The origins of British football team names
Where do British football (or soccer) clubs get their names? The answer may seem straightforward enough, since most clubs are named after the city in which they play: Manchester City, Southampton, Liverpool. But there are exceptions, such as Arsenal, named after the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, whose workers formed the club in 1886. The Royal Arsenal was an armaments factory and storehouse; its name is ultimately of Arabic origin, meaning ‘house of industry’. When the club moved from south-east London to Highbury in 1913, it dropped the word Woolwich from its name and became Arsenal Football Club.
Wanderer, Hotspur, Wednesday
Like Arsenal, many clubs are simply named Football Club; common variants include City, Town, and United. While United now conjures up a sense of the players serving together towards a common goal, it was originally adopted for more prosaic reasons by teams formed by merging together several existing clubs. The names Wanderers, as in Wolverhampton and Dundee, and Rovers, as in Bristol and Raith, were adopted by teams without a permanent home ground. Not all football clubs follow these established patterns. Tottenham Hotspur takes its second name from a medieval word used to describe a rash and impetuous person, a metaphoric use of a term which literally refers to someone whose riding spurs are hot from fast and frequent riding. The name Albion, adopted by West Bromwich, Brighton & Hove, and Burton, is an ancient term for Britain. It derives from the Latin word albus ‘white’, a reference to the iconic white cliffs of Dover. The origins of Sheffield Wednesday go back to its earliest history as a cricket club; the club took the name Wednesday for the simple reason that it was the day when they played their matches.
From Reds and Blues to Gunners and Toffees
The most common nicknames refer to a club’s shirt colour – The Reds, The Blues – or its associations. Particularly common are comparisons with the markings of animals (Hull Tigers), insects (Watford Hornets), or birds (Newcastle United Magpies). Norwich City’s nickname, The Canaries, appears to have the same origin, given its bright yellow strip. But this actually happened in reverse: the name derives from the popularity of canary breeding in the city that stretches back to the Middle Ages, when the bird was imported by weavers from the Low Countries. As well as adopting the bird’s colours for their strip, the club placed a canary on its badge. Sheffield Wednesday’s avian nickname, The Owls, is nothing to do with the club’s colours or with the popularity of owls in Yorkshire; it was coined because their Hillsborough stadium is situated in the Owlerton district of the city.
Other nicknames recall local industrial associations; Arsenal’s nickname, The Gunners, is a further reference to its origins in an armaments factory. A similar origin lies behind West Ham United’s moniker, The Hammers, which has nothing to do with the club’s name; instead it marks its foundation by members of the Thames Ironworks, further signalled by the crossed hammers on the club’s badge. Sunderland AFC are known as The Black Cats after a gun battery on the River Wear, so-called because workers repeatedly reported hearing the miaowing of a mysterious black cat. The Liverpool club Everton – originally known as St Domingo’s – gets its nickname, The Toffees, from Mother Noblett’s Toffee shop which was frequented by fans before matches. This gave rise to the tradition of the Toffee Lady who distributes sweets to fans before home games. The Scottish club Celtic F.C. was originally formed for the immigrant Irish population of Glasgow’s East End. The club’s Irish roots are signalled both by its official name Celtic (pronounced unusually with a soft ‘s’ rather than the more usual hard ‘k’) and the spelling of its nickname, The Bhoys, whose ‘bh’ imitates the spelling practices of the Gaelic language.
From Craven Cottage to The Kop
While many football stadiums are named after their locations, others have names linked to their local heritage. The home of Sunderland F.C. is known as The Stadium of Light, a tribute to the club’s connection with the mining industry; a monument to the Davy lamp stands at the stadium’s entrance. Although it is more commonly known as Upton Park, after its East London location, West Ham United’s stadium is officially termed The Boleyn Ground. This name dates from the original club’s use of the grounds of Boleyn Castle, owned by Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII until her beheading in 1536. Anne Boleyn’s hunting grounds covered part of the area on which William Craven, sixth Baron Craven, constructed a house in 1780; when this building was destroyed by fire at the end of the nineteenth century, the land was bought by Fulham F.C. as the site of their new stadium, still known today as Craven Cottage. Other names preserve an association with the land on which the stadium was constructed. The home of West Bromwich Albion was built on a site covered in hawthorn bushes, which had to be cleared to make way for the stadium now known as The Hawthorns. The stadium built for Bournemouth AFC was situated on a cherry orchard, giving rise to the club’s nickname The Cherries.
More recently the practice has been to name stadiums after their financial sponsors, as in The Emirates stadium, the new home of Arsenal. The strength of feeling that a change of an existing stadium name can provoke was apparent from the furore that broke out when the traditional home of Newcastle United, St. James’s Park, was rebadged as the Sports Direct Arena by Mike Ashley, who owns both the club and Sports Direct. The original name was restored by Wonga.com when they became the club’s main sponsors in 2012. Less contentious is the practice of naming individual stands after famous names associated with the club. On his retirement in 2011, Manchester United named the North stand of its Old Trafford stadium (memorably labelled ‘The Theatre of Dreams’ by Sir Bobby Charlton) after its most successful manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. Jürgen Klopp’s appointment as manager of Liverpool F.C. in October 2015 was a gift to journalists in search of appropriate puns, since his surname recalls the name of the famous stand at Anfield known as The Kop. The Liverpool stand was named after Spion Kop, a hill in KwaZulu-Natal, the site of a battle in the Second Boer War, where hundreds of local men serving in the Lancashire Regiment were killed. Whether Klopp will become King of the Kop or a Kop Flopp remains to be seen.