Meet the Tea Ladies

The tea lady, once a fixture at British soccer clubs, endures mostly as a mythical … In more than a decade of serving the news media, visiting scouts, injured …

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

CreditTom Jamieson for The New York Times

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, a former reserve player for the Robins.

Her cuppa? Milk.

“The poor press and media are out there in the cold weather. It’s hat-and-scarves weather, and they’re out there with their pens or laptops or whatever. So it’s nice that they can go in to have a hot cup of tea served by a friendly face.”

Rosalind Self, Oxford United

CreditAndrew Testa for The New York Times

In more than a decade of serving the news media, visiting scouts, injured players and anyone else looking for a cuppa at the Kassam Stadium, Ros, left, and a partner, Ann-Marie Schall,  right, have developed a foolproof game plan — though like every coach’s, it can be foiled by injury. “About two or three minutes before we think they are going to blow the whistle, we start filling the cups. It’s very difficult sometimes, because you think, Right, we’ve got about two minutes; they’ve just put the board up. And then somebody might get an injury and they’ll be on the floor for five minutes, and you’ve poured all this tea and coffee and think: No! What shall we do? And then you’ll just top it up with hot water and hope it’s O.K.”

Her cuppa? Milk, no sugar.

“We always make tea — or, I should say, I always make tea — and it always will be that way.”

Ted Lowery, Fleetwood Town

CreditAndrew Testa for The New York Times

Lowery, 86, went to work at Fleetwood Town in 1978, and he sometimes wonders when he will retire — but only until the next match day, the next pot, the next friendly face. “I’m pretty well known by clubs, the kitmen, who always get a brew when they arrive, putting the opponent’s kit out. And, of course, they always say my tea’s the best.” Lowery considers himself a traditionalist.

Tea and coffee pots at Fleetwood Town. CreditAndrew Testa for The New York Times

He drank tea when he played, and he likes how a cup gets people standing next to each other, talking as they sip. He has little time, then, for the “scientists and boffins” who have decided that tea doesn’t do active players any good, that it dehydrates them. Because of them, Lowery’s tea is no longer allowed in the dressing room. “But if a player wants it, they come to me.”

His cuppa? Milk, two sugars.

“The best tea, in my opinion, is Yorkshire tea — it’s a beautiful tea, that is. I think I have never had one complaint in all them years. Many times I’ve had them come back in, saying, ‘That’s the best tea on the circuit.’ ”

Tom Parish, Nottingham Forest

CreditAndrew Testa for The New York Times

Parish, 88, started working at the City Ground as a steward more than 35 years ago before becoming the tea boy — a title that routinely provokes a laugh — at an age when other men would have long ago settled into retirement. In areas around the stadium tunnel, Parish is known as the Chairman for his habit of always being the most smartly dressed man in the room. This has led to at least one momentarily uncomfortable encounter with the actual chairman. “One particular time, when Nigel Doughty owned the club, he was walking down the corridor and someone shouted, “Chairman! Can I have a cuppa, please?” And, of course, poor ol’ Nigel Doughty, he turned around. So, I had to explain: “Sorry, Nigel, they call me the Chairman, because of the way I dress.” And from that day, he always called me the Chairman, too.”

His cuppa? Milk, no sugar.

“We get past managers that will come in and they’ll recognize me and say, ‘Are you still here, mate?’ After all these years, I just say, ‘Yeah, I’m part of the fixtures and fittings.’ ”

Sandra Clark, Plymouth Argyle

CreditMarco Kesseler for The New York Times

Clark and her partner on match days — also called Sandra — are responsible for keeping the drinks flowing at the tea bar inside Home Park’s so-called Green Room, the semiofficial title of the area where the players’ families, friends and their guests can gather alongside club officials, scouts, coaches and former players.

Taking a break at the Tribute Legends Lounge. CreditMarco Kesseler for The New York Times

The club’s goalkeeper, Luke McCormick, often pops by “for a yarn,” as Clark, 75, puts it. And it’s such moments that are her favorite part of the job she has held since 1984. “I like the involvement with people,” she said. “I feel part of Plymouth Argyle.” At their bar, the two Sandras also serve up pasties, a traditional snack in these parts and neighboring Cornwall.

Her cuppa? Milk, one sugar.

“I’m a Catholic and to miss Mass was terrible, but to miss a match was even worse.”

Kath Cassidy, Newcastle United

CreditAndrew Testa for The New York Times

Cassidy, who came to Newcastle United in 1963 and worked there for more than half a century, died in March at age 90 as this article was being completed. For decades, she had handled midweek reserve games at St. James’ Park as well as her more important duties at first-team matches, when as many as 100 members of the news media would turn up. (When archrival Sunderland visited, she said, that number would double.) One the day she was interviewed in December, Cassidy had just received a Christmas package from Alan Pardew, the last of the more than two dozen Newcastle managers she had served. “Do you know how many people they put in my place?” she said. “Ten! They put 10 young girls in my place.” Long after she retired in 2015, her work shirt remained on a hook above the radiator where she had left it, like a retired jersey. No one dared move it.

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