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Pilchards, Urchins and the Clockwork Cheese: hunting sport’s quirkiest nicknames

Four years ago one journalist, who enjoys going to obscure non-league football matches on wintry evenings, emailed another journalist, who enjoys quirky facts, to inform him that the Cornish team Perranporth, who play in the St Piran League Division 4 West, were known as the Pilchards. Also that their manager had once been quoted as saying: “I’m gutted.”

Thus began an intermittent correspondence where we regaled each other with new revelations about nicknames from the lesser known tiers of English football. We discovered the Highwaymen, the Peppermints, the Jam Boys and the Dabbers. Muscular names like the Nailers, the Lockmen, the Turbines and the Iron. And dainty ones like the Tulips, the Lilies, the Marigolds and the Dolly Blues.

Related: The Joy of Six: sporting nicknames | John Ashdown

We found varied delights like the Bloods, the Urchins and the Holy Blues. Animals from the Pewits to the Hippos. Obvious ones like the Mintcakes and the Baht’atters …If you’re puzzled even by those, all the answers are given below.

But it is the non-obvious names that are the most diverting. For instance, the West Midlands team Halesowen Town are known to their devotees as the Yeltz. It dates back to at least 1881 and seems to connect with the Black Country habit of turning an initial H into Y. So it could refer to the placename or it’s a corruption of “Ye Earls”, the Earls of Dudley who were the major landowners of the area. Or something else.

A young Halesowen fan in front of a sign saying Up the Yeltz
A young Halesowen fan on matchday at the Grove. Photograph: Cameron Smith/Getty Images

Stamford FC in Lincolnshire are the Daniels, the town being the burial place of Daniel Lambert (1770-1809), 52 stone and famously the fattest man in England. Not quite a sporting role model, though. Then there are the Geordies, Hanwell Town FC, on the Paddington line west of London – who were founded by exiled Novocastrians and still play in black and white stripes 103 years later. And what about the Krooners, Camberley Town? They play in Krooner Park, reputedly named because it was paid for by winnings from a horse called Krooner.

On a planet that only recognises about six English football teams, this was a splendid diversion. It was a lesson in geography, history and local lore and also an insight into the wisdom of crowds and the infinite variety that still persists in an increasingly homogenous country. It is also highly addictive. But the rarely explored depths of English football are by no means the only gushing well in the nickname oilfield.

Perhaps nowhere in football does it better than the Scots. Consider the Bully Wee, the Blue Brazil, the Red Lichties, the Doonhamers, the Loons and the Hi Hi. Loch Ness FC, who made it into the Scottish Cup this year, do not own up to the obvious moniker which could sink even the Hippos. But they are not above using the connection to sell merch.

Some nicknames seem to have gathered dust. Do the denizens of Abu Dhabi’s most northerly colony chat among themselves about the Citizens? When did you last hear a mention of Spurs as the Lilywhites or Leeds as the Peacocks? Even when they were still in the Football League nearly half a century ago, did anyone ever shout in Southport: “Come on, you Sandgrounders”?

And whereas nicknames, like terrace chants, should constitute a form of folk art, this is now global infantilisation spread by marketing departments. Crystal Palace (née the Glaziers) and Reading (née the Biscuitmen) are now the Eagles and Royals, which suit headline writers. And phoney top-down nicknames are rife in rugby (which has provided such zoological nonsenses as the Leeds Rhinos and the Sale Sharks) and cricket.

Only one decent name has come from such a source: the Northamptonshire Steelbacks, which was the nickname of the local regiment whose 18th century soldiers were famously phlegmatic when subject to discipline from the cat ‘o nine tails. It could also refer to the modern cricket team, who also remain stoical despite being whipped frequently.

Sometimes, public opinion does outweigh officialdom. West Bromwich Albion’s old nickname of the Throstles has long been superseded by the Baggies, which probably refers either to baggy shorts or the bags in which the turnstile attendants carried the coins. The writer Phil Shaw, now based in Shrewsbury, reports that it is very uncool to call the local team the Shrews; the in crowd always call it Salop. There are also nicknames within nicknames. Like the Gooners.

But look further afield. Wikipedia has a massive list of US college teams with squillions of boringly obvious animals, but also the Banana Slugs, Pronghorns, Thundering Chickens, Gamecocks, Triceratops, Fighting Artichokes, Minutewomen and Zips.

