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.

The Football Alliance: The forgotten league from the Victorian age

WHEN the Football League was formed in 1888, there were already hundreds of clubs in existence across Great Britain. The game had been adopted by thousands of people from many walks of life: schools, colleges and universities; church groups; and industry. From these three strands of society, the majority of clubs owe their origins. The league would comprise 12 teams, so it was inevitable there would be a number of disappointed clubs that could not gain admission.

In 1889, another league was proposed, largely consisting of clubs who were either not invited or whose bid to join had been rejected or ignored. The Football Alliance was inaugurated and like its bigger brother, the teams were from the north and the midlands, emphasising where the growth of football was coming from. As James Walvin noted in his book, The People’s Game, “Football ideally fitted the nature and needs of urban industrial life”.

The Alliance was the brainchild of Crewe Alexandra’s secretary J.G. Hall who had been involved with another competition, The Combination, which floundered due to poor organisation and unfulfillment of fixtures.

The Alliance became a de facto second division of the Football League in all but name. Among the first 12 members were some well respected clubs, such as Crewe, who had reached the FA Cup semi-final in 1888, losing to the eventual winners, Preston North End who would then go on to win the Football League champions and FA Cup winners to clinch the first “double” and earn the nickname, “the Invincibles”.

Nottingham Forest, who had been overlooked in favour of Notts County by the Football League were also involved in the Alliance’s first campaign, along with Newton Heath (Manchester United’s forerunner), Grimsby Town and Walsall Town Swifts. There was also Long Eaton Rangers, who played one season before disappearing into local football.

Small Heath Alliance, founded in 1875 and would become Birmingham City, were also founder members. They played on Coventry Road at a ground that later became popularly known as Muntz Street. The club was based at this stadium for close on 30 years, despite having a very poor playing surface that earned the nickname, “the celery patch”. Muntz Street soon became impractical and the club moved to what became St. Andrews.

There was another team from Birmingham in that first Alliance season, Birmingham St. George’s, which was the result of a series of club mergers, notably Mitchell’s and St. George’s in 1881. The club had a relatively short life, disbanding in 1892 due to financial difficulties as Small Heath and Aston Villa started to dominate local football. 

The Alliance also included some names that fell away from prominence. Darwen FC folded as recently as 2009 (although a successor club was formed immediately), but had their moments in the FA Cup and played in the Football League between 1891 and 1899. Darwen finished sixth in 1890 and 1891 and were then elected to the League. Earlier in the club’s history, they included Fergus Suter in their ranks, reputed to be the first professional player and the subject of the recent TV dramatization The English Game.

Bootle was another northern club that folded before being reformed. The original Bootle club was founded in 1879 at a time when the Merseyside town was growing rapidly. It was a popular home for wealthy merchants who prospered from the rise of Liverpool as a port. Bootle’s main rivals were Everton and when the Football League was being set-up, the organisers only required one club from the Liverpool area. Bootle missed out but enjoyed a very successful year in 1889-90, finishing runners-up in the Alliance by four points and also reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, losing 7-0 to Blackburn Rovers. Bootle later became founder members of the second division in 1892 but resigned after a solitary year.

The Alliance clubs fared well in the FA Cup in 1890 and The Wednesday reached the final after beating Football League members Accrington, Bolton Wanderers and Notts County on the way. Wednesday were a decent side and had England internationals in Teddy Brayshaw and Billy Betts in their line-up, as well as one of the early adopters of man-to-man marking, Jack Dungworth. Their star man was Albert Mumford, known as “Clinks”, who scored the vital goals against Bolton Wanderers in the semi-final.

Blackburn, their opponents in the cup final, easily won by 6-1, but reaching the final highlighted there was talent outside the League. Wednesday also won the Alliance, but the following season saw them, bizarrely, finish bottom, before recovering in 1891-92 and securing election to the Football League. 

The second champions of the Alliance, in 1891, were Stoke City, who had finished bottom of the Football League in 1889 and 1890 and were not re-elected. Stoke had retained players who appeared in the League and their squad included players like Tommy Clare and Bill Rowley, who had been capped by England. Their leading scorer was the extremely versatile Alfie Edge, who netted 12 goals in 22 games.

In 1891, the first hint of a southern entrant came in the form of Royal Arsenal, who had just turned professional. They expressed an interest in joining the Alliance, but they missed their chance. They did join the Football League in 1893 as Woolwich Arsenal. 

In 1892, the final year of the competition, Nottingham Forest were champions, a team that had stunned the football establishment by beating Preston North End in the FA Cup in front of 20,000 people. The overall standard of the Alliance was evident when a representative game with the Football League at Sheffield ended all-square. As the League sought to expand, the union of the two leagues took place in 1892, allowing the Football League to create an official second division. 

The Alliance was short-lived, perhaps, but it proved there was strength in depth within the football community and as the Football League grew in confidence, its merger was inevitable. Despite its important role in spreading organised football, the competition has been somewhat overlooked in the history of the game.