Their names are spoken week in, week out over television feeds and radio broadcasts, in pubs and on the pitch. Official football club names provide something formal to be listed in the record books, but it’s with nicknames that surging affection – and sometimes contemptuous derision – from fans is expressed towards the clubs they love best. They’ve evolved organically, historically, and in some cases through highly manufactured means, but regardless of the rationale behind them, a nickname can provide insights into where a club came from.
But for all their variety, the nicknames worn by England’s clubs can be categorized into a small handful of thematic groups. With a brand new season on the horizon, it’s an opportunity to take a look at just how much England’s teams have in common once you do a bit of digging.
A few caveats. First, England has literally hundreds of football clubs – 736 of them will compete in the FA Cup this season – but in the interest of manageability, focus will be kept on the 92 teams participating in the top four divisions this campaign. That means missing out on such classics as the Atom Men (AFC Aldermaston), the Carpetmen (Kidderminster Harriers), and the Mushrooms (Hayes & Yeading United), so nicknamed due to the club’s board keeping supporters in the dark. Second, many teams also have more than one nickname and rather than listing clubs multiple times in multiple categories, executive decisions have been made about which of the nicknames to explore. Finally, the origins of many nicknames are vague, have conflicting geneses, or are lost to history altogether. Though accuracy is paramount, some clubs themselves aren’t sure which story about their nickname is the true story.
The nicknames that come easiest are those that require the least amount of imagination, and if you can take a shortcut to get there, all the better. Lopping off a few syllables from the official club name has served many a team well over the 150 years, as Stanley (Accrington Stanley), Gills (Gillingham), Dons (MK Dons), Dale (Rochdale), and Shrews (Shrewsbury Town) all demonstrate. Stevenage would seem an exception to this rule until you learn that Boro is in fact short for the club’s original name, Stevenage Borough, whereas Pompey is the nickname of Portsmouth the city and thus Portsmouth the club. Latics serves as a derivative of Athletic for Oldham Athletic and Wigan Athletic, and the origin of Valiants as a nickname for Port Vale is similarly obvious. Finally, if absolute minimalism is your style, O’s (Leyton Orient) or U’s (Colchester United, Oxford United) might be for you.
But obvious nicknames aren’t limited to syllabic reduction, with the more visually inclined fanbases opting for names inspired by their club’s kits. Blue is a perennial favourite for team colours in sports, so naturally English football has Blues (Chelsea, Birmingham City) and, for the truly fastidious, Sky Blues (Coventry City). Shades in the crimson spectrum are nearly as popular, with Reds (Liverpool) and Clarets (Burnley) amongst those who opt for warmer coloured strips. A handful of clubs have adopted variations on white, including the Lilywhites (Preston North End), whereas the Yellows (Cambridge United) of the game are fewer and far between. Occasionally, those who can’t decide on a single colour look to other design elements for inspiration, with the Hoops (Queens Park Rangers) being a popular option for horizontal stripe enthusiasts.
There are teams far beyond those already mentioned who have nicknames revolving around short forms or team colours, of course, but all of them have second or even third monikers that are far more interesting when doing a deep dive of this sort. England is in possession of some of the oldest football clubs in the world, many of which originated with close ties to professions and local industry.
One of the oldest comes from Stoke-on-Trent, where a hotbed of ceramic production dating back to the 17th century established both the globally renowned Wedgwood china company and the Potters as the nickname for the local football club (Stoke City). Other clubs known for their ties to things you might find in the home are the Chairboys (Wycombe Wanderers), earning their name from the furniture making tradition in Wycombe; the Blades (Sheffield United), named not for swords or steel-based weaponry but the city’s long history as a titan of cutlery production; and the Saddlers (Walsall), a reference to the town’s famed leather industry.
Speaking of leather, football’s connection to apparel goes further back than the latest bad haircut or celebrity fashion spread that tends to dominate today’s football fashion headlines. Long before the days of Dench or Dolce & Gabbana there were the Hatters (Luton Town), world famous for their production of ladies hats; the Glovers (Yeovil Town), 18th and 19th century leather producers focusing on glove making; and the Cobblers (Northampton Town), named for nearly a millennium of shoemaking history in a region that supplied its wares to the likes of King John, Oliver Cromwell’s army, and many modern luxury brands that no doubt continue to find themselves on the feet of modern footballers.
