This is my occasional blog about Liverpool Football Club fans' banners. I'm an Honorary Associate at the Open University, UK where I do research in applied linguistics, i.e. I'm interested in how people use language and all other forms of communication to create and express their identities and share them with others and believe football fan culture is a very underrated and under-explored area. This blog is a small attempt to address that gap.
This film is itself a hymn to the makers – and sometimes shakers – of the flags and banners that are so much a part of the LFC identity. It includes contributions from people who are as knowledgable as they are passionate about the topic, including: legendary flag and banner-makers Peter Carney (@soccrinthecity) and Frank Graceffa (@GraceffaFrank); members of @SpionKop1906, the group of supporters who not only bring together volunteers to make sure the red flags are flying on match days but are also responsible for some of the best examples of the art (and you can see Emma below in the act of painting one of them!); This is Anfield‘s Chris McLoughlin (@chrismackop); playwright Dave Kirby (Brick Up The Mersey Tunnels, @DaveKirby01); sports historian and author Gary Shaw (@GaryMerseybox); ultra fans @HuytonFattie and John Mackin (@Mackin_John1); and former players and eternal Scouse legends John Aldridge (@Realaldo474) and Phil Thompson (@Phil_Thompson4) who give a unique perspective on it all from a players on the pitch perspective.
If you haven’t seen it already, get on it – well worth the cost of a month’s subscription to LFC TV – or just signing up for the free month trial!
(Confession time: I had the privilege of contributing to both, but they’re still worth a close look!)
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 alliterativehalf-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…
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 Landscapesedited 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.
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
It’s now thirty-five years since the Heysel Stadium disaster in which thirty-nine fans, mostly Juventus supporters, lost their lives at a football match against Liverpool when a wall dividing the fans of the two teams collapsed following a series of clashes.
This banner, which says ‘In memory and friendship’, is one of a number that have been made and displayed by fans over the years to express their regret and solidarity about what happened that night, and to go some way to healing the wounds between and within the two clubs and sets of fans. The banner pictured above was made by Liverpool supporters, including Peter Carney, Alf Langley & Billy Merritt. It was created from a Football Arts Initiative project which sought to help heal wounds. This second one is, I’m told, by Peter Sampara in which me brings together the two teams’ colours , national flags, team emblems and YNWA. (My thanks to Peter Carney for some of the background information on the banners.)
To mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the tragedy, the club unveiled a plague at Anfield:
And in 2014, when the teams met again, there was another display of ‘friendship’ :
The recurring use of Italian symbolises the effort to reach out and show both empathy and solidarity. Liverpool fans are often attacked by their detractors for only seeing themselves as victims but the evidence clearly shows otherwise.
This isn’t the place to go over the events of that night and there are many accounts of it online. One of the more remarkable is Laurent Mauvignier’s (2008) novel In The Crowd (translated by Shawn Whiteside) which takes a somewhat oblique look at the events and aftermath of that day. It makes for very harrowing and uncomfortable reading but very worthwhile in helping us understand the complexity of emotions and contexts of that time.
In Memoria e Amicizia –In Memory and Friendship Rocco Acerra Bruno Balli Alfons Bos Giancarlo Bruschera Andrea Casula Giovanni Casula Nino Cerullo Willy Chielens Giuseppina Conti Dirk Daenecky Dionisio Fabbro Jacques François Eugenio Gagliano Francesco Galli Giancarlo Gonnelli Alberto Guarini Giovacchino Landini Roberto Lorentini Barbara Lusci Franco Martelli Gianni Mastroiaco Sergio Bastino Mazzino Loris Messore Luciano Rocco Papaluca Luigi Pidone Benito Pistolato Patrick Radcliffe Domenico Ragazzi Antonio Ragnanese Claude Robert Mario Ronchi Domenico Russo Tarcisio Salvi Gianfranco Sarto Giuseppe Spalaore Mario Spanu Tarcisio Venturin Jean Michel Walla Claudio Zavaroni
It was the seventh anniversary of Anne Williams’ death on April 18. She was the mother of Kevin Williams, who had died at Hillsborough twenty-three years and three days earlier and Anne had fought for justice for him and all the other victims from that day to the very end of her own life, aged just 62. She was tireless in pursuit of the truth about what happened that day, particularly her challenge to the flawed ruling by Coroner Stephen Popper at the initial inquest that nobody could have survived beyond 3.15 pm. Despite being refused a judicial review of the coroner’s finding in 1993, having not one but three applications to the attorney general turned down and finally an application in 2009 to the European Court of Human Rights ruled out of time, she determinedly refused to give up and was ultimately vindicated in 2012 when the Independent Panel swept Stephen Popper’s judgement aside and determined that as many as 58 victims might still have been saved had the police and ambulance services behaved differently. She was, as David Conn, writing an obituary in the Guardian put it, ‘an everyday person embodying the extraordinary power and depth of human love’.
