Friday, June 13, 2014

Random thoughts on 'Early Doors'

Seeing the World Cup has just started, it seems a good time to look at an expression whose popularity largely stems from its use by those who write and talk about football - 'early doors'. Here are some examples taken from the online version of football magazine Four Four Two:
We got a good goal early doors, and I thought we were going to stop them scoring, we defended very well.
a side that seems to revel in giving away cheap goals early doors
former Sevilla keeper, Javi Varas, was brought in early doors to give experience in goal.
but those odds went up and up when the team dispensed of Valladolid early doors in what was an eventual 4-2 victory.
At The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms they define 'early doors' as meaning 'early on, especially in a game or contest'. That many of those who don't follow football have been blissfully unaware of this expression (at least until recently) is exemplified in a remark in an article in the political weekly magazine Tribune, from 2002:
He is also fond of the expression "early doors" although, as no one knows what that means, it is not clear if it is relevant.

Tribune, Vol 66 - 2002

So how did this expression originate? Taking my leads from an article by Michael Quinnion at World Wide Words, I decided to see what I could dig up, mainly at Google Books.

In English football

Ron Atkinson

The expression 'Early doors' - is especially associated with English football, and with commentator and pundit Ron Atkinson in particular - one Telegraph writer wondered "Does Big Ron ask his wife if she might get breakfast ready early doors?". Atkinson was first a player at Oxford United, then manager of several teams, including Manchester United, before becoming a football pundit on television. It was in this last role that he became famous for his odd turns-of-phrase, sometimes known as Big-Ronisms or Ronglish, perhaps the best known of which is 'early doors'.
Ron Atkinson's quirky use of English, as in phrases like 'early doors', has made him a regular choice for providing expert summary during ITV televised coverage in the 1990s and 2000s.

Encyclopedia of British Football, Richard William Cox, Dave Russell, Wray Vamplew - 2002

Brian Clough

A couple of sources, though, suggest its use in football started in 1979 when Brian Clough, at the time manager of Nottingham Forest, in an interview in the Observer, said, "Early doors, it was vital that they (the players) liked me". Writing at the Oxford Dictionaries Blog, Owen Goodyear suggests that this was a malapropism. I'm not so sure, as I believe that this was an expression Clough would have been familiar with from a non-footballing context, as we shall see a bit later.
It is apparently now popular with commentators, footballers and fans alike. It seems to me as if it probably started off as an in-joke among the footballing fraternity, and just stuck.

Football examples from the British media

"They scored early doors which hurt us a lot," Whittingham said. "We knew they were going to start well and they did that"

BBC Sport

In the early part of my career the only things you'd hear a manager shout were "let him know you're there early doors", "win your tackles" and, slightly less violently, "if in doubt, kick it out".

The Guardian - the 'Secret Footballer'

Arsenal and their fans will bottle it if we go ahead early doors, says Celtic defender Gary Caldwell.

The Mail

... we'll have to try to make certain that we baulk them, early doors, but it won't be easy.

The Telegraph

Rodgers was quick off the mark in January, snapping up Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho early doors.

The Express

Sir, Having a player sent off in football or rugby, especially “early doors”, makes it onesided and reduces the entertainment value of the event.

The Times - letter from a reader

And a couple from rugby and other sports

And it's spread beyond football, especially, perhaps, to rugby but to other sports too.
One black mark: he should have scored early doors, he must learn to get them down.

The Telegraph - rugby

Life's a beach early doors as the fans take in some pre-match sun.

Sky Sports - rugby

Let's get the snooker questions out of the way early doors.

The Guardian - snooker

"Unfortunately early doors we got blown away."

The Telegraph - cricket

Use beyond sport

The Telegraph has even used it in the financial pages (I presume tongue-in-cheek) - "It's early doors for the Grand National bookmakers" (the favourite had won the National).
I've gathered a few non-sporting examples from contemporary books near the end of this post. Meanwhile here are a few examples from the media:
Mrs Hughes summed it up early doors: "We're all tired. But not as tired as we're going to be."

