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Is it time to talk about Newcastle United’s badge?

Let me start with a disclaimer: I like the Toon badge. It’s all I’ve known as a supporter of the club, and as someone who writes about the club. But it became the oldest badge in the Premier League last season by almost decade.

History tells us it’s ripe for a revamp, or at the very least a subtle update, and with a root and branch overhaul of the club currently happening you can bet this topic has come up in conversation at the highest level. This isn’t a call for a Newcastle United badge update, merely a reminder that change is inevitable (especially right now) and that perhaps we should be braced for something new.

For context on the badge, let me transport you back to summer 1988 when the latest version of appeared. The Soviet Union began its gradual dissolution, Mike Tyson knocked out Michael Spinks in 91 seconds to retain the heavyweight title and the film Die Hard starring Bruce Willis came out.

READ MORE: Newcastle’s leaked Castore change kit highlights uncomfortable questions that can’t be ignored

Meanwhile, on Barrack Road, Newcastle United opened a shiney new West Stand, signed an avalanche of new players (breaking their club record twice in a matter of weeks) and unveiled a brand new club badge seemingly from nowhere. The club began the season sixth favourites to win the First Division – what could go wrong?

This article isn’t about the disaster that was the 1988-89 season, instead it’s a deep dive into the story of Newcastle United’s badge. Civic links, seahorses, missing magpies, a mysterious update and an uncertain future.

A badge is the physical and emotional essence of a club. Players and fans kiss it, touch it for good luck, ink it on the their skin and surround themselves with it on walls, keys, phone screens, headstones, baby grows, dog leads, underpants and all the rest. It’s comforting, tribal, deeply meaningful and has been on quite a journey from crude 19th Century embroideries to mass produced branding worth billions of pounds.

You can’t overstate the importance of a club badge, especially as we hurtle into an era of ‘metaverse’, NFTs and controlled digital rights management. Interestingly, of the 20 Premier League clubs who played in top flight this season only Newcastle United, Manchester United and Liverpool have failed to give their badge a refresh this side of the millennium. Is that neglect, the sign of a timeless badge, or a fear of getting such a valued asset wrong?

As new owners seek to put their stamp on things at St. James’ Park and steer Newcastle back towards the upper echelons of world football is a badge update on their radar? Does it need one? Do fans want one? ChronicleLive looks at the badge’s backstory in a bid to learn what it’s future might look like.

A little history lesson

The badges that preceded Newcastle United’s current club crest

The current Newcastle United badge is technically the fifth incarnation since Newcastle East End moved into St. James’ Park and rebranded themselves ‘United’ in 1892. For almost 80 years the club simply adopted the Newcastle Upon Tyne coat of arms as their badge.

Lots of clubs did the same initially, and Newcastle have remained largely faithful to the historic city motif that can be traced back as far as 1575. That motif features three castles, a golden lion grasping a flag of St. George, a pair of mythical seahorses (more on these later) and the motto ‘Fortiter Defandit Triumphans’ which means ‘victory by brave defence’. Yet from 1892 to 1969, players wore the badge in less than ten games.

For many, many years Newcastle never wore a badge on their shirt,” explains Club Historian Paul Joannou. “It was used on shirts in cup finals only. They missed the first few, but from 1910 through to 1969 they wore the city crest on the shirt for every final apart from, remarkably, the home leg of the Inter Cities Fairs Cup in 1969. They wore one for the away leg in Budapest. But at home, I don’t know what happened, I’ll have to ask Bob Moncur the next time I see him!”

The following season (1969-70) was the first to feature a Newcastle badge on player shirts every game. At this point the club introduced their first bespoke badge, replacing the civic seahorses with a pair of magpies, a lion protruded from a single castle rather than three and a black and white shield separated the two mascot birds. “This was
a ‘club shop’ badge which was never used on shirts” says Joannou. “That was just used on merchandise and in an official brochure, it never got onto a player shirt and quickly disappeared.”

Then, in 1976, a complete departure from the traditional city coat of arms occurred as the club adopted a smart, circular badge that on reflection wouldn’t look out of place in the modern Premier League era. It featured the Castle Keep in the background, a single magpie in the foreground perched above the River Tyne, all neatly enclosed in a smart roundel reading ‘Newcastle United Football Club’.

