Name that club, but name it properly

THE name of a club invariably has real meaning. While most tell us where they come from and rely on that name alone, other clubs need to have a little extra, perhaps to differentiate themselves in a big city or town, or maybe they seek some sort of recognition of their origins. In England, most club names are fairly conventional, using “Town”, “City” or “United” as part of their identity, but in continental Europe, there has always been a history of politically or socially-motivated titles. In the old eastern bloc, for example, there was a plethora of Spartaks, Dynamos and Lokomotives. There were other, less obvious examples, such as Dukla, Legia and Vorwärts, all of whom with army connections.

Interestingly, there is not always a clear understanding of how club names have originated. For example, in Major League Soccer, they have Real Salt Lake City, a club from Utah. They adopted the “Real” clearly in tribute to the mighty Real Madrid, which translates as “Royal”, which represents the club’s patronage by the monarch. For a US club, founded in 2004, to use this as part of identity was neither accurate or appropriate because it suggests a misunderstanding of what Real Madrid means and stands for. They are not the only MLS club who have aped a European football institution; Inter Miami may want to portray themselves as an international and cosmopolitan club, but at first glance, it looks like the sort of name a hipster fan would give their fantasy football selection.

Similarly, Arsenal in England has a name which struggles to have relevance in the modern age. It originates from the club’s early history when they were known as Woolwich Arsenal, based in south London. There was no military arsenal in north London but they retained their identity when it might have been more respectful to adopt one that reflected the neighbourhood they had moved to – Highbury Hotspur or Inter Islington, perhaps! Arsenal are not alone, for Chelsea is based in London SW6, which is essentially Fulham. Among the names suggested when they were formed included Kensington FC.

Most football clubs owe their roots to the military, religion, academia, politics or industry, so some carry a name that suggests a link or have done so in the past. Clubs like Everton, Aston Villa, Fulham, Manchester City and Southampton all had connections to churches. Manchester United started out with railway workers, West Ham were originally Thames Ironworks and Liverpool was the result of a breakaway from Everton. Very few were formed as a business idea by enterprising individuals – football was seen as much-needed recreation for working class folk, hence factory and mill owners were often keen to fund teams to keep their workforce happy.

Primarily, clubs were supposedly representative of their community and many took the name as a standalone, such as Burnley, Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Stevenage and Walsall. Others added some description – Luton Town, Ipswich Town, Swindon Town and Crawley Town, to name but a few. If they were from a bigger development, it might be Norwich City, Stoke City or Bradford City. And then there were the clubs who might not have had a permanent home, so the tag “Wanderers” became a descriptive part of their name – Bolton Wanderers, for instance. Rovers (and Rangers) also imply a lack of permanent residence, not uncommon in football’s nascent years when clubs played where they could find a pitch.

And then there’s the “Uniteds” of this world. Newcastle United is the result of a series of mergers, the last being between Newcastle East End and Newcastle West End in 1892. Sutton United, a recent arrival in the Football League, was an old merger between Sutton Guild Rovers and Sutton Association. United has also been used to describe the ethos of a club – a group of people united in the cause.

Albion is an almost uniquely British phrase, although there are only three among the 92 – Brighton & Hove Albion, West Bromwich Albion and Burton Albion. The word albion is actually an alternative name for Great Britain, seldom used these days.

If we ever needed a reminder that football names have a logical explanation it is surely Sheffield Wednesday, so called as their origins belonged to shopkeepers who played football on their Wednesday afternoons. Of course, some of the early clubs came from the Old Boy network, notably Old Etonians, FA Cup winners in 1879 and 1882, and Old Carthusians, winners in 1881. Clubs with names akin to the public school era of the game can be found today in the Southern Amateur League.

Club names are part of the romance of the game and the mere mention of Crewe Alexandra, Accrington Stanley, Preston North End, Plymouth Argyle and Nottingham Forest provide us with evidence that football has a rich and varied history.

Midlands early season gloom continues

THE bottom end of the Premier League is currently dominated by the Midlands, that area of England often overlooked when it comes to the battle for major honours. Leicester City have provided the most glorious moments in recent years, winning the Premier in 2016 and FA Cup in 2021, as well as enjoying a decent Champions League run in 2016-17. But this season, Leicester are struggling and sit one place off the foot of the table. Moreover, their manager, Brendan Rodgers, has been under pressure after some disappointing performances.

Leicester’s 2016 title win was a remarkable achievement, but such is the nature of the Premier League, it was always going to be difficult to live up to, especially as they lost some key players from that team in the immediate aftermath. Leicester had to wait for five years for their next taste of glory, winning the FA Cup for the first time after a history of near-misses in the competition. Leicester’s Premier triumph was a one-off, a moment in time when a team of journeymen produced a series of outstanding results, combining a strong team ethic with the element of surprise. It had happened before in football, notably in 1955 and 1962 with Chelsea and Ipswich Town respectively. To some extent, Nottingham Forest in 1978 was another case of unexpected over-achievement.

It was widely believed that Leicester would fill the place vacated by Arsenal and Tottenham in the race for Champions League qualification. For two seasons, they finished fifth, but they tailed-off in 2021-22, finishing eighth. While they lost ground, the two north London sides regrouped and are stronger than they were in 2020. Leicester have effectively lost the initiative.