Moving outdoors again, the world of natural resource extraction is well represented by the Iron (Scunthorpe United), Irons (West Ham United), and even Ironsides (Newport County), three clubs with local ties to both steel and ironworks. Armaments manufacturing lives on with the Gunners (Arsenal), who were formed by workers at the Royal Arsenal in London. The Tractor Boys (Ipswich Town) reveal an agricultural history, and the Railwaymen (Crewe Alexandra) connect to the local rail industry. Seafarers, predictably, show up as nicknames for clubs in a country that is an island, but variations abound in the form of Pirates (Bristol Rovers), Mariners (Grimsby Town), and Vikings (Doncaster Rovers). The connections to Pirates and Mariners are clear for clubs in coastal locations, but for landlocked Doncaster the Viking connection emerged as part of a design contest held when the club were required to select a new crest and a logo featuring a Norse warrior was the winner.
Shrimps (Morecambe) and Shrimpers (Southend United) reveal ties to England’s shrimping industry – surprise! – while the Cod Army (Fleetwood Town) references the town’s fishing heritage. The Addicks (Charlton Athletic) take the catch of the day one step further, having been named not for a local industry but for an evolved pronunciation of “haddock” itself, though there remains some disagreement as to whether the name came about due to the home team’s propensity for sitting down post-match for fish and chips with the opposition or if it came from a local proprietor who used match day as an opportunity to advertise his neighbouring fish and chips shop. Those wanting to wash their meal down with a pint can look to the Brewers (Burton Albion) before polishing things off with a wee bit of dessert from a local biscuit factory who lent their name to the Biscuitmen (Reading), though the name has fallen out of favour.
History can take forms beyond connections to local industry traditions. Though Spurs (Tottenham Hotspur) are well known for the cockerel on their crest, their nickname is said to come from Sir Henry Percy – a.k.a. Sir Harry Hotspur – a 14th-century nobleman who led rebellions against King Henry IV while wearing some very fashionable spurs on his boots, a man captured forever by William Shakespeare in not one but two plays (Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1). Similarly, the Grecians (Exeter City) harken back to the Siege of Troy, though not the actual siege but an 18th-century re-enactment at a fair in which the locals self-identified with the Greeks and the name stuck. Most obviously, the Pilgrims (Plymouth Argyle) are named for the religious group who left England for America on the Mayflower, which features on the club crest.
Religion crops up occasionally in football beyond historical references, with not one but two clubs going by the Red Devils (Crawley Town, Manchester United). The origin of Crawley’s usage of the name is bafflingly difficult to determine, but United take their name from a rugby club in nearby Salford that had been labelled Les Diables Rouges by impressed French journalists. Balancing out the Red Devils are the Saints (Southampton), who originally began life as the football team of the St. Mary’s Church of England Young Men’s Association, a name that lives in the club’s ground, St. Mary’s.
Finally, sometimes you just need to be named after the locals. Folks from Yorkshire can be called Tykes (Barnsley), people from Cumbria in the north west of England are Cumbrians (Carlisle United), and occasionally a name will be limited to municipal boundaries, as Citizens (Manchester City) demonstrates.
Plants & Animals
The natural world runs wild in English football team nicknames, though flora are in short supply as compared to fauna. The Tricky Trees (Nottingham Forest) might be uncommonly used by fans who prefer the Reds or Forest, but surely close proximity to Sherwood Forest is something to be celebrated and enjoyed rather than forgotten about. The Tangerines (Blackpool), are, regrettably, named for bright orange kits rather than the citrus fruit of the same name, but let’s not split hairs. The Cherries (Bournemouth), on the other hand, really are named for the fruit, though opinion is split as to whether the name originates with cherry red shirts or having played near a cherry orchard.
Animals have played the role of mascot for millennia, with mammals dominating though by no means being the only types of creatures to grace team crests. As popular as they are in heraldry as they are in football, cats appear time and time again in the form of Lions (Aston Villa, Millwall), Tigers (Hull City) and Black Cats (Sunderland). Scottish influence at both Villa and Millwall seems to have resulted in the borrowing of a lion from the Scottish coat of arms, whereas Tigers comes from an obvious reaction to black and orange striped kits. The Black Cats boast two origin stories, one involving a black cat that became good luck when it ran across the pitch and one involving a local artillery unit known as the Black Cat Gun Battery.
Canine enthusiasts need not worry as dogs and their brethren are also well represented. In the running for cutest nickname in football are the Terriers (Huddersfield Town), unromantically bestowed on the team by a promotions man within the club. Elsewhere on the Canidae family tree are the Foxes (Leicester City), alluding to Leicestershire as the birthplace of modern fox hunting, and Wolves (Wolverhampton Wanderers), an obvious syllabic reduction but one too classic to file with the rest of the short forms.
Rounding out the animal kingdom are horns and hornets. The Rams (Derby County) take their name either from an existing city symbol or an old regimental folk song called “The Derby Ram,” depending on who you ask. Like the Tricky Trees before them, the Stags (Mansfield Town) make their home near Sherwood Forest but are named for the beasts within rather than the foliage. The Hornets (Watford) and the Bees (Barnet) are both named for kits featuring black and gold stripes, but the Bees (Brentford) emerged as a result of homophonous confusion over 19th-century fans chanting a song called “Buck Up B’s.”