The Guardian - talking about filming Downton Abbey

JAY-Z won't have to worry about getting his towel on the sunbed early doors in Shagaluf any more – he's buying an island in the Bahamas.

The Sun

It is still early doors for this noble enterprise, but if you're in south London, you could do a lot worse than lend it your support

The Telegraph - talking about a new pub

He liked to have a chat with our barmaids so that's why he got in early, he was an early doors man

The Mail

Is it early doors for Standard Life chief?

The Financial Times - this is really a play on words, as the writer is speculating whether the Standard Life boss will heading early for the 'exit door'.

I was stunned to see her up and about early doors after a very late finish.

The Sun

Aside - early days

There's a much more common idiom 'it's early days' usually meaning that it's too soon to make a decision or a judgement about something. Early doors is sometimes also used with this meaning. Here are a couple of examples:
It's still early doors for him, though, and I think we've treated him right

Four Four Two

'I do appreciate what people are saying about my prospects but it is early doors'

The Mail (and elsewhere)

Early doors, obviously, but what a pleasure it is to report that the judging panel unanimously scented promise.

The Times - about skating

But it seems to be used much more commonly to mean early on, or simply early.

Its origins in late nineteenth and early twentieth century theatre

Its history goes back well before its use in football. Two book titles give us a clue to the phrase's origins: The Early Doors: Origins of the Music Hall, by Harold Scott, 1946, and Early Doors: My Life and the Theatre, by Philip Burton, 1969. Here's another clue to its origins in a relatively recent novel:
"Be in good time," he added, as I turned to go; "early doors threepence extra." "What did you say about doors?" "Early doors threepence extra," he replied, making a trumpet of his hands. Puzzled though I still was, I dare not ask again;

John Penrose: A Romance of the Land's End, John Coulson Tregarthen - 2004

'Early doors' was in fact a practice where by paying a bit extra you could get into a theatre (or music hall) early, thereby avoiding the crush at the standard opening time, and in some cases get the best choice of seats.
At World Wide Words, Michael Quinion quotes an example from The Liverpool Mercury, dated 1877. The earliest example I can find at Google Books is from 1889:
Private boxes from 10s. 6d. to £5. 5s.; balcony stalls (numbered and reserved), 3s. ; stage stalls (numbered and reserved). 3s. ; pit and promenade, 2s. ; amphitheatre, 1s. ; gallery, 6d. Children half-price to all parts except gallery on payment at the doors. Early doors 6d. extra.

The Era Almanack, 1889 GB

A letter-writer to the Telegraph remembers his grandparents still using it like this in the 1930s. Here are a few more examples from the 1890s:
The coachmen on their boxes, in front of the great portico, bury their ears in their fur tippets as their horses wince under the blast ; and beneath the piazza, where the " early doors " are already surrounded by a little crowd of early pittites,

All the Year Round: A Weekly Journal, Charles Dickens - 1890

One of the first to enter the ' early doors ' of that ' professional matinee' was our old friend Mr. J. L. Toole, who, accompanied by his daughter Florence, had 'just popped in'

The Keeleys: on the stage and at home, Walter Goodman - 1895

It must be five o'clock at least ; Nancy was coming back at half -past five for her toilette, and they were to leave at six, because the theatre in question had no "early doors," and it was a case of first come first served.

Lesser Destinies, Samuel Gordon, 1899

By 1908, the expression had reached Australia: this is from the New South Wales parliamentary register for that year:
The swindle was worked in this way : people who wanted to get decent seats in a theatre waited outside in queue order, and had to pay an additional shilling for early doors.
Six years later, in the Australian parliamentary records, this appeared:
We have been told that it was a packed meeting which was held in the Sydney Town Hall—that is to say, that the hall would not hold more people, that the early doors were rushed.

