English football clubs have held nicknames and titles since the 19th century, when the sport first became fully regulated and gained mass popularity.
The most common basis for club nicknames are; local industry, i.e. The Blades (Sheffield United); home strip, i.e. The Blues (Birmingham City); logo, i.e. The Red Devils (Manchester United) and local area/ground, i.e. The Cottagers (Fulham). And while some nicknames are as simple as an abbreviation — take Wolves for example — others require a little more thought to yield transparency.
A particularly endearing case of nickname obscurity comes from Lancashire in the form of The Trotters - Championship side Bolton Wanderers' ambiguous moniker. During the 19th century, one of their pitches was supposedly adjacent to a piggery and clearances would often end up stuck in there. In the absence of ball-boys, players had to 'trot' through the pig pens to retrieve a ball which, funnily enough, was probably made of a pig's bladder.
Though secondary titles are often a nod towards an area's primary industry and thus a source of pride for the club's fans, nicknames have often been used in a derogatory manner, too. The Yids, referring of course to Tottenham Hotspur's North London Jewish heritage, was often used by Arsenal fans as an attack on the club and its supporters. Over the years, many Tottenham fans took the title and made it their own, shifting the power and renovating the name as a key identifier within British football culture.
Some Tottenham fans and members of the public were understandably perturbed by the popularity of the word 'Yid', due to it historically being an abusive term, and one brandished frequently by politician Oswald Mosley and his London-centric fascists circa 1930. However, after decades of use it has been widely acknowledged that Spurs fans utilise the word positively within the context of football. The popular chant 'Yid Army' still reverberates around White Hart Lane today, while 'Yiddo' is a tag affectionately given to particularly successful players, a recent example being Jermaine Defoe.
The semantic development of words evident in football is similar — though, perhaps not culturally — to a linguistic phenomena that swept through late 20th century American rap music. Certain rappers took one of America's oldest and most searing derogatory terms, 'nigger', and began using it loosely as the word 'nigga', arguably trying to demystify it and strip it bare of any negative meaning. While this has been fiercely debated (many agree that you can't take a word's power or meaning away simply by adjusting its pronunciation), some scholars have described its new slang usage as one of affection or solidarity within young African-American communities. Whether rightly or wrongly, the point remains that demographics who identify with a word — negatively or positively — have the potential to alter its effect, reception and mainstream utilisation.
Similarly to Tottenham and The Yids, Bristol Rovers were the source of decades of 'abuse' from fans of local rivals, Bristol City. This, however, was not formed on the basis of racial tension.
The one-time slur and now infamous 'Gas' nickname was eventually adopted by Rovers fans, who, by taking something with negative connotations and welcoming it, successfully took its power as a jibe away. This resulted in a distinctive label that unifies Rovers supporters today — quite proudly — as Gasheads.
The Gas term originates from the fact that Bristol Rovers' old ground Eastville Stadium was situated next to a gasworks, from which the deleterious fumes would often waft across the pitch. This unique match-day experience led Bristol Rovers to be known as The Gas, while the club's fans would later be known as Gasheads. This is a very compact version of events, though.
The full Gas tale is a psychologically interesting, yet little-known football culture story and certainly one that deserves to be heard.
Important to note when considering this anecdote is that the Bristol City-inspired Gas title was not initially something to be desired. It wasn't to the taste of many Rovers fans and it certainly wasn't in their nature to accept 'gifts' from their fiercest rivals. The Rovers old guard had resisted being tarred with the Gas brush for upwards of thirty years, which begs the question; why did the title eventually become not only accepted, but synonymous with the club?
According to oral traditions of older Bristol City fans, The Gas was a term which was coined post 1940s by young fans as a slur not only on Eastville Stadium, but on the entire area of Eastville which purportedly smelt bad not due to the Gasworks, but due to the proximity of Rovers' home ground. The real motivation for City fans degrading their rivals in this manner comes, according to older Rovers fans, from the fact that Rovers had a potentially bigger name and better image than City; something the young City fans were — at best — intolerant of.
While Bristol City held the unoriginal and uninspiring 'Robins' nickname, Bristol Rovers were renowned the countrywide as The Pirates; a thematically powerful nickname linking the football club with its Bristolian swashbuckling heritage. The real power of The Pirates name, however, came not from its novelty but from its obvious commercial prowess. If fully realised the whole Pirates image could be a world-class advertising tool linking club and city, promoting brand awareness and even drawing in new supporters. Naturally, this was something rival fans both envied and feared, rendering some form of sabotage an absolute necessity.
By forcefully labelling Bristol Rovers as The Gas, City fans hoped to detract from the fierce pirate image and create a more commercially-level playing field, all the while having a dig at their eternal rivals. The 1960s brought with them more friction between the sets of fans and young City supporters had soon dubbed Bristol Rovers 'the club that stinks', often hissing G-A-S-S-S-S slowly at their Rovers-supporting friends and colleagues. It was a relentless onslaught which would be endured with little retaliation until some more hot-headed young Rovers fans, infamously known as the Tote Enders, labelled Bristol City 'The Sh*t', apparently highlighting their 'sh*t fans and sh*t mentality.' This, however, came no closer to solving the gas problem.
The failure of the Bristol Rovers hierarchy(s) to truly accelerate and expand on the potential of 'The Pirates' marketing device, which could have been one of the country's most recognisable football image fronts, left Bristol Rovers FC as something of a nameless, faceless club in a crisis of identity. The term Gas did not apparently become part of the thinking Rovers fan's vocabulary until the mid-to-late 1970s, and it was further entrenched when the club moved to Bath in 1986 - again, a very short distance from a local gasworks.
Bristol City fans were mystified as the title began to be used more freely and frequently by Rovers supporters, who were now beginning to refer to themselves as Gasheads. While those from the red side of Bristol saw it as a small victory, of the Rovers faithful giving in and losing integrity, it was actually quite the opposite. Much like the late 20th century American rappers, a sudden change of thought led Rovers fans to know that if they could gain control of how the word was used, it might be the best way to actually fight back.
So, in what was effectively an act of self defence, Rovers followers began to display some portion of control over how the formerly troublesome title was used, particularly in public and the local media. The adoption of the term Gas shifted at least half of the power to the blue and white faithful and would, at the very least, dampen the word's effects as a slur. Since those early days of adopting the term instead of fighting it, The Gas has arguably taken over as the club's foremost nickname, and will continue to be synonymous with Bristol Rovers throughout the footballing world.
Ryan is on Twitter @RyanHill93. Image credit to Jon Pinder.