It is only right and fitting that she has that rare accolade of having a banner made in her honour and that it flies regularly on the Kop.
The banner celebrates her as an ‘Iron Lady’, an epithet long attached to former Tory Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was, of course, deeply implicated in the Hillsborough cover-up. The use of ‘iron’ to describe her was presumably to link her to a previous 19th century Tory Prime Minister, known as the ‘Iron Duke’, the Duke of Wellington, a man known for Depending on which version you believe, he was given this nickname either because of his consistency and resolve or because of the iron shutters he had fitted to his Apsley House, his London home in 1832, to prevent rioters smashing his windows as they had done in 1831 in reponse to his and his Tory Party’s efforts to block electoral reforms that would extend voting rights and sweep away some of the so-called ‘rotten boroughs’ that entrenched power in the hands of the rich.
When Thatcher died (April 13, 2013) a common, less than mournful, frequently joyful, mood was captured by this banner, which appeared in Barnsley, one of the many mining communities she and her government had destroyed following the 1984-1985 Miners Strike.
Converting this archetypal and despised Tory blue villain into a loved Liverpool Red hero is as good a way as any of indicating that Anne Williams was the antithesis of all Margaret Thatcher and her ilk stood and still stand for.
What may be less well-known about the banner is that it was made by Indonesian supporters from the Big Reds Official Indonesian Supporters Club, showing not only the popularity of LFC internationally, but also awareness of the Hillsborough campaign and Anne Williams’ particular and inspiring role in it. It was first unveiled at the pre-season friendly on July 20, 2013 against an Indonesian X1 at the Gelora Bung Karno National Stadium in Jakarta. (LFC won 2-0). The Big Reds then arranged for the banner to be taken back to Liverpool and presented to Anne’s family. The banner was remade by Spion Kop 1906 in 2017, fittingly appearing again in the same week as International Women’s Day
In a videoed interview with the Liverpool Echo, one of the group was asked why they had made the banner for Anne and he replied: ‘She was passionate and tireless to campaign for justice for the victims of Hillsborough. It’s really amazing’ it’s an example for us, I hope she can rest in peace now and all the people here can follow her spirit for justice.’
Today is the thirty-first anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster and were it not for the corona virus lockdown there would be memorials being held by the Hillsborough Family Support Group at Anfield Stadium (this year was to be the last held there) and by the Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC) at the Hillsborough Survivors’ Memorial in the city centre (the HSJ will be holding a virtual memorial on its Facebook page at 15.00):
Unable to come together physically, people have been finding their own ways to mark the anniversary, such as colouring in Laura Deakin’s ’96’ design posted at the top of this page (available from her via Twitter @lozzydeaks) and placing it in their windows as a mindful way of remembering the 96 and showing solidarity with the families and survivors at a time when people are also posting images in support of the NHS during the corona virus lockdown.
The two have sometimes come together Peter Carney, creator of the iconic Hillsborough has also felt impelled to create banners to mark the passing of one of the victims of the
corona pandemic, Liz Glanister and it seems appropriate today to mention her here:
Liz Glanister was 68 when she died on April 3. She had worked for many years a nurse at Aintree University Hospital, where she probably contracted the virus. In her honour, flags were flown at half-mast in the city and three civic buildings were bathed in blue light – she was a life-long Everton supporter – hence Peter’s blue and red design for the banner he made in tribute to her. Sorrow shares its colours.
Remembering Hillsborough has always been about more than the events of that day, it’s also about remembering all victims of disasters where injustice has occurred and it seems likely that corona will emerge as another of those when the spotlight turns from getting through the current crisis to an inquiry as to how it was mismanaged by the government. When that day comes it is important that names and lives like Liz Glanister’s be recorded and remembered, just as today we remember those of the 96, their families and friends, the thousands of survivors, some of whose lives have been cut short by the disaster and many whose lives have been irrevocably changed and even blighted by it, and the campaigners who have fought three long decades for the truth and justice which one day will hopefully be delivered.