It lasted just six years and was replaced in 1983 with an even more modern, simple, streamlined circular crest that remains instantly recognisable as a Newcastle United badge thanks to the ‘nufc’ shaped lettering on top of a small magpie.

Just five years later in 1988, the Newcastle United badge we know today crept onto the scene with little warning and (as far as we can tell) no official unveiling. In the pre-internet era supporters would often see new kits for the first time when players actually wore them in pre-season and it appears this is what happened 34 years ago.

A dip into the archives has unearthed no editorial coverage of the badge update, a story that would be headline news today. A similar lack of noise in the wake of the new badge could be a seal of approval from the fanbase, or an indication of just how distracted supporters were by the level of activity happening at the club in the summer of 1988. Perhaps it was a bit of both.

If it ain’t broke, just tweak it

Ask most Newcastle fans about the current badge and they’ll tell you there’s nothing wrong with it. In fact, ChronicleLive asked fans this specific question in 2021.

In a survey designed to learn what features fans would like to see on their dream Newcastle kit, we asked if the current badge needed an update and 81.2% of a 4,800-strong supporter sample said no, 12.2% said yes, while 6.6% were unsure.

Ask graphic designers however, and the answer might not be so unequivocal. Ash Willerton is professional sign writer and lettering artist based in the North East.

“I was obsessed with football badges when I was growing up,” he tells me. “That was my introduction to graphic design as a kid.”

Pages and pages of scrapbooks would be filled with Ash’s logos for fictitious football clubs as he extracted the best elements from famous badges and attempted to combine them into one. Though not a Newcastle fan, Ash says he “loves” their badge.

It’s very unique and despite it’s age, doesn’t look out of place next to other modern logos in the Premier League. I definitely don’t think they should make any drastic changes because it doesn’t really need it.”

But he points out a serious problem, from a design perspective at least. “Old badges were designed by hand and never properly digitised. Then they get reproduced, and reproduced over the years, but when they’re blown up to whatever scale, all the line work just looks messy and irregular.”

Take a closer look at some Newcastle United badges on shirts and merchandise and you might notice a lack of detail on the lion’s face, and the seahorses for example. “A modern badge needs to be versatile in its usage. So that it can be scaled down, scaled back up and never lose clarity and detail which is unfortunately what happens when you scale up a logo like Newcastle’s.”

To emphasise the point, Ash undertook a personal pet project to bring the Newcastle United badge into the 21st century. “My challenge was to keep everything as it is, but bring it up to date and improve the line work, so when it is scaled up it isn’t blurred.

“The current badge isn’t wrong, it’s just how it’s been done is wrong. It doesn’t work as a logo in today’s work, in a technical sense, rather than a graphic sense.

An immediate priority was to bring more balance and strength to the design of the seahorses and return the face to the lion. I’ve also improved the line weight consistency across the design and simplified the scroll where the club name appears.”

Take a look at Ash’s subtle work below. Maybe this is the answer, rather than a complete overhaul?

Old vs New: Newcastle’s current badge alongside a retouched version by sign and lettering artist, Ash Willerton
(Image: instagram.com/ashwillerton)

Mythical seahorses and an unlikely Saudi link

Tom Maley is a man with skin as thick as some of his bronze sculptors. He was commissioned to produce the Sir Bobby Robson statue that stands proudly in the south east corner of St. James’ Park. It is being joined by his other bronze work of Alan Shearer which is returning to stadium land having stood ‘off-site’ since it’s installation on Barrack Road in 2016.

Even if you’re Michaelangelo, you’re going to get it!” laughs Tom when I ask him about the pressure of immortalising club icons like Shearer and Robson. “You do your best and when you think you’ve done a good job, people bring you down to earth! ‘That’s a load of c–p, looks nothing like him’ you hear a lot of that, and then for every person who says that, I probably get a load more saying ‘I really like it’.”