American nicknames are usually part of the official name and therefore get curated and discarded according to changing tastes. In the nation’s capital, the basketball-playing Washington Bullets morphed into the Wizards and the Redskins more recently became the Commanders, for obvious reasons. And this very year the city’s George Washington University has altered its teams’ name from Colonials to Revolutionaries, a switch that might have made more sense in the 1770s.

We must also note the Alabama-based minor league baseball team, the Rocket City Trash Pandas (local slang for raccoons), a name that dates back as far as 2017, and must be marked down for obvious, and evidently successful, attention seeking.

Nor are nicknames an anglophone monopoly. Every African national football team has a nickname from South Africa’s evocative Bafana Bafana (the Boys, the Boys) to Benin’s Les Écureuils (the Squirrels – small but able to climb), which the country’s football authorities are trying to change to Cheetahs, a move that deserves to fail. Spain has Los Boquerones (Málaga), Los Colchoneros (Atlético Madrid), Queso Mecánico (Albacete) and Los Pepineros (Leganés) - the Anchovies, the Mattress Makers, the Clockwork Cheese and the Cucumber Growers (multiple hat-tips to the Guardian’s Niall McVeigh).

In Germany Eintracht Frankfurt are variously nicknamed Die Adler, Schlappekicker and Launische Diva - the Eagles (boring), Slipper-kickers (delightful) and Moody Diva (ditto, referring to their improbable fluctuations in form).

Perhaps the best of all we know so far is “The Diddy”, the now official nickname for the Longueville Sporting Club in Sydney. Primarily devoted to lawn bowls, though now notably welcoming to children, the club long suffered from the members’ average age and the inevitable consequences. Old friends would disappear and when someone asked where they were, they would be told the sad news which would be regularly received with the words “Oh, did he die, did he?” And the phrase stuck, and they became the Diddy-Dies, before being further shortened, so as not to frighten the children.

Someone, somewhere from Cowdenbeath or China may have a better nickname story than this. Let us know and maybe we can uncover some more gems.

On Tuesday, Richard Whitehead will probably be watching Wimborne Town (the Magpies) v Larkhall Athletic (the Larks). Matthew Engel will not.

What’s in a (nick)name?

HighwaymenMorpeth Town, Northumberland
Probably from proximity to the once crime-ridden Great North Road

Peppermints Newquay, Cornwall

Jam Boys Whitchurch United, Hampshire

Dabbers Nantwich Town, Cheshire

Nailers Belper Town, Derbyshire

Lockmen Willenhall Town (in abeyance), West Midlands

Turbines Peterborough Sports, Cambridgeshire
Formed as the factory team for an engineering works

Iron Scunthorpe United, Lincolnshire, and Braintree Town, Essex

Tulips Spalding United, Lincolnshire

Lilies Chatteris Town, Cambridgeshire

Marigolds Littlehampton Town, West Sussex

Dolly Blues Lancaster City, Lancashire
The shirts were the colour of the dolly blue bags that formerly helped whiten clothes

Bloods Saffron Walden Town, Essex

Urchins Hornchurch, east London

Holy Blues Gainsborough Trinity, Lincolnshire

Pewits Emley, Yorkshire

Hippos Honiton Town, Devon

Mintcakes Kendal Town, Cumbria

Baht’atters Ilkley, West Yorkshire

Bully Wee Clyde, Glasgow
Uncertain origin, but possibly “bully” in the Victorian sense of excellent, even though “wee”

Blue Brazil Cowdenbeath, Fife
According to programme editor David Allan, this arose from a spell in the 80s when they played thrilling football

The Hi Hi Third Lanark, Glasgow (defunct 1967)
From an ancient fan chant

Red Lichties Arbroath, Angus
After the red light that guided fishing boats into the harbour

Doonhamers Queen of the South
Nickname for the people of Dumfries, the club’s home

Loons Forfar Athletic, Angus
From the original meaning of loons: men

Banana Slugs University of California, Santa Cruz

Pronghorns Gillette College, Wyoming

Thundering Chickens Community College, Wheeling, West Virginia

Gamecocks Jacksonville State University, Alabama

Triceratops Community College, Cuyahoga, Ohio

Fighting Artichokes Community College, Scottsdale, Arizona

Minutewomen University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Zips University of Akron, Ohio

Callout