When people talk about football as an art, they are generally referring to the game itself. The language of creative endeavour is often applied to a football match, whether we describe a goal as ‘a masterpiece’, a pass as ‘picture perfect’ or a moment of individual self-expression as a ‘stroke of genius’, as if the player involved were a master painter putting the final touches to some sublime work. Even in referring to football as ‘the beautiful game’, we acknowledge that it has some aesthetic significance above and beyond other sports; that it exists on a higher cultural plane where grace, style and visual elegance are paramount. Still, while a football match may be considered a form of artistic expression in a figurative sense, there is much de facto art in the game that has symbolic meaning which is often ignored.

While classic kit designs, stadium murals and commemorative statuary are all obvious examples of artistry from the world of football, perhaps the most underappreciated art comes in the form of club badges and crests. Though many fans pay little real attention to the badge of an opposing team, there is much to be learnt about a side from the image emblazoned on their shirts. These images are emblematic of the way a football club understands its identity, whether in relation to sporting philosophy, the personality of the fans, history and heritage or links to its local area. Some badges even border on the allegorical, telling a story about the club which serves to illustrate some greater significance to its place in the game.

As well as illustrating how a club and its community perceive themselves, badges show how a club would like to be perceived. They are a form of communication and are intended to evoke an emotional response from opponents and outsiders. This is why, when identifying common themes in the insignia of English football, we most often come across martial, industrial and animal iconography, emblems which not only express a sense of identity but also serve as a warning to others. These are proud and intimidating motifs, designed to catch the eye of a club’s adversaries and give them serious pause for thought.

Among the best club badges in English football – this being a subjective judgement, of course – some of the most striking relate to industry. With so many football clubs originally formed as works teams or created to serve a town with some speciality in manufacturing, there are crests up and down the country which feature factories, chimneys, dockyards and mines. While these are fundamentally mundane in one sense, they are also suggestive of hard work, physical sacrifice and a no-nonsense, sleeves-rolled-up mentality, all of which are traditionally necessary to lump it in the English league system. Basically, not only are industrial motifs emblematic of a football club’s working-class heritage, they also imply that the team and their fans are likely to be hard as nails.

So we come to one of the most eye catching badges in all of England, namely the fist and girder motif of Scunthorpe United. While it may look like something dreamt up by a workers’ council in Petrograd at the height of the Russian Revolution – and certainly appears to be stylistically influenced by Socialist Realism – it was in fact created by a local design student back in the nineties when the town council, whose coat of arms had been used as the previous badge, ended their sponsorship deal with the club. The girder of the current crest represents Scunthorpe’s famous iron and steel industry, while the clenched fist represents unity and strength with all the aplomb of a historical trade union banner. The thunderous motion of the image, clenched fist punching upwards while gripping the giant steel beam tightly, is suggestive of an intense and brawny brand of football, which combined with the Iron’s bold claret and blue colour scheme makes it an absolute belter of a badge.

Though it’s hard to imagine a more working-class club crest than one featuring a sturdy industrial girder, Darlington 1883 of the National League North give Scunthorpe a run for their money. Their badge is, as far as we are aware, the only one in the world to feature both a big ol’ Quaker hat and a steam locomotive, this as a nod to the traditional influence of Quakerism in the town and the historical importance of the railway industry to its inhabitants. Set against a red and white background divided by a pronounced diagonal line, the badge gives mixed messages which are doubtlessly intended to confuse the opposition. On the one hand, there is the inherent peacefulness of the Quakers, and on the other, the terrifying power of the enormous steam train, hurtling towards us with all the implacable strength of the River Tees in full spate.

With a brief nod to Barnsley’s badge which – while aesthetically uninspired and ripped off from the local council – features an actual miner, which has to be worth something in terms of working-class cachet, we now find ourselves looking at industrial badges which spill over thematically into something else. Just as the Darlington crest is a paean to both industry and religion, so the Morecambe badge pays homage to both the local fishing industry and the animal kingdom, with the animal in question a massive marine crustacean with spindly head tendrils. The appropriately named Shrimps adopted their current club crest in 2010, celebrating their move from Christie Park to the Globe Arena with a rebranded logo in place of the town coat of arms. Though shrimps are not widely considered to be lethal animals – when potted, they are in fact a Morecambe Bay delicacy – they nonetheless have creepy little features which, when blown up to club crest proportions, could terrify even the hardiest of League Two footballers.

While Morecambe strike terror into the opposition by sporting an image of a gigantic shrimp, other clubs have gone with animals which are more traditionally associated with fear. So the undeniably brilliant Millwall badge features a variant on the heraldic lion, with the creature leaping forward – claws extended – from the navy blue abyss. Though Millwall were originally a works side born of J.T. Morton’s canning factory on the Isle of Dogs, they couldn’t exactly go for a tin of non-perishables on their badge, and so had to seek out some other emblem. When they were dubbed the ‘Lions of the South’ after a strong run in the FA Cup at the turn of the twentieth century, it suited the team to appropriate the nickname. This in turn led to the lion logo being adopted in the thirties, when it was originally red as opposed to white on blue.

