There are at least 16 English football (soccer) clubs with “United” in their name, including Newcastle United, West Ham United, Leeds United, Carlisle United, Colchester United, Exeter United, Hartlepool United, Peterborough United, Oxford United… and a little team you might have heard of called Manchester United. America’s Major League Soccer (MLS) even has one such team: DC United.
But why are they “United”, anyway?
Around 150 years ago, it was common for larger English cities to have multiple teams, usually named after the neighborhood they played in. To use New York City as an example, you might have the Gramercy Park Raiders, East Village Bulldogs, SoHo Wildcats and Battery Park Titans. Many of the oldest American football teams had similar beginnings: the Arizona Cardinals, for instance, were known as the “Racine Normals” for several years because they played in Normal Park on Racine Avenue. And the Chicago Bears began as the Decatur Staleys because they were created as a “company team” for A. E. Staley Manufacturing, a corn starch company from Decatur, Illinois.
At any rate, it was all very informal on both sides of the Atlantic at first. But as English football became more and more popular, teams would merge so that they could be competitive with teams from other cities. So the Gramercy Park Raiders, East Village Bulldogs, SoHo Wildcats and Battery Park Titans would merge to create “Manhattan United”.
But the unexpected bit of it is that the first “United” team was actually a cricket team.
By the 1850s, there were several cricket teams in the city of Sheffield. In many cases, these teams were borrowing each other’s grounds (playing fields), or using whatever ground could be improvised on game day. In 1854, a cricket enthusiast named Michael J. Ellison leased a plot of land from the Duke of Norfolk and built a cricket ground called Bramall Lane. Ellison urged several cricket clubs to merge and play at his grounds, and the result was Sheffield United Cricket Club. Sort of. The team didn’t go by that name, at least at first. “Sheffield United” was the name of the company that managed the team. They wouldn’t officially be known as the Sheffield United Cricket Club until 1895.
In the meantime, football continued to explode in popularity, and in 1862 Sheffield United Cricket Club allowed the Sheffield Football Club (FC) to use Bramall Lane as its home grounds. Sheffield FC left in 1875, and the Sheffield Wednesday FC called Bramall Lane home from 1880 to 1887. Sheffield Wednesday started as a cricket club that played its matches on Wednesdays (hence the name). Wednesday’s management started the football side of the club to keep the team together and in shape during the winter months, when cricket was on hiatus.
The Sheffield United Cricket Club knew a good thing when they saw it, so on March 22, 1889 club president Sir Charles Clegg started Sheffield United FC. And why not? Clegg was already chairman of Sheffield FC and Sheffield Wednesday FC. Besides, Bramall Lane really needed the income in cricket’s offseason.
So yes, other teams followed Sheffield’s lead and named their combined teams “United”, too.
Lastly, although Sheffield United Cricket Club left Bramall Lane in 1973, the ground is still used by Sheffield United FC, who are known as the “Blades” after the city’s legendary steel industry. This makes Bramall Lane, 157 years old this year, the oldest football stadium in the world.