Applied Linguistics

Back on our f*****ng perch

Back on our perch

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.

We love being in Europe!

Today is the first day of the parliamentary debate about the country’s ‘plan’ for leaving the EU so it seems a good time to sing the praises of this rather wonderful flag produced by ‘Soccer in the City’ that celebrates LFC’s glorious return to European Champions’ League football. Typical Scousers, revelling in the return to the heart of Europe Europe at the very moment those Little Englanders revile it.

What I love about this flag is its playful blend of politics and football: what’s the biggest story in the U.K. at the moment? Leaving the EU. What’s the biggest story in Liverpool? Sorry Bitters, it’s Liverpool being back in Europe. This flag wittily shows its colours on both counts. Taking the European Union flag, with its blue background and yellow, stars, this flag places the stars on a red background, with five standing out to match the number of Champions League cups LFC have won.

From a linguist’s perspective — and I should remember that’s my day job – I’m also interested in the the fact that the stars are arranged in a circle, an indicator of equality, all being equi-distant, none ranked above another, whereas the Union Jack, of course, is all rigid lines and segments. So unlike most LFC banners, this one has no words on it and nor does it need any to express its message.

Politics and football deftly combined: the red for internationalist socialism as much as it is for Liverpool, proclaiming a rejection of the blue associated as much with Tory nationalism as with bitter rivals Everton. The choice of colour is, of course, inevitable being LFC’s team colour but it can also be read as an assertion of opposition to the Leavers. Whereas other supporters of Remain proudly sport the blue, this flag shows its emphatically red Scouse solidarity with European unity. The timing of the message affirms and rejoices in the fact that the team and its supporters have come home to Europe at the very moment the (narrow) majority in the country has voted to leave. (And, of course, Liverpool had a particularly large pro Remain majority in the referendum.)

Personally, I like to read this flag as a declaration of independence, maybe even an intent to secede, and to stay part of the Union, that larger, starry vision of our future right at the heart of Europe, back where LFC (and all of us) truly belong.

Football and politics have always mixed at LFC

There seemed to be a fair bit of fuss caused by the (re)appearance of this banner with the faces of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell at the Southampton game last week. Fans writing on the This is Anfield forum showed a mixture of bewilderment and suspicion, with one commenting: Looks like a political gesture even if not meant to be, politics and sport don’t fit in my mind regardless of party. Others found the link to the Hillsborough tragedy inappropriate with one noting: Much rather this wasn’t associated with Hillsborough in any way,as I ‘d never believed that politics and sport should be mixed, before, however, going on to addIt is and we know it. But the Tory reaction to Hillsborough changed that forever!

So, do politics and football mix at LFC?

Jay McKenna, Chair of Spirit of Shankly, which describes itself as ‘the country’s first football supporters’ union’, certainly thinks so. He posted a tweet drawing on a famous quote by Bill Shankly, the club’s totemic manager in the 60’s and early 70’s:

Jay on Corbyn banner

That ‘erm’ a clear rejoinder to people to remember the club’s traditions. Others have pointed to more recent history, such as Robbie Fowler’s support for the two-year strike by Liverpool dockers in 1995-1998, the longest industrial dispute in British history:

@moolag on corbyn banner

The Hillsborough Tragedy and the 27-year fight for justice, most notably by the Hillsborough Justice Campaign and the Hillsborough Family Support Group have always been political, of course, in the sense that politics is about how control is exerted over people, and whilst its raw emotional nature has rightly elevated it above mundane parliamentary squabbles it shouldn’t be forgotten that ultimately it took parliamentary decisions to set up the Hillsborough Inquests that cleared the victims and survivors of any responsibility for the events of that day and find that the deaths of the 96 were unlawful killings due to the grossly negligent police and ambulance services.

We should also remember that the very word politics comes from the Greek politiká meaning ‘affairs of the cities’ and that Liverpool is a city with a long tradition of political activism and so it would be surprising if this were not also reflected on the terraces of the football club that shares its name. Indeed. one banner even proudly proclaimed republic status for the city:


We should also remember that the personal is political, and sometimes the Kop has been a place where political support for individuals has been expressed. When Liverpool fan Michael Shields was wrongfully jailed in Bulgaria in 2006 for a knife attack, the fans were active in campaigning for his release, which followed four years later:

Michael Shields

Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary, who had an appalling record on Hillsborough, also proved himself no friend of justice in this case, refusing to pardon Michael in 2008 despite being told by two High Court judges that he had the power to do so.

On his release, Michael Shields thanksedLiverpool and Everton fans for their support: I would like to say a massive thank you to all those people out there – including Liverpool and Everton football fans – who have supported me and my family over the last four years by writing letters, by protesting, by marching, … Your voices were heard. Thanks to you, I knew I would never walk alone. Thank you.”