Though Millwall’s leaping lion brings the terror factor – not least as it is now commonly associated with a less metaphorical form of violence from the heyday of English hooliganism – the comparatively serene and thoughtful lion on Salford City’s badge is similarly compelling. There were Salford fans who were not best pleased when the club’s image underwent an overhaul under the ownership of the Class of ’92, but with its hexagonal shape and interpretive design the new badge is, in fairness, considerably more distinctive than its predecessor. While the origins of the Salford logo are ultramodern in this sense, it is not stylistically dissimilar to the wonderfully angular Wolverhampton Wanderers motif, with that other deadly and menacing creature looking comparably thoughtful on the Wolves badge. That said, the Salford City lion looks as if it is pondering something philosophical – like the ethical implications of former Premier League footballers commandeering a local non-league side, say – while the Wolverhampton wolf appears to be thinking solely about devouring its prey with its merciless, menacing, triangular eyes.

The single wolf’s head on the Wolves badge dates back to 1979, before which the crest featured three leaping wolves which were emblazoned on the centre of the club’s home shirts. If the nominal Wolverhampton wolf is one of the most menacing creatures ever to appear on a football shirt, we ought also to identify the least menacing, which is surely the bewildered Herefordshire bull of the fantastic Hereford FC badge, an animal which looks like it has wandered into a football club crest entirely by chance. For some clubs, one fearsome animal is not enough, as is the case with Poole Town who sport two monstrous dolphins on their aesthetically excellent badge. While some might contest the use of the term ‘monstrous’ here, Greek mythology would have it that dolphins are warped and mutated sailors condemned by Poseidon to live in the oceans, which seems pretty horrific really. Whether or not the designers of the Poole Town crest were aware of this is sadly unclear.

For those clubs for whom monstrous animals are not sufficiently intimidating, the last resort is an actual monster. That certainly seems to be the case with Coventry Sphinx, a club which competes in the Midland Premier Division and sports the riddling Egyptian beast on their crest. This ties back into the theme of industry in that the club were originally the works team of Armstrong Siddeley, a British motor company which used the sphinx as a logo and bonnet ornament on their cars. The Coventry Sphinx badge is possibly the most stylish in all the Midlands, though it is naturally run close by the globe, ribbon and ball of Birmingham City, a crest which was chosen through a competition run by the Sports Argus newspaper in the early seventies, and which remains both instantly recognisable and remarkably elegant to this day.

Perhaps the most common monster in football iconography is the wyvern, with a pair of the reptilian beasts adorning the badges of Carlisle United and Leyton Orient. In both cases these are symbolic of their locality, with wyverns taking pride of place on the crest of the City of London and representative of the region of Cumbria, too. It’s hard not to make a wyvern eye catching, to be honest, what with its sinister serpentine body and vaguely satanic visage. It comes second in the devilish stakes only to the malevolent imp on the Lincoln City badge, which was introduced in 1971 in replacement of, that’s right, the municipal coat of arms. The inspiration for the cross-legged demon comes from a grotesque statue on the wall of Lincoln Cathedral, hence providing us with an artwork from the world of football which is a direct imitation of pre-existing art.

Given its belligerent and aggressive connotations, martial imagery on club badges is perhaps the hardest to miss. Barring obvious badges like the famous Arsenal cannon – an emblem which traces its origins back to the Woolwich Arsenal and the munitions workers who gave the club its name – there is the stylised Hellenic helmet of Blyth Spartans, the minimalist raised sword of Charlton Athletic and the heavily armoured gladiator of Matlock Town, which together represent some of the best designed crests in the land. While the Spartan helmet should be self-explanatory and the Charlton sword dates back to the sixties, when the club adopted its ‘Valiants’ nickname, the emergence of the Matlock Town badge is rather more obscure. Indeed, the people of Matlock seems to have little by way of historical links to the Roman Empire, or indeed any particular reputation for making men kill each other in an amphitheatre for their sadistic entertainment.

And as for the most distinctive club badge in all of English football? This accolade must surely go to Hemel Hempstead Town, whose crest is an intricate red outline of infamous wife murderer (and town patron) Henry VIII. As a military man who was also a monster Henry represents something of a thematic mash up, as well as a reminder to opposition supporters that they are in the presence of ruthless footballing royalty, or whatever passes for such in the National League South. The inspiration for the Hemel motif is twofold, in that it draws on the famous portrait of Henry VIII as painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, which one might think would give it enormous artistic merit. Unfortunately, the club badge is actually an imitation of an imitation in the form of a Holbeinesque plaque with Henry VIII’s face on it, long displayed on the front of a council building in Hemel town centre. Does that detract from its cultural significance a tad? Only the residents of Hemel can say.

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