Tom recalls the initial public reaction to Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North across the river in Gateshead. “When it first went up it had a terrible approval rating, it wasn’t great, it was barely in the majority. Today if you ask people, I imagine that figure will be 80-90% approving, because it just becomes an iconic piece. The same happens with bronze statues.”

Should the commission to redesign Newcastle United’s current badge ever land on someone’s desk they will need to handle huge pressure, and scrutiny. “It’s got to be well executed, it can’t be trash. You would need a real professional doing it.

“There are some great logos out there, but they should be memorable and instantly recognisable, if Newcastle were ever to change their logo, I think they should go for a really simple logo that doesn’t say Newcastle United on it. You should just look at it and know: that’s Newcastle United.”

Tom is a fan of Greek mythology, and has noticed a connection between Saudi Arabia and Newcastle’s civic-inspired club crest. “The seahorse, to me, offers an amazing opportunity. Very, very few cities or towns have a seahorse in their coat of arms, Newcastle is a sea port, and the seahorse is a symbol of that.

“Prior to oil and gas, Saudi Arabia was probably most famous for its bloodstock and the Arabian horse that went around the world. I know we have the magpie as well at Newcastle – we’re spoilt for choice!”

Yasir Al-Rumayyan and Amanda Staveley
Yasir Al-Rumayyan and Amanda Staveley

Reasons to be fearful

A new Newcastle United badge is a scary thought after almost 35 years of the same logo.

In wake of the takeover perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if a shiney, well-constructed new emblem appears at some point in the next few years. For reference, Man. City’s new owners took seven years to update their crest after their takeover in 2008, but their ‘old’ badge at the time was only introduced in 1997, making it nine years younger still than Newcastle’s current logo.

Redesigns are common now, but so are mistakes and in the social media era there is no room for error. Just ask Leeds United fans, or Leeds United Editor Joe Mewis who covers the club for LeedsLive – the ‘salute’ badge saga that unfolded at Elland Road in January 2018 has not been forgotten.

“Andrea Radrizzani had seen his full takeover of the club completed the previous summer and wasted little time in making his mark,” recalls Joe. “He quickly bought back Elland Road and brought in a host of new signings to kick off his new era.”

So far, so good, but then the introduction of a new crest caught fans on the hop in jaw-dropping fashion. “It perhaps wasn’t a huge surprise that the new regime would want to change it,” explains Joe. “Leeds have not been shy in changing their badge over the years, so moving away from the current design that was introduced in the late 1990s, and has many associations with the Peter Ridsdale era, was not seen as sacrilege by most of the fan base.”

Then they saw the design… “The club claimed that they had consulted with 10,000 fans on the change via surveys, group interviews and other meetings where they learned the significance of the ‘Leeds salute’ among the fanbase. These meetings, however, were not done with the explicit mention that a new design was in the works and this would factor into the backlash that followed.”

Taken from the club’s original January 2018 press release, fans rejected this badge update so unanimously that by the end of the day a complete U-turn by the Leeds United board had been performed

A near-unanimous reaction to anything in modern football is rare given how much people like to argue with each other on social media. But Leeds achieved this via the ‘salute’ badge.

“The fact that it took the club a little over 12 hours to backtrack on the new design tells you everything. Fans reacted with utter dismay, while rivals were able to spend the day mercilessly mocking a team that everyone else loves to hate.”

To their credit, the Leeds board reacted and bowed to the inevitable. But it was a very public, not to mention embarrassing, lesson learned. “Initially, the club announced they would be accepting fan submissions for a new badge, with a host of excellent designs shared by supporters online. However, since then, the subject of a new badge was quietly kicked into the grass with the project seemingly on pause.”

There was a slight tweak to the club crest to mark Leeds’ 2019-2020 centenary season, but it then returned to normal. Maybe a new badge will appear in the not-too-distant future, but for now, all is quiet on the Leeds badge front.

Re-designing the future

A new concept: Three unofficial attempts to re-imagine a new Newcastle United badge
(Image: (L to R) Martin Turner, Designer Turbinal, WestwardLord)

Fans might remember rumours, around 2016, of a ‘tender’ for a new Newcastle United badge that was supposedly issued to local design studios and Northumbria University. Mike Ashley’s track record for getting things wrong at St. James’ Park naturally had fans terrified at the prospect of him updating the club crest.