Use as a First World War battle cry

As G.K.Chesterton, amongst others, has pointed out, 'early doors' was used as a British battle cry in the First World War. This is from a pamphlet, The Retreat from Mons, published in 1914:
A party of the King's Own went into one battle shouting out, 'Early doors this way! Early doors, ninepence!'
And from various other sources at Google Books:
Echoes of the music-halls of London occur in the letters of many London soldiers, as, for example, "Early doors this way," "Early doors, ninepence."

The Living Age - Volume 287, Eliakim Littell, Robert S. Littell - 1915

A party of the King's Own," writes Sapper Mugridge of the Royal Engineers, " went into their first action shouting ' Early doors this way ! Early doors, ninepence ! ' " " The Kaiser's crush " is the description given by a sergeant of the Coldstream Guards

Tommy Atkins at War as Told in His Own Letters, James Alexander Kilpatrick - 1914

I cannot imagine any but a British regiment rushing into the hell of the machine-gun fire with the cry of “Early doors sixpence extra”; or with the men kicking a football before them through the zone of sputtering bullets.

The Fortnightly Review - 1917

One set of (early) doors shuts and another opens

By the outbreak of the Second World War, this theatrical practice seems to have died out, and I can find no examples at Google Books of it being used as a battle cry in the Second World War. Via Michael Quinion's page on "Early Doors" at World Wide Words I found an article on the history of the theatre in The Illustrated London News of 1956, where it is said:
The gallery survives, with some of the gallery queues. The pit is a legend forgotten. "Early Doors" is an archaism.

The Illustrated London News, 1956,

Meanwhile, 'early doors' seemed to be taking on a new meaning, especially in the Midlands of England. In a letter to the Telegraph, reader Andrew Robinson wrote:
It is a Midlands expression to ensure maximum drinking time by describing pub (door) opening time: "I'll meet you in the Red Lion, early doors."

Letter to the Telegraph, Andrew Robinson, - 2002

Pub opening time

Up until the late 1980s, by law English pubs had to close between 2.30pm and around 5.30pm. As I understand it, early doors was used here to mean immediately after the pubs re-opened after the afternoon break.
The earliest example of this meaning I can find is from a prize-winning radio ballad broadcast in 1979, A Lament for the Lost Pubs of Burslem, by playwright Arthur Berry. This was reprinted in The Listener in the same year. Berry talks of big stove pots which had heated the taproom (the main room in the pub) in days gone by, but which had been replaced by 'a pitiful but convenient heating arrangement':
How terrible has been the loss of these stove pots — these magnificent dark stoves that were once the heart of every taproom — elegant black shapes that stood there with such dignity, such presence, like totems. To sit against one of these on a winter night and feel the rich heat and watch the clear amber beer was a benediction. Men would come early doors to get a seat on one of the wooden forms against it. And how the stove pipes were fitted at angles to get to the ceiling. To watch a publican's dog lying asleep in front of one of those stoves was to watch luxury.

A Lament for the Lost Pubs of Burslem, Arthur Berry

Here are some more examples of this pub-opening use. The first one refers to the war-time bombing of Britain:
Sometimes the lights went out in the pub as electric cables were hit, but usually they came on again in about half an hour. ... Once they had found one (a pub) that suited them they made a habit of being in at the 'early doors'.

The Home front: an anthology of personal experience, 1938-1945, Norman Longmate - 1981

And here's one about Newcastle:
On a Friday night the entire population seems to be spending like mad in the pubs and clubs. Newcastle's nightlife ... As with restaurants, happy hour is a big deal in Newcastle - serial early-doors drinking is positively encouraged.

The Rough Guide to Britain, Robert Andrews - 1996

And here it seems to be being extended to a restaurant in northern England.
A good-value, fixed-price menu operates at 'early doors' times (last orders are at 7.15pm).

