Month: June 2020

Football without banners is nothing

Jock Stein famously said, ‘Football without fans is nothing’, well, in the absence of fans due to COVID-19 restrictions, Spion Kop 1906 and a group of staunch supporters have got together to fill the Kop with the next best thing, fans’ banners. Not for them cardboard cut-outs of the Borussia Mönchengladbach fans (including Dominic Cummings it seems – can you spot him?!):

Or the more corporate approach of Man City (not knocking them, just saying):

Taking pride of place and ownership of the Kop instead will be a fantastic display of the fans’ own banners:

If you look hard enough during the match against Crystal Palace tonight you’ may spot some old favourites, mine include this one from @RichieG_LFC (never knowingly absent!):

Or the ‘Campioni’ one from Kevin Sampson (@KSampsonwriter) author of Awaydays one of the best books about (football) violence you will ever encounter. It was made into a film starring Stephen Graham in 2009 and, and, as I’m sure Kevin would be the first to point out, has a fantastic soundtrack to boot. I particularly like this banner because, of course, it’s always good to see something that is linguistically correct!

Businesses don’t usually fare well on the banner front but an exception is made for Homebaked, Anfield’s community-owned bakery that sprang into life in 2010 as part of the Liverpool Biennial art and initiated by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk as a comunity-led response to the question of how local people could take control of the development of their own area and futures. Now it’s the destination bakery for any discerning match-goer in search of the delights of a Shankly Pie.

Banners containing references to music, especially music made on Merseyside, are also an inherent feature as with this one citing the chorus of ‘Hollow Horse‘ by Liverpool band The Icicle Works, some of the lyrics by Ian McNabb seem so very apt to the moment:

Be careful what you dream of
It may come up and surprise you
I can’t confess my life’s a mess
I’ve come to idolise you

You liken it to walking on hot coals
I’ll keep my boots on
Wisen up and fly straight
There’s a shape on the horizon

We’ll be as we are
When all the fools
Who doubt us fade away

Other banners celebrate loved ones that are no longer with us but continue to be present through banners dedicated to their memory:

Again, we see how the use of social media allows someone to continue the conversation online, make the connection, share their sorrow and hope and gain comfort from the solidarity of fellow supporters, as witnessed not just by the act of placing the banner on the Kop, much as flowers or stones are brought to graves, but also by the likes and responses the Twitter post then attracts. Acts of mourning and memory as each individual banner becomes part of the quilt of unity across time and place.

There were also some brand new banners designed for the occasion, including this one from Peter Carney (@soccrinthecity) – his tribute to the NHS:

As ever, Peter has come up trumps with this design in tribute to the NHS/carers. Not just for the poetic text with its alliterative half-rhymes (love-life, care-cure) the grammatical parallelisms (your-our) and the highly apt use of lines from ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ , but also for the colour purple. I was trying to work out why he might have chosen that and my idle speculation is that purple, of course, is produced by mixing red and blue so making this a banner that both LFC and Everton fans would be happy to stand behind, but also because purple symbolises passion, creativity and wisdom and is meant to induce a sense of calm well-being. Whether that’s the mood of the fans tonight remains to be seen.

So as always, the LFC banners display a wide-range of purposes, from the purely celebratory to the crusading, from the poetic to the brutally direct because LFC fan banners always encompass the idea that there is a world outside Anfield that is (almost) as important as the one within it.

And how has the club responded to the display? Jürgen seems to think it’s boss tha la:


And looking at that long shot of the Kop with all the banners on display in their intricate network text and imagery, I do hope someone has thought of producing a 1000-piece jigsaw to help us get through the second and third spikes of COVID-19 that are surely coming our way…

Getting shirty with sponsors

In 1979 Liverpool FC became the first professional football club to have its shirts commercially sponsored, that was by Hitachi (1979-1982) and their company logo was emblazoned across the players’ chests, joining the Liver Bird top right and kit manufacturer Umbro top left as modelled by a youthful Kenny Dalglish above

Since then, the shirt has been sponsored by Crown Paints (1982-1988); Candy (1988-1992); Carlsberg (1992-2010); and Standard Chartered (2010-present day). Companies pay enormous sums of money for the privilege. In their final season (2009/10), for example, Carlsberg, paid £7.45 million for those money-shot TV close-ups of Torres and Gerrard scoring. When Carlsberg took over the following season, they had to fork out £20 million, and for the last two seasons that has doubled to £40 million. Doubtless, they do it not just for the cachet but also the cash it brings them in return for the £260 million it has cost them so far. Football is a business after all.

