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22 January 2020

“There’s only one United,” they sing at Old Trafford. Not true, there’s another 12 of them

Our commentators, too, act as if there is only one sodding United.

By Hunter Davies

It must be so galling for football fans all over the country, from Carlisle to Cambridge, to hear our beloved commentators twittering on all the time about United. Now here is the latest news about United… Is Pogba leaving United? Are United going to buy Lumpo Van Kickaball? More about United later after this break… As if there is only one sodding United.

For most of our callow commentators, Manchester United has been the richest, most successful and most followed club during their callow lifetime. “United” has become a generic term.

There are three other famous Uniteds in the Premier League, each older than Man Utd, who did not acquire the suffix till 1902; before that they were Newton Heath. Sheffield United was formed in 1889, and not only is the club older than Man Utd but for a lot of this season it has been higher in the league. Newcastle United was formed in 1892; West Ham United in 1900.

West Ham was originally Thames Ironworks, founded in 1895 by employees of the Thames Ironworks shipbuilding company. Fab name, Thames Ironworks. Shame it is no longer being shouted from the terraces. Except it partly is. You still hear West Ham fans shouting, “Come on you Irons!” The club symbol is a pair of crossed hammers, representing the shipyard workers, while the “ham” bit reflects where they were located, so a double pun.

Right, then, which is the most popular club name in the four divisions of the English league? You have ten seconds. Sorry, too late.

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The total for Uniteds is 13: Sheffield, Newcastle, Manchester, West Ham, Leeds, Peterborough, Oxford, Rotherham, Southend, Cambridge, Carlisle, Scunthorpe and Colchester. But City comes first with 14: Leicester, Manchester, Norwich, Swansea, Bristol, Hull, Birmingham, Cardiff, Stoke, Coventry, Lincoln, Bradford, Exeter and Salford.

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There are 12 Towns: Huddersfield, Luton, Ipswich, Fleetwood, Shrewsbury, Crawley, Swindon, Grimsby, Cheltenham, Macclesfield, Northampton and Mansfield. There are four Rovers: Bristol, Doncaster, Tranmere and Blackburn; three Albions: Brighton & Hove, West Brom and Burton; and three Athletics: Charlton, Wigan and Oldham.

Three Wanderers survive: Wycombe, Bolton and Wolverhampton. There used to be loads more Wanderers – and also Rovers. In both cases, the name came from the fact that in the mid-19th century the clubs wandered or roamed, not having a permanent home.

The original Wanderers, simply known as the Wanderers, was a London amateur club, founded in 1859. They won the FA Cup five times but disbanded in 1887; even I can’t remember watching them play.

Names of clubs do tell you a lot. Sheffield Wednesday, formed in 1867, got their name from the Wednesday Cricket Club, established in 1820, which always played on a Wednesday. Plymouth Argyle are said by some to have got their name from the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, who were once barracked locally, or possibly from a pub team based at the Argyle Tavern. Club historians constantly argue about the origin of their clubs’ names, so both those theories might well be bollocks.

Spurs is clearly a classy club because its name comes from Harry Hotspur, as in Shakespeare. Hotspur was the eldest son of the 1st Earl of Northumberland, who had his London seat at Northumberland Park; Spurs played their early games nearby.

In Argentina you have Newell’s Old Boys, Racing Club, Boca Juniors. In Switzerland there are Grasshoppers in Zurich and Old Boys in Basel. The names indicate that their founders were probably British expats who began their own football or cricket clubs abroad.

AC Milan is still called AC Milan, with the English spelling, even though the Italians call Milan Milano.

For your homework, I want you to tell me in which town Queen of the South is based. No cheating… 

This article appears in the 22 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people