And just as Robbie Fowler had supported the Liverpool Dockers, LFC captain and legend Steven Gerrard supported the campaign for Michael’s release:

Gerrard Michael Shields

We also shouldn’t forget that politics can (and should) be fun! Over the years, LFC fans have drawn on that old standard Che Guevara poster to align their support for left-wing politics and the club, as here in their tribute to manager Rafa Benitez:


So, whether it’s a massive issue, like Hillsborough, a local dispute such as the dock strike, personal as with Michael Shields or just for fun, it’s important to remember that Liverpool fans have always showed their solidarity on the Kop and even on the pitch and long may it continue – or, as Che Guevara always said at the end of his letters to Fidel Castro:

Hasta la victoria



Liverpool sets on the Sun – it’s the pun wot won it!

total-eclipse-sticker   the-scum

Liverpool Football Club took a bold and unprecedented step in banning journalists from the Sun newspaper from its Anfield stadium and Melwood training ground, following requests by, amongst others, the wittily named campaign group Total Eclipse of the S*n  and discussions with representatives of the families and survivors of the Hillsborough disaster. (NB, supporters of the boycott do not spell out the full name of the newspaper and I will respect this strategy in the remainder of this article.) 

The boycott began after the newspaper ran an infamous and discredited front page blaming the fans for the deaths just days after the disaster:


A full account of the people of Liverpool’s twenty-seven year boycott of the S*n, following its scandalous misrepresentation of the events of April 15 1989 that resulted in the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans, need look no further than this article in The Liverpool Echo, but in this piece I want to focus on one aspect of the campaign, and that is the fans’ use of the linguistic landscape through their use of banners, posters and social media to get their message across.

Liverpool fans have a long tradition of using flags and banners to go beyond merely supporting the team to deal with much broader issues affecting the club and its traditions as well as more overtly political campaigns. Perhaps only Celtic’s Green Brigade fans have a similarly activist strain running through their flags and it is no coincidence that they too have used them to express solidarity with the Hillsborough justice campaign.

In my previous research, for example, I have looked at how fans and activists used flags, posters and social media to successfully campaign against the previous American owners of the club, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, as in this hoarding:

Debt, lies, cowboys hoarding

This ‘Not Welcome Here’ campaign, was spearheaded by the Liverpool supporter’s union the Spirit of Shankly and was followed up with a brilliantly simple action whereby they mobilised Liverpool’s global fan base to take photos of themselves holding up PDFs, including this one taken outside current owners’, Fenway Sports Group’s Boston Red Sox stadium:


Using similar tactics, Total Eclipse of the S*n and fellow campaigning group Shun the S*n have achieved remarkable success in a very short time. it has been running for less than nine months as campaigners had to wait for the Hillsborough Inquest verdicts so as not to risk prejudicing the outcomes. So how have they done it? Largely through its canny deployment of various semiotic resources in public and virtual spaces. It would be overly simplistic to put the decision of the club’s owners to ban the S*n from their premises down to social media activism (as we saw with analyses of its role in the Arab Spring), nevertheless, there can be little doubt that ‘prosumer’ activism is playing its part as consumers of social media increasingly turn producers in what is described by professor of communication Henry Jenkins as ‘convergence culture’. Whilst isolated, genre-breaking, interventions such as this plaque placed on a park bench near the Hillsborough Memorial in the centre of the city,


or individual 140-character postings on Twitter may not constitute a Habermasian ‘public sphere’, they certainly reflect what he termed the ‘lifeworld’, the immediate milieu, of the ordinary citizens who made them. Still, it remains tempting to regard the football field as a type of ‘agora’ and I would argue that their dynamic movement through social media constitutes the sort of dialogue Habermas believes essential to the democratic process. In this sense, Habermas might also view positively the campaigners’ response to an attempt by the S*n (which can be seen as part of what he terms ‘the system’- the marketplace and state apparatus). In June 2014, the newspaper sought to use the centenary of the First World War to market the paper by posting out free copies of a special commemorative edition to every household in the country. This was met by another form of the ‘not welcome here’ protest when campaigners encouraged people to leave messages for their postman asking them not to deliver it and to disseminate copies of their messages on social media, as in these examples, which gradually emerged as a sort of meme:

As a result of this and other similarly language-based interventions, it is estimated that sales of The S*n have collapsed by over 40% on Merseyside, costing the paper an estimated £10 million a year.

The campaign was recently stepped up a gear by shifting the focus away from encouraging individuals not to buy the paper to urging retailers not to stock it. Paul Collins, one of the founders of Total Eclipse of the S*n is keen to present the campaign not as an effort to ban the paper (the Society of Editors describing it as ‘stretching towards censorship’) but one of simple decency and awareness raising. One of the strategies they have used is another intervention in the linguistic landscape by asking sympathetic shopkeepers to display one of their ‘Not welcome here’ posters (an echo of the earlier Hicks and Gillett campaign) and in return these shops are promoted on the group’s Facebook page.

shop-front   total-eclipse-shop-map-tweey

Images such as these circulate through social media and are helpful in generating further take up through retweeting. It is estimated that some 220 shops have stopped selling the newspaper, including major supermarkets such as Asda, Marks and Spencer, Morrison’s and Tesco.

The campaign has also had an impact in the political arena in and around Liverpool. A number of councils in the region have now passed motions asking retailers not to stock the newspaper and Merseytravel, who are responsible for bus, rail and travel services in the region, have also issued a letter to vendors across the Liverpool City transport network not to stock the newspaper.