Passport's Guide to Britain's Best Hotels, Patricia Yates - 1996

In a study of an upmarket private housing estate in 'Cheshire's green belt', the writer describes a group of drinkers assembled around 6.15 in the evening in 'the Clubhouse':
Anyone entering the bar at this time, known by the group as 'early doors', that the group does not consider appropriate company is ignored

Leisure, Lifestyle and the New Middle Class: A Case Study, Derek Wynne - 2002

And here's a description of The Waters Green Tavern, Macclesfield, Cheshire:
It attracts a wide range of clientele from campanologists to the local cycling group, as well as walkers returning from the hills at early doors. The Waters Green Tavern is open from 11.30am-3.00pm and from 5.30pm onwards each day except ...

Best Pub Walks in the Dark Peak, Les Lumsdon, Martin Smith - 2004

Most of these examples seem to come from the Midlands and from the North of England. And finally, in The Pub in Literature: England's Altered State, published in 2000, Steven Earnshaw uses 'Early doors' as the title heading for Chapter 2, describing the early history of pubs.

TV Series

Early Doors is the name of a low-key BBC sitcom set in 'a typical northern local pub' (BBC) called The Grapes, which first aired in 2003.

'Early doors' in various books at Google Books

Around the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, 'early doors' was being used to simply mean 'early (on)' in rather broader contexts, in both fiction and non-fiction:
Libby Manning came here early doors. Meant to intercept. A phone impossible

Ambit, Issue 105 - 1986

A bump at my shoulder nearly spills my beer. Someone chatters to me in Jabberhut then mimes lighting a cigarette. ... Early doors so no one's really going for it on the floor yet. Each dancer is just bobbing meditatively, marking time till the pills ...

Manners, Robert Newman - 1998

Embraced by the biggest rock band at the time, Guns N' Roses, who were themselves no strangers to substance abuse, Blind Melon hit paydirt early doors with their debut album of 1993.

The Beatles Uncovered, Dave Henderson - 2001

It's still early doors, so it's gaunny be a full house

Glue, Irvine Welsh, 2001

As I stated early doors in this book, the humour and joviality is what keeps us sane in the face of often-unpleasant occurrences to say the least

Gone to Blazes: Life As a Cumbrian Fireman, David Stubbings - 2002

Suzie noodded. Kissed him on the chin. 'Early doors?' 'Early doors it'll be, heart, yes.'

Angels Dining at the Ritz, John Gardner - 2004

Rhyming slang?

Image in the public domain, from Wikipedia
In A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Eric Partridge suggests it was rhyming slang for women's drawers (the undergarment), dating from around 1870. This has been repeated in several other books on slang, but I haven't been able to find any examples of this use. In any case, rhyming slang is usually based on familiar names or expressions, so it was probably taken from the theatrical usage.


In his piece at World Wide Words, Michael Quinnion says "The pub origin ... is widely believed. ... It’s a neat idea, but it isn’t true.". In terms of the original use of the expression, he is no doubt right, but if we are talking about where the football fraternity got it from, I think that the pub use is the much more likely explanation.
Apart from the fact that football and pubs often go together, there are a couple of things to support this hypothesis:
  • The use in pubs seems to be particularly associated with the Midlands. Brian Clough spent more than ten years as manager of two Midlands clubs, Derby County and Nottingham Forest. Ron Atkinson also spent about ten years managing clubs in the Midlands, West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa, or just outside, such as Manchester United and Sheffield Wednesday.
  • In this use, 'Early Doors' was often used specifically to mean 'early (on)', as in "I'll meet you early doors." There is no evidence that it was used in this way in its theatrical incarnation.
  • This pub-related use was around at the same time as it first appeared in a football context. Both Arthur Berry's radio ballad and Brian Clough's Observer interview date from 1979. On the other hand the theatrical use had died out some time before, and the expression had already been called an archaism in 1956. Wouldn't Clough and Atkinson have been more likely to have been aware of a use that was current rather than one considered an archaism?

Google site searches


Origins and meaning

Ron Atkinson

Brian Clough


The pub hypothesis

Rhyming slang

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