While the money may be serious, the fans don’t have to be. Sponsors’ logos have always provided a rich seam for them to display their creativity along with their colours. Take this one from the 2007 Champion’s League final against Milan :

The game was played in Athens and so, as usual, the fans support base camp and put out the flags. These are often made specific to the location of the away game and this one is no exception. AIG (American International Group), at the time, were actually the sponsors of Man Utd. though there had been some speculation Liverpool might succumb to their charms when that deal ended (in 2010). (Possibly the fact that AIG were by then somewhat disgraced by having to receive a $170 billion bail-out by the US government was a disincentive… so much for the free market…). In any event, changing the acronym from ‘American International Group’ to ‘Almost in Greece’ was presumably designed as a bit of a snarky comment to the Man Utd. fans who had been denied a place in the final and a trip to Greece, by Milan, although LFC themselves losing to Milan in the final, the banner proved to be sadly prophetic (😢 ).

Carlsberg provided one of my all-time favourite banners:

It’s not just the perfect copy of the Carlsberg font and adaptation of the slogan from ‘Probably the best lager in the world’ to ‘best scouser’, but the delight in subversive semiosis – playing with the sign to change its original function as a piece of corporate marketing to make it an affirmation of Scouse identity and delight when one of our own makes it to the first team. It’s an assertion of ownership of the clubs true values as opposed to its marketing value. The Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin called this appropriation of someone else’s words and recycling for your own purposes ‘double-voicing‘. We’ve seen it on banners quite a lot, the wonderful ‘Welcome to Hell my arse’, for example, or another of my favourites, ‘Back on our f*****g perch’ (which I’ve written about in a previous post and now also available as a T-Shirt from Kopite Klobber at a very reasonable price!

Fans have also used corporate logos in overtly political ways. As in the case of Thomas Cook, the travel company that made a visit to Anfield a tourist experience for an exorbitant fee. Here’s what an ‘enterprising’ fan made of that:

I don’t know if Spion Kop 1906 were responsible for this banner themselves (if so, good one!) but as you can see from its co-text, this appeared during the successful campaign against increased ticket prices in 2016. What’s interesting about this is it takes the Thomas Cook logo and then presents this ‘official’ partner of the club as an illegal tout, challenging the commercial ethos and placing their rip-off prices alongside the planned hike in prices by the owners, FSG (Fenway Sports Group). An interesting reversal of the capitalist and legal order. (If you want a reminder of that episode, check out this report from The Anfield Wrap (TAW) and I’ve also written a chapter about this from an applied linguistics perspective in a book that came out last year, Reterritorializing Linguistic Landscapes edited by David Malinowski and Stefania Tufi – this being an academic book it’s a ridiculous/rip-off price, but if you’re interested I can let you have a pre-publication draft!).

Keeping to politics, for the moment, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass to post this image, which has nothing to do with sponsors, but is just another excellent example of fans’ creativity in adopting a logo:

Solidarność (Solidarity) is probably unknown to many people these days. It was the non-governmental Trade Union that began in the shipyards of Gdansk in 1980 and became an anti-communist social movement and then a political party. Its founding leader, Lech Wałęsa, ultimately became the first elected President of Poland. Margaret Thatcher was very fond of him and he more recently he has been criticised for supporting Republican candidate Mitt Romney over Barack Obama and being critical of European support for migrants who he thought looked much better dressed and fed than many in his own country. When heroes live too long…

Which brings me to my final example, which popped up in my Twitter feed today so thanks Big Uncle Knobhead for sharing it. This returns us almost to the beginning with Crown Paints and needs no explanation.

Here’s to painting the town red again.

