in, not by just giving us the backing and the professionalism but by getting the media out there.”

There are other railway football leagues across the country, including the 12-team London Underground Football League, which was founded back in 1996, and Michael is hoping matches could be played between them in the future. 

“Hopefully something that used to regularly happen back in British Rail and the early privatisation years, where there were tournaments and football leagues all over the shop, could, hopefully, one day become quite big.”