However, it’s likely this brief was for a minor update to the badge to mark the 125th anniversary of Newcastle United in 2017 which saw players wear a slightly updated crest on their shirts that had extra detail beneath the scroll and no other discernible updates.

Anthony Cantwell is the Director of Newcastle-based Founded Design, the kind of design studio who might be invited to imagine a new Newcastle United badge if the opportunity ever arose. He explains what a potential mandate could look like under new owners?

The brief would be in the club’s hands,” Anthony explains. “They will make decisions internally about how ambitious they’d like the project to be and what they’d want it to be.”

Looking back at the test cases, the backlash other clubs had, the one big thing I remember is fans saying ‘we weren’t consulted on this’. I think that would have to be a key part of it to make it a success.”

As a studio director, and football fan, Anthony points to successful redesign and rebranding projects by AC Milan, Barcelona and Inter Milan. “They tried to work with the fans rather than give it to them and say ‘that’s it’”.

“Inter Milan’s was probably the boldest, they took the ‘FC’ out of their badge. The reason behind that was that they wanted the team to be seem more of a community and cultural icon, rather than just a football club. That in itself was quite interesting for a football club to be talking about itself in that sense. It’s actually true. They are these important cultural touch points for communities.”

Manchester United did the same in 1998, removing ‘Football Club’ from their badge and subtly refreshing other aspects of the design to improve detail and clarity. In terms of design their badge has largely remained the same since 1970, though it has had two refreshes since then, where as Newcastle’s 1988 badge hasn’t been touched since it’s introduction.

The cultural significance of football clubs now only serves to ratchet up the pressure to get it right, as does years and years of history that clubs like Newcastle United have accumulated: the club has been a beloved community icon since the early 1880s.

It’s not just the badge either, it’s the typography, it’s the execution of everything. The AC Milan rebrand wasn’t just the badge it was the wider context of how they presented the team which I felt was the real success.”

As much as we might love Newcastle United’s current badge, we can’t get away from the fact it’s old and complicated. There’s a lot going on: a lion carrying a flag, a shield, two seahorses, the blue scroll.

“The last thing you need to do is put more into it. There’s a question as to whether it needs ‘Newcastle United’ underneath it in the scroll. That’s potentially quite superfluous.

“If you look at the really strong brands, they’re recognisable by their symbol, not by the word. Apple doesn’t have the word ‘Apple’ beside it, Nike doesn’t have ‘Nike’ next to the swoosh.”

Could Newcastle look to simplify their identity in a way Tottenham did in 2006 by moving away from a traditional style crest to the lone cockerel symbol? “It doesn’t have to be a case of let’s get rid or this, let’s get rid of that, you could keep them all but still simplify it.

“Simplifying it does give you a lot of different options. It could become a mask for housing an image, it could be become something that could be illuminated in way that wasn’t possible when it was full colour. Money saving is not often the reason for a rebrand, it’s because they want to try and create opportunities where maybe there wasn’t before.

“You do feel optimistic about the future, decisions made to date do feel like actually the new owners understand the objective for running a football club, they understand the objective of trying to keep fans onboard. And the objective for how to do that in a tasteful way.

“I think that’s one of the things we lost as a club, we lost our class. It was tacky, it would be really good to see this as an opportunity to bring back a level of class about the team. How we hold ourselves on the pitch, how we look on the pitch, how the stadium looks and how we talk about ourselves. There’s a lot of opportunities, it’s a fantastic brand to work with, but it could be a poisoned chalice if you don’t do it right.”

Don’t be surprised to see a new Newcastle United badge in the the not to distant future, but it could be a wider change. An updated Newcastle United identity could be introduced that encompasses everything from signage at the stadium and training centre, to stationary and uniforms used and worn by club staff.

It’s an opportunity to add more personality to the football club and bring it closer to its North East roots, language and culture. That is an exciting thought. A new identity for a new era.

The process of producing assets that do justice to 140 years of club history isn’t for the faint-hearted. Then again, neither is Newcastle United.

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