My daughter and her family visited Whitby on their holidays. They’re football mad, so they went to the pre-season friendly between Whitby Town FC and FC Manchester. The commemorative mug is attached, and set me thinking about team nicknames.
Now, my dad used to take me and my brothers to see Charlton Athletic as kids. Yes, I was there in December 1957 for the most exciting match in the history of the Football League, when we came back from 1-5 down to win 7-6. Charlton were then called the Addicks, which is pretty obviously a version of Athletic despite the various fanciful explanations about winning teams getting a haddock fish supper (though some fans did turn up with plywood haddocks on a pole to wave around). The team played in red shirts – still do – so they ran onto the pitch to the tune of “When The Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along”. But some marketing fool decided later to hold a competition for a better nickname, and “Valiants” was chosen. They play at the Valley, so there is a second-rate pun there, but not much else. Oh, in passing, the Addicks won the FA Cup in 1947 in what was apparently the most tedious match played at the old Wembley: so they enter the record books for the most and least boring matches in English soccer. And if you’re not yet asleep, Charlton were the first club in England to use a substitute.
Back to the topic in hand – sporting nicknames. I like nicknames that tell a story – the Saddlers, the Blades, the Potters, the Quakers. I love names that seem to have no connection at all to current events – like “The Irons” for West Ham United. What I don’t like are names that are invented simply to match American Football, in the hope that changing the name will unleash massive gate or sponsorship receipts. Take Wakefield Trinity, a historic rugby league team that was used for the site of “This Sporting Life”, possibly the greatest British sport-based film. For a few years, some MBA educated idiot decreed that they should be Wakefield Trinity Wildcats. Now, the wildcat is a ferocious predator, but it is small and nowadays found only in Scotland. At least that is within 170 miles of Belle Vue, Trinity’s home ground. The same cannot be said about Leeds and Rhinos, Warrington and Wolves, or London and Broncos, or for that matter Middlesex cricket team and Panthers. Then there’s Sale Sharks: yes, Britain’s furthest-from-the-sea premier rugby club is named after a fish. At least sharks exist, which is more than can be said of Huddersfield’s Giants. Warwickshire County Cricket Club morphs into Birmingham Bears for the short form of the game, based on the bear that appears on the county shield (going back to Earls of Warwick). Leicester Foxes have a similar history, and that’s fine. Well, fine-ish. But, come on, Gloucester Gladiators ? Is that about Spartacus (maybe his mother really came from Chipping Sodbury), or the last RAF biplane fighter ? Talking of which, Kent Spitfires ? I know there were plenty of Battle of Britain airfields in Kent, but many flew Hurricanes and Spitfires were made in Hampshire. And Birmingham. Anywhere but Kent, actually. Does anyone use these modern marketing names without a shudder ? Has a single one of them actually stuck ? Which Yorkshireman will ever be heard to say he’s off to support the Vikings ?
And them there is the affection that there is for criminals. Nottinghamshire Outlaws, I guess, nod in the direction of Robin Hood. But then you get Pirates, Raiders, Buccaneers, Vikings, Renegades, and Brigands. Hey, guys, what’s wrong with a bit of legal compliance here ?
Back to Whitby. Whitby Town FC could have enjoyed some wonderful nicknames. Whitby Vampires, for example, commemorating the arrival of Dracula in the UK. Or Whitby Jets, to refer to the local semi-precious stone. How about The Whalers, to let the world know that this is the town that taught Captain Cook his trade, and which ranged over the oceans to bring back oil for lamps and soaps ? But no, nothing so bold. What we get is : the Seasiders. Doh !