LFC takes the knee

Twenty-nine LFC players take the knee in protest at the killing of George Floyd

Normally, I only write about fans’ banners or occasionally other activities, but these are not normal times. The brutal killing of George Floyd, an African American, by a police officer on May 25 has sparked worldwide protests and condemnation. The Liverpool squad, inspired it seems by Virgil van Dijk and Gini Wijnaldum have decided to take a stand, or more accurately, take the knee. Their decision to take part in such a visible protest with the clear intent that it spread worldwide through social and other media is unusual, though not unique in the history of the club as players have frequently supported other campaigns, but generally of a more local nature such Robbie Fowler’s support for the Liverpool Dockers’ strike and, of course, the Hillsborough Justice campaign.

This form of anti-racist protest came to prominence in 2016 when US quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to adopt the stance rather than stand for the US National Anthem in protest at the ongoing cases of police brutality and as part of the broader #BlackLivesMatter campaign. Since then, ‘taking the knee’ has become popular amongst other sports-players as a way of showing solidarity and support for anti-racist campaigns.

Wijnaldum’s tweet is interesting from a linguistic point of view, not only because it doesn’t mention George Floyd specifically – he is safe to assume people will know what it refers to, an acknowledgement of the worldwide condemnation it has rightly led to – but because of its deployment of different elements.

First there is the simple statement, ‘Unity is Strength’, familiar to anyone who has taken part in any trade union activity and a familiar sight as an LFC fan banner:

Normally, I would only focus on banners and fan postings, but these are not normal times. The killing of George Floyd, another African American to die at the hands – or in this case, ironically, the knee of a police officer

The image and phrase have been retweeted by the rest of the squad, demonstrating their unity on this issue, so combined with the photograph of a circle of players (itself a symbol of unity) it speaks not only to the protest it’s now part of but also to the unity of the players themselves on this issue.

The saying is then literally underscored with the raised fist emoji, which has largely been claimed by progressive movements, made even more potent here by displaying it in five colour variations (one for each continent?) to further express solidarity across different ethnic groups. Alongside the raised fist is the globe emoji. As my colleague Philip Seargeant has pointed out in his recent book The Emoji Revolution, the globe emoji was used by alt-right groups as an anti-semitic slur playing into the ‘Jewish global conspiracy’ trope, but it has increasingly been reclaimed by the left as a symbol of solidarity. Again, its circular form ties in with the players in the centre circle and even, essentially, the shape of the raised fist. The line of emoji is completed with a red heart. No need to say anything about that!

The tweet is rounded off with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and the triangle of fists (the triangle being the most solid of geometrical shapes) which links to the ongoing flow of tweets about the protests.

So, text, image, emojis, hashtags and embedded links are all deployed in a unified message to express a unified response.

Of course, as is the nature of Twitter, there have been a variety of responses to Wijnaldum’s tweet (and other players’ who have sent out the same message), mostly positive but others drawing attention to a 2011 incident involving former player Luis Suarez who racially abused Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. On that occasion Suarez’s team-mates publicly showed their support for him as seen in this response to Wijnaldum:

The optics, of course, are not good: white T-shirts, the colour of innocence, and a jubilant Suarez leaping in the air, fist raised celebrating a goal depicted in the club’s colour red. In a 2019 interview on Sky Sports, Jamie Carragher, the then vice captain, apologised to Patrice Evra for the lapse in judgement in a discussion of racism in football in general and the Suarez incident in particular that was far more charitable, nuanced and enlightening than much of the discussion on Twitter. Anyone with a stomach for the FA’s report on the incident can find extracts from The Guardian or the whole report is also available from the FA website. It is however interesting that two expert witnesses, Professor Peter Wade, a specialist in race and ethnicity in Latin America, with particular emphasis on black populations, genetics and sexuality, and Dr James Scorer, an expert on national and regional identities in Latin American cinema, including that of Uruguay, were called to give evidence on what Suarez had said (in Spanish) to Evra and whether it would be deemed racist or not. The Spanish word he used ‘negro‘ can, they said, be used both negatively and affirmatively in the South American context and, not surprisingly, Suarez claimed he fell into the latter camp whilst Evra perceived it as racist. The FA decided that in a UK context the term would more likely be both intended and received as racist. Whatever your view – and I’m with the FA on this – it does show how language can be pivotal.

There is, however, no possibility of misunderstanding the Liverpool squad’s use of both verbal and body language to send out a very clear signal: #BlackLivesMatter