Hands down, birds are the animal that more football team nicknames are named after than any other. There are multiple Magpies (Newcastle United, Notts County), at least three Robins (Bristol City, Cheltenham Town, Swindon Town), but surprisingly few Eagles (Crystal Palace). Seagulls provide a key soundtrack to any seaside visit, so their connection with Brighton & Hove Albion is an absolutely natural fit. The Bantams (Bradford City) are not named for the boxing weight class but the alleged similarity of their claret and gold kits to the feathers of a small but mighty bantam chicken. The Canaries (Norwich City) have zero association with their role as the harbingers of coal mine disaster; rather, they trace back to Renaissance-era weavers who brought the birds with them when emigrating from Flanders to Norwich.
There are even a handful of teams with bird names that are not technically named for our feathered friends. Owls (Sheffield Wednesday) is a shortening of Owlerton, a suburb of Sheffield, with Swans (Swansea City) following a similar approach. Though it’s fallen out of use as a sobriquet since the introduction of an all-white kit, the Peacocks (Leeds United) stemmed not from the regal bird but the original name of Leeds’ ground, the Old Peacock Ground, which in turn was named after the neighbouring Old Peacock pub. But the most obscure among the bird-inspired names are the Bluebirds (Cardiff City), named not for the club switching to a blue kit in 1910 but for a play called The Bluebird of Happiness by Nobel Prize winner Maurice Maeterlinck that found incredible success when it was mounted in Wales in 1911. Theatre!
Odds & Ends
A fair few clubs take their nicknames from the world of architecture. The Spireites (Chesterfield) are named for the famously crooked spire of the Church of St Mary and All Saints. Others opt for references to their home ground, with the Cottagers (Fulham) nicknamed not for the cottage built at the stadium in the early 20th century but for an earlier cottage built on the same site 125 years earlier. Despite their name, the Millers (Rotherham United) do not have a history of grinding grain, but rather evolved from the name of their ground, Millmoor. The Riversiders (Blackburn Rovers) are, unsurprisingly, named for the River Darwen that runs adjacent to the stadium.
There are some clubs that truly defy classification, but it’s in their idiosyncrasies that some of football’s best nicknames are found. There are the Wombles (AFC Wimbledon), taking their name from a series of environmentally conscious children’s books about creatures called Wombles. Then there are the Trotters (Bolton), which is allegedly local slang for someone who likes to play practical jokes, but a story involving players trotting off to retrieve out-of-bounds balls in muddy pig pens certainly demands consideration as well. The Shakers (Bury) are not the church team of a local religious sect but an immortalization of the club’s first chairman’s threat to an opposing team: “We shall shake ’em. In fact we are the Shakers.” The Toffees (Everton) reflect a 1950s tradition in which a woman distributed toffees to fans waiting inside the ground for the match to start, a brilliant piece of promotion for a nearby confectioner.
Posh (Peterborough United) has zero connection to Victoria Beckham but was named with about as much thought when the club’s 1920s manager said he was looking for “posh players for a posh team.” At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Smoggies (Middlesbrough) hold the distinction of being the only team nicknamed for industrial pollution, a dubious honour at best but one that is slowly being embraced by locals as they try to reclaim the pejorative term. No such obvious origin exists for the Baggies (West Bromwich Albion), who could be named for the men who would carry box office cash in large bags through the stadium to a central office, or they could be named for a bunch of theories revolving around the loose trousers worn by local ironworkers who frequently attended matches or even players in kits in sizes far too large for them.
Perhaps the most colourful nickname of them all is the Monkey Hangers (Hartlepool United). Whether it’s the stuff of legend or the genuine truth, the tale told over the years involves a shipwreck on the shores of Hartlepool during the Napoleonic Wars with France. Hartlepool’s patriotic citizens put the only survivor, a monkey, on trial and when the monkey could not answer their questions owing to its lack of ability to speak English, it was promptly declared a French spy and hung. As you do when you encounter a shipwrecked monkey in the Napoleonic era. “Monkey Hangers” is, of course, meant to be rather derogatory, but the club embraced the name and introduced a monkey mascot named H’Angus, his name a portmanteau of “hang” and “Angus.”
Nearly 100 nicknames, even more origin stories, and still only the surface has been scratched on some of the incredible nicknames on offer in English football. But as the last days of the off season wind down, there’s still time left to mine the depths of the football pyramid should a name like the Red Imps (Lincoln City), the Avenue (Bradford Park Avenue) or the Little Club On The Hill (Forest Green Rovers) pique your curiosity.