Q From Peter Morris: There has been a discussion of the phrase early doors in the Daily Telegraph recently. One reader took it for granted that it originally referred to a drink at the pub as soon as it opened. Another said it referred to the selected few allowed in a theatre before the scrum at opening time. Neither explanation sounds right to me. Can you bring your knowledge to bear on this one?
A Some background for non-Brits who haven’t encountered this odd phrase would seem appropriate before we get into discussing where it came from. Early doors is a phrase particularly linked with football (soccer, that is). It means “early on”:
We’ve got to make sure we don’t concede, especially early doors, but I think it’s definitely game on if we score first.
Sporting Life, 3 Jan. 2010.
Why footballers, commentators and fans say early doors, when early or early on would work just as well is probably due to Big Ron, otherwise Ron Atkinson, a well-known television football commentator, a former player and manager now regarded as one of the characters of the sport. Like another commentator, David Coleman, he’s famous for his accidental sayings in the heat of the moment (“He dribbles a lot and the opposition don’t like it — you can see it all over their faces”). He’s so closely associated with early doors, almost as a catchphrase, that he’s often been credited with inventing it. However, my memories of the phrase go back to Brian Clough, a rather more famous football manager, who is on record as using it in 1979. Readers have suggested it is even older still.
The pub origin you mention is widely believed. In the days before liberalisation of hours, pubs would reopen for the evening at 5.30, just in time for a quick drink after work and before going home. An early-doors beer would be one grabbed as soon as possible after opening time. It’s a neat idea, but it isn’t true.
We’ve actually got to go back well over a century to find the true origin, to the other suggestion you’ve heard, about theatres. Then as now, a last-minute crush usually developed at the entrances just before the performance started, with the street outside crammed with vehicles. Show bills and advertisements commonly urged patrons to arrive early. Around the 1870s, the idea grew up of charging a small premium to members of the audience who were willing to arrive well ahead of the crowd; in return, they were allowed to choose their own seats in unreserved areas — the pit and the gallery in particular. This could be a considerable advantage, as sightlines in those areas were often poor and interrupted by pillars. The earliest comment on the practice I’ve found is this:
It was with some degree of satisfaction that I welcomed a movement in the right direction adopted at most of our local theatres during the pantomime season — namely that of providing special entrances or early doors for the convenience of those who, wishing to avoid the crush, would willingly pay a small extra amount.
Liverpool Mercury, 24 Apr. 1877.
The system continued into the twentieth century and became very well known:
The park-keeper eyed him; thought better of the bitter words he had contemplated; contented himself with: “Funny, ain’t yer?” “Screaming,” said George. “One long roar of mirth. Hundreds turned away nightly. Early doors threepence extra. Bring the wife.”
Once Aboard The Lugger, by Arthur Stuart Menteth Hutchinson, 1908.
It was recorded by G K Chesterton as a First World War battle cry by Tommies going over the top to attack the enemy (“If they had only heard those boys in France and Flanders who called out ‘Early Doors!’ themselves in a theatrical memory, as they went so early in their youth to break down the doors of death.”). Theatres seem to have stopped the early-doors practice in the early 1920s. When J C Trewin wrote in the Illustrated London News in February 1956 about his memories of the practice half a century earlier, he was able to say that “Early Doors is an archaism.”
What he couldn’t have known was that somebody in the football world in the UK — identity now lost — later remembered the expression and reinvented it to refer figuratively to the early part of a game.