I’ve been writing this listening to 5Live’s commentary on the Liverpool-Manchester United game, which has just ended 0-0. Mourinho can get back on the bus he’s parked yet again and make his way back down the M62. The commentators are making disparaging comments about these two clubs being part of the ‘big 6’ demanding even more money from games whilst not offering much excitement in return. This is the second time this fixture has ended in a draw. So has it all gone a bit stale mate?
In an age of 24/7 global football on TV here’s been quite a bit of discussion in the media as to whether this fixture matters any more, with the old gag about ‘two bald men squabbling over a comb’ cropping up here and there. Well, it may not matter much to pundits but it does to LFC fans. If you’re in any doubt about that, check out The Anfield Wrap website with articles by recounting what it was like spending his formative years listening to ‘crowing’ Mancs or Paul Senior on the roots of the rivalry and listen to Gareth Roberts and John Gibbons Wrapping it up over a few pints in one of the city’s best pubs, The Lion Tavern.
So it seems a good time to revisit this old banner, proudly proclaiming, ‘Look Alex, back on our f*****g perch!’
There are a number of theories about the source of the intense rivalry between these two great clubs, the most successful in the English game, after all. Some date it back to the building of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894, which bypassed the port of Liverpool, some even further to the different sides the two cities took over slavery and the American Civil War. (Liverpool does not come out of that covered in glory as it supported the slave trade on which so much of its own wealth had depended, whilst Manchester cotton-mill owners and their workers took a moral stand that cost them dearly during the so-called Lancashire Cotton Famine. There’s no doubt, however, that it really came of age with the arrival of Alex Ferguson as Manchester United’s manager and his very deliberate transfer of tribal tensions to the terraces of Anfield and Old Trafford.
The text on the flag refers back to a quote from Alex Ferguson when he said that his greatest challenge was “not what’s happening at the moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch.” The flag celebrates Liverpool’s return to the perch with the unprecedented fifth Champions League title in 2005, and no, those five stars between the ‘f’ and the ‘g’ are not there out of some prudish deference towards Sir Alex’s delicate sensibilities, but to symbolise those five trophies, five stars for five stellar achievements. (Man U., of course, have won it only three times. Just saying.) Hence the Liver Bird takes its place back on the ‘perch’, the handle of the UEFA trophy and even sports a crown – a reference to being Kings of Europe perhaps, or even a nod to King Kenny Dalglish? A celebration of being football royalty in any case.
This banner is another great example of how LFC fans bring together words and images in a uniquely witty way. Wearing my linguist’s hat, it places itself in that line of banners that display Bakhtinian carnivalesque features, i.e. those moments when the normal order of things is suspended and people revel in subversive acts and displays of intemperate language and behaviour associated with the Christian Carnival celebrations from the Middle Ages on. These days we tend to think of Carnival in terms of more commercialised displays of female flesh in Rio or male flesh in Sydney or maybe even well-covered up flesh in Germany, where Karneval looks like a bit like Notting Hill might have in the 1530s but with even more urine and vomit in the side streets.
Another Bakhtinian feature is the idea of ‘dialogue’. For Bakhtin, every utterance we make started life in the mouth of someone else, we are all engaged, in my former colleague Janet Maybin’s excellent formulation, in ‘the long conversation’, that possibly began with Eve offering Adam a bite of her apple. This banner is part of the conversation fans have with one another across the terraces and, increasingly, across the globe on social media. (In a sense, banners function like tweets or Facebook status updates.) This one addresses Alex directly, but the addressee is far wider and more complex than that: Alex, Man U fans, LFC fans both present and beyond the stadium. One message but with multiple audiences, some it’s meant to annoy, others amuse. The context is one event but it also refers back to many more. LFC and Man U have been engaged in a very long conversation indeed.
This isn’t just swearing (or not swearing) for the sake of crudeness (thought it’s probably that, too), it’s about reversing the order of things (Man Utd. having overtaken Liverpool’s 18 league titles) and positing a hoped-for better reality, just as carnival is saying goodbye to last year’s failings and looking forward to Easter, the time celebration of the resurrection, by which time, LFC fans will be hoping to see a banner showing the second Liver Bird perched on the Premier League Trophy for the first time since 1990. Now that would be something to f****g crow about.