Tomorrow, I believe, Liverpool will win their sixth Champions League trophy. Moses may have parted the Red Sea to lead his people to freedom, and Mo Salah will surely lead the Sea of Red on to victory.
Normally, I talk about one or two banners a post but this time, I’m just going to let the banners do the talking. I’ve collected all these from Twitter over the last week so this is just a random sample. My thanks to mates and family who’ve sent me some directly and my thanks to all those unnamed heroes who’ve made or paid for the other gems on display.
There’s the usual mix of wit, song lyrics, Kop chants, puns, word-play (definitely had enough Chicken Kiev for a while) profanities, tributes to loved ones, erudite quotes, nods to past, present and future legends, local references and. of course, some cruel jibes at Everton’s expense. A couple of them, I have no clue what inspired them (306 Lift Crew?) but I like them.
Allez, allez, allez!
A quick update with just two hours to go…
And so the morning after… Liverpool lost, and wandering around the pitch they looked truly devastated – none more than Karius, whose hands may have been weaker than we would have wanted but whose heart proved as Scouse-red as you could ever wish for. But losing isn’t always failing, and losing to the 13-times and 3-times back-to-back champions is definitely no failure, more a statement of ability and imminent potential.
Song titles and lyrics have always been a feature on fans’ banners, from ‘Kenny’s from Heaven’, to ‘In this bright present‘ and so it’s no great surprise to see a chant that has become very popular very quickly, Allez! Allez! Allez! take its place in the pantheon of banners at last night’s Champions League quarter final against Man City, which, by the way, Liverpool won 3-0, just in case it escaped your attention. Here are the lyrics:
We’ve conquered all of Europe, we’re never gonna stop, from Paris down to Turkey, we’ve won the fucking lot. Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly, the fields of Anfield Road, we are loyal supporters, and we come from Liverpool. Allez, allez allez!
So no surprise then that the banner lists not only the dates of the 5 Champions League title wins but also where they were won. This is taken up in another banner on display last night, produced by the ever-reliable Spion Kop 1906:
A novel aspect here is the black and white silhouettes of iconic buildings from the four cities that hosted those finals, Rome (1977, 1984), Paris (1981) London (1978) and Istanbul (2005). It’s interesting to note that the silhouettes seem to have been ordered aesthetically rather than chronologically so Rome’s Coliseum and Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmad Mosque flank London’s Big Ben and Paris’s Eiffel Tower. (I’ve no idea if the lads who designed the flag had any deeper Freudian motivations in inserting the two phallic structures between the two circular ones, but they’ve certainly produced a penetrating image.)
Both banners repeat the dates, and this is a common feature, emphasising the club’s history, reiterating significant moments so they become etched in the fans’ memories like 1066 and all that. Both also carry the first line of the chant so are brought into a kind of conversation with each other, repeating the message. On the surface it is simply a statement of past glories, but that word ‘conquered’ also suggests an ongoing status as victors so the banners are also addressed to its present moment, the quarter-final match against Manchester City (which Liverpool won 3-0, by the way) and speak to both LFC fans as a badge of pride and to Man City fans as a warning of who they are up against.
The banners speak of continuity, then, just as the song lyric does with its reminder that ‘we’re never gonna stop’. What this does is remind us that the club is its history and that there is something transcendent about it. In turn, this reminds me of the philosophical paradox of the ship of Theseus. According to Greek myth Theseus amongst other things, slew the Minotaur, was King of Athens, and the son of Poseidon. So beloved was he that after his death the Greeks decided to preserve the ship he had sailed on in his many heroic adventures. As time went by, plank by plank had to be replaced due to ageing. At some point every single plank and nail, anchor and sail had been substituted so was it still the ship of Theseus? In fact, was it even still the ship of Theseus once the first plank was replaced? So it is with football teams. Clearly, nobody who played in that first 1977 final still plays and yet we still speak of LFC as a single entity. How to resolve the paradox? Well, I’m no philosopher, but I suppose it all depends on what you think constitutes the club – the parts (players, managers, owners) or the whole of its history. To fans it is always the latter that endures and that, equally, is why football endures, so it’s not so much as this team or that team, this manager or that makes Liverpool but the endless setting sail, the conquering journeys through Europe creating the treasure trove of memory, a collective memory that belongs to no-one and everyone. Allez, allez, allez…
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 GibbonsWrapping 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.