The main function of the club emblem is to intensify feelings of club loyalty with a unique visual motif. It also acts as a label of identity appearing on club badges, ties, notepaper, programmes, flags, offices and every piece of paraphenalia thinkable. When it comes to club crests historically the use of them have gone through two main stages.
In the early years most clubs took as their insignia the coat of arms of their local communities or adopted versions of them, occasionally slightly altered and accompanied by the club’s initials or full name. Coats of arms stem from the ancient traditions of heraldry which can be traced back to the middle of the 12th century, one hundred years or so after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The lords and knights with their private armies found it convenient to have some form of recognition. Few people could read or write so a bold symbol was the obvious answer. Just as a knight, a lord, or a family could have a unique coat of arms, so too could a group of craftsmen or a corporation running a town or a city. Many towns or cities have long established coats of arms and these contain clues as to the history of the place they refer to.
Coats of arms were designed to strict rules and described in a language peculiar to heraldry. This language comes mostly from the Norman French which would have been spoken by the early heralds. Don’t worry. We will stick to natural lingo, for yours and ours sake. To help you interpret the early club insignias in the chapters, it is good to know that the shield in the centre of the designs is known as the arms. The top half of the shield is called the chief and the lower area is the base. The top part of each design is called the crest, usually sitting on a mantle or a helmet. The creatures or objects you find on the left (sinister) and right (dexter) hand side of the shield are the supporters.
Many coats of arms have a motto. The motto was originally a war cry and first appeared on arms in the 14th and 15th Centuries. Civic coats of arms usually have a simple motto suggesting and encouraging improvement, progress, aims and achievement. Birmingham Council’s motto for instance is ‘Forward’.
Badges weren’t often worn on shirts in regular play. Since most of the club badges were in fact heraldic emblems of such intricacy they were very expensive to embroider and probably would have faded away due to frequent washing.
When tremendous progress was made in the textile industry by the use of fast colour dyes a simple monogrammed badge became en vogue, although not necessarily officially recognised as the club’s official icon. The majority of the heraldic emblems were saved for stationery , special occasions such as Cup Finals, like Bolton Wanders in 1923, or sewn on club blazers, proudly worn at Swansea City and Torquay United.
The earliest reference to a club badge being worn on shirts, or rather jerseys, was in 1880-1 when Aston Villa proudly took to the field attired in new jerseys of maroon with the club emblem of a rampant lion emblazoned across their prematurely swelling chests.
Many ancient emblems have since vanished. They disappeared because they were too widely used by other local organisations. Football clubs wanted a unique label of their own, easier to recognize at a glance.
From a more cynical perspective clubs could not obtain a copyright of their badge because it was primarily an existing coat of arms. However, ancient soccer crests do still survive. Rochdale and Bury are fine examples.
The second stage in the history of emblems sees commercial powers sacrilegiously altering complicated yet easily recognised and emotive badges. Clubs became more aware of the merchandising potential of their badges and started paying great attention to essential corporate branding. Animalistic creatures were often chosen for their somewhat fearsome appearance and are usually shown scowling and menacing. Lions, tigers and wolves are popular. Birds of prey, such as eagles, hawks and owls are also popular, so is the stag, the ram, the stallion or the blood-thirsty fighting-cock. This menagerie is not the only form of image. Weapons and other warlike symbols too are favoured. Swords, canons, axes, warriors and knights are often depicted in club crests.
Many an iconic metamorphosis was the result of a changed image, reflecting and defining the characteristics of the twentieth century. Are they sophisticated? Are they designed according to thoughtless and ignorant dictates of a modern capitalistic PLC? Are they a betrayal of aesthetic and historic sensibility? Does commercial gain justify some of the most insidious and ugliest of ducklings? We will let you decide, speculating subjectively and potentially endlessly about the artistic merits and necessity of rebranding.