Football has a habit of re-writing history. If it isn’t trotting out statistics with the prefix “since the Premier League began”, then it’s defining a relatively arbitrary cut-off point of “post-war”. Despite these handy devices it has not stopped Manchester United supporters claiming superiority over Liverpool with their 19 titles (first title won in 1908), one ahead of Liverpool’s 18 (first one won in 1921).
When Manchester United won their first league title over 100 years ago the landscape of the English game was very different. United had only been wearing their now famous red kit for six short years (having changed from white in 1902), whilst Liverpool’s regular home strip featured white shorts rather than the now familiar red (the club only changed to all red in the mid 60s). Whilst many of the kits that teams wore in the early part of the 20th Century would be familiar to many football fans today, a lot of the nicknames probably wouldn’t.
One of the most intriguing cases can be seen in Sheffield. Both Wednesday and United were known as “The Blades”, due to the city’s association with steel, United were often called the Cutlers in the early days. It was only when Wednesday made the move across the city to Hillsborough and the Owlerton district that the distinction between the Blades (United) and the Owls (Wednesday) was made.
Throughout the twentieth century clubs have changed, adapted or dumped altogether previous nicknames. The above set of cards was released as part of a set in 1933 by Ogden Cigarettes. It featured fifty different football clubs from the Football League, each card displaying a visual representation of the club’s nickname. This set of Ogden’s Cigarettes Football Nicknames can normally be bought on ebay for about a fiver. It’s likely to be a reproduction set but it’s well worth the outlay as it offers a marvellous insight into 1930s football.
Whilst many know Sunderland as the Black Cats these days it hasn’t always been like that. For much of the 20th Century Sunderland were known as the Rokerites (a reference to their home ground Roker Park) and it was only on moving to the Stadium of Light that they reverted back to their old nickname. Manchester City‘s recent rise to the higher echelons of the Premier League have almost made the requirement for a nickname redundant (in the same way that Alan Green feels everyone should know when he says ‘United’ that he means Manchester United, not Newcastle the same can almost be said for City). Say the word “City” to most football fans and they’ll almost certainly think you mean Manchester (City). However, look in any edition of the Rothmans Football Yearbook and you’ll see that Manchester City’s official nickame is the Citizens. In fact, most clubs with the appellation “City” have been called the Citizens in print at some point or another.
I thought it important to include New Brighton in this list, a club that sadly folded not many years after these cards were produced. They were a club from Merseyside and played their games at Sandheys Park in Rake Lane (which explains their nickname The Rakers). One of their neighbouring clubs Liverpool are also displayed above. They were once known as the Mariners due to the city’s maritime past, but that moniker has long been forgotten and the club are more likely to be referred to as “The Reds” these days. As for Birmingham City‘s nickname, well, the club were once called “Small Heath” and their nickname was the Heathens – and the less said about the depiction the better, I think…
What’s particularly interesting about this set of cigarette cards is that the narrative of each card often mentions that clubs are “depicted as” something rather than nicknames; clubs were often featured in newspapers as cartoons. Blackburn Rovers, according to the narrative on the back of the card, were depicted as a highwayman – indicating how they would often “hold up” their opponents. The Crystal Palace card shows a Glazier. Before the club took on the moniker of The Eagles they were known as the Glaziers, an obvious nod to “the big glass house”, Crystal Palace. Luton Town are known to many today as the Hatters, but in the 1930s they were widely referred to as the Straw Hatters in honour of one of the town’s major industries. They even featured a Straw Plaiter on their badge during this period. The Bristol City card depicts the club as a baby as the club were known as the “Bristol Babes” at the time, unfortunately as the years wore on they took on Robins as their name and in recent years have even toyed with the boorish Cydermen as a nickname.
Whilst many fans are currently bemoaning the money involved in the modern game, The Premier League, Carlos Tevez, EPPP and a variety of football ills there is one that remains in my mind as the greatest injustice and tragedy of them all. It is that in the 1970s Reading Football Club changed their nickname from the Biscuitmen (or Biscuiteers) to the Royals. This affront to decency took place when Huntley & Palmers closed their biscuit factory in Reading. The football club wasting no time in forgetting their history changed their nickname to the Royals due to some dubious link between Berkshire and the Royal family. This insult to football has led to an entire generation of headline writers to miss out on such beauties as “Reading crumble as opposition take the biscuit”. It is a loss that the football family has had to bare for over 40 years.