The Foxes went into the 2022-23 season with a degree of uncertainty hanging over them. Their owner, Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, was badly affected by the pandemic owing to the near collapse of all tourism, and Rodgers was unable to trigger a squad rebuilding programme. The sale of Wesley Fofana for

£ 70 million to Chelsea looked like some form of desperate measure. The pandemic was tough on Leicester and they lost over £ 100 million across the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. At the same time, the club’s wage bill reached a record £ 192 million, 85% of income. In 2019-20, with revenues down to £ 150 million, the wage-to-income ratio was actually over 100%.

Leicester began the season dreadfully and have still only won one game. They still have plenty of talent in their squad and it is difficult to see them staying in the relegation zone. But there may be sacrifices before they begin to seriously recover.

Leicester’s only win in the Premier so far was against fellow midlanders Nottingham Forest, an emphatic 4-0 victory at home. Forest are bottom of the league and have struggled to acclimatise after winning promotion. Away from home, they have scored once in five games. It was always going to be tough for the club after such a long time out of the top flight and even though they spent £ 145 million on new players, some of whom seem a little over-priced.  There was talk of Forest replacing their manager, Steve Cooper, who had been widely praised for getting the club back to the Premier League. However, at the start of October, Cooper signed a new contract that keeps him at the City Ground until 2025. Such a move underlines the long-term view being taken by Forest’s owner Evangelos Marinakis but football can be a fickle game. Clearly, the blame for Forest’s start to the season is being directed elsewhere and there were reports that Marinakis was looking to dispose of the people behind the club’s summer recruitment programme.

If Cooper appears to have been given time to get things right, there are growing fears for the immediate future of Aston Villa coach Steven Gerrard. Villa under Gerrard have failed to impress, his 37 games have yielded a win rate of 32% and they have scored an average of 0.55 goals per game. This is the record of a manager sitting in a very precarious seat. Many Villa fans have turned against Gerrard, which must be a big blow to a manager that probably has his eyes on the job at Liverpool in the not-too-distant future.

Villa remain a big club and their average gate of 41,500 this season highlights their huge potential. In fact, the city of Birmingham is grossly under-represented in English football’s upper echelons. It is hard for them to compete with the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool, but Villa should be better off than they are at the moment. Their revenues for 2020-21 totalled £ 183.6 million, which represents a mid-table position among their Premier League peers. One area that needs looking at is the club’s relatively poor record of generating profits from player sales. In 2020-21, for example, they made just £ 1.4 million. They made an overall pre-tax loss of £ 37.3 million and they have consistently lost money on a seasonal basis. But they have a low level of debt compared to many clubs. Although nobody would surely entertain it, creating a super club in England’s second biggest city may only be possible through merging Villa with their rivals Birmingham.

Wolverhampton Wanderers have found themselves on the downside of a cycle this season. After two seasons finishing seventh in the Premier, their last two campaigns have been less successful and in 2021-22, they were 10th. They lost their highly-rated and popular manager, Nuno Espirito Santo, to Tottenham and have just sacked his replacement, Bruno Lage. While Wolves said farewell to their coach with compliments aplenty, the decline at Molineux dates back to last season. In their last 14 games of 2021-22, they lost nine and looked quite ragged in the final weeks.

They have yet to replace Lage, but Nuno Espirito Santo has been named among a list of possibles. Like Villa, Wolves have the potential to be European contenders. They made a healthy profit in 2020-21 of £ 144.9 million, but their accounts did include an exceptional item of £ 126.5 million, which represented a waiver of debt owed to the club’s Chinese owners, Fosun International.    

How much of the current malaise afflicting midlands football can be attributed to the financial impact of the pandemic? Arguably very little as over the past decade, only three top six placings have been achieved by the region’s clubs, all by Leicester City. Most of the “big six” clubs in the Premier saw their revenues fall between 2019 and 2021, although Manchester City’s actually experienced an increase of 6%. Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham saw their income drop by around 20%, while Chelsea and Liverpool’s earnings dropped far less. Conversely, Aston Villa’s revenues went up from £ 55 million to £ 184 million, due to promotion, but Wolves and Leicester enjoyed rises of 13% and 26% respectively.

Football has always been a cyclical game, with teams building, peaking and declining in a relatively short space of time. The polarised modern game has created clubs that are almost immune to such cycles. Hence, it is hard, almost impossible, to break into the top bracket. Certainly the gap is daunting – since Leicester won the Premier in 2016, the margin between the league champions and the midlands’ top club has been 38 points, more than 12 wins’ worth of points.

The power in English football can be found in London, Manchester and Liverpool. In terms of population, these are three of the top five cities in England. Birmingham is the only city with more than one million people outside of London and it is the second highest city by gross value added. London may have more clubs, but Birmingham has one eighth of the population. Leicester is in the top 10 of cities by population.

There are clubs outside the Premier who might claim they deserve a crack at Premier League football – Stoke City, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion and Derby County are all names that have rubbed shoulders with the very best. At the moment, the Midlands hopes rest with Wolves, Villa and Leicester, but the problem is, they may forever be in the shadow of the “big six”. It would be nice to think that might change, but at the end of the day, it is all about money and the clubs from the heart of the game’s roots are trailing behind the standard bearers of corporate football.