In an intriguing move, Total Eclipse of the S*n have even enlisted support from taxi drivers, often regarded as more right-leaning in their politics. The group has sought sponsorship to have its campaign logo emblazoned on the sides of 96 black cabs, one for each of the victims. That’s certainly a novel and dynamic intervention in the linguistic landscape.


What the campaign has shown is how effective protests by ordinary people can be when they harness the power of the streets with reach of the tweets and the strategic deployment of language and other semiotic resources has lain at its heart. The campaign now moves to the city’s other football club, Everton, rivals on the pitch but steadfast supporters of Hillsborough families and survivors. And where will it go from here? Well, the campaigners have now asked supporters in other cities to sponsor their cab campaign so we may be about to find out just how far a taxi can take you these days.

Claiming Klopp

Jürgen Klopp became Liverpool manager on October 8, 2015, and it’s fair to say that he wasted no time in becoming a firm favourite with the fans and this is reflected in the banners they’ve produced.

As with his Spanish predecessor, Rafa Benitez, the flags have reflected Klopp’s German origins in a variety of interesting, and often ways, and at the same time, again as with Benitez, they have also staked a claim to him as Liverpool’s own.

Take this one, for example:

Jürgen Meister Spurs 16Oct15

The German national flag forms the background, thus acknowledging where he’s come from, but the omnipresent Liverpool is also here, larger than often elsewhere, and placed in the centre, which lends it visual emphasis.

The text, ‘Jürgen Meister’ is also worth noticing. Obviously, it’s a play on the German drink Jägermeister, and the font used is fairly close to the one used in the advertising:

Jägermeister bottle.png

What is perhaps less obvious is that ‘Meister’ does not only translate into English as ‘master’, as in a master craftsman or chess master, for example, but also as ‘champion’. The German football champions are the Fußballmeister.

This flag is a good example of how the banners are in conversation with one another and acknowledge that Klopp has now joined that conversation, perhaps even become one of its biggest talking points ever:Steins for my men.jpg

I particularly like the handmade materiality of this banner, as if it was done at speed to take to an event. Still, the usual care is taken over getting things right – note that umlaut! What is interesting about this is that it links to a very well-known flag (well, if you know anything about LFC banners, anyway…) which is this one:

Wine for my men.jpg

Nobody knows the actual origin of this phrase, but it has been much copied (there is a Spanish version, for example) but it is generally seen to be a rallying flag for the LFC ‘troops’ to gather behind. What makes the ‘Steins for my men’ version interesting, is the layered way it references the original. In changing the wine to ‘Steins’ (a Stein being a roughly 2-pint measure of German beer) the author of the banner has not only localized it to Klopp’s Germany, but also shown their linguistically playful side by choosing a (highly appropriate) rhyme to replace the original ‘wine’. I feel less comfortable about the overtones of militaristic triumphalism in the ‘über alles’, but it is in the German national anthem, after all, and maybe this flag is a heartening sign that we now associate them with the quality of German football, a quality the fans will be hoping Klopp brings to LFC.

This flag, rather than playing on Klopp’s German heritage, refers to his current position in Liverpool and ties belonging to LFC to the use of Scouse:

Boss Tha 1.jpgI took this photo at the League Cup semi-final at Wembley last year when he was relatively new to the club but had already made quite an impression. There’s an odd formality to using his full name that is then counterpoised with the Scouse phrase ‘Bass tha’ (That’s great)- note the inversion of the word order  (influence of Irish?) and the use of a particularly Scouse vocabulary item, ‘boss’ and the attempt to reflect Scouse pronunciation by leaving off the final ‘t’. It’s my assumption that this flag also has an intertextual link to an official LFC video in which a young fan gives Klopp a lesson in Scouse, including that phrase, ‘bass tha’:

Jürgen Klopp learns Scouse from a kid: BOSS THA!

This was published on November 25, 2015, so just a matter of weeks after he’d joined. So, a shrewd piece of marketing by the club, eager to get the fans to take to their new manager, or an authentic taste of what was to come from Klopp, who has always been known for the intimate identity he believes has to be forged between a manager, a team, and the fans? Either way, it works and all we can say is:

Klopp with Boss tha flashcard.png


The long and twisted road to Truth Street

imageThis is a truly brilliant piece of street art. It’s a response to the Hillsborough inquest jury’s definitive judgement that the 96 were unlawfully killed. The street sign is located In Liverpool, just off Brownlow Hill (L3 5RB) by the entrance to the John Lennon art school. At first, I assumed that’s why the site had been chosen. It was only when I knelt down to take the photograph and was able to look more closely that I saw the original name was Duckinfield Street. Duckenfield, of course, was the name of the Sheffield police  commander in charge of the game on the day, David Duckenfield , the man who began to spin the web of lies that it has taken twenty-seven years to eradicate. And whilst Duckenfield did eventually come clean it wasn’t without a further desperate attempt to besmirch the innocent causing further grief to the families. We now wait to hear whether he will face charges for perjury.

Apart from the highly appropriate choice of site, what marks this out is the way the name Duckinfield has been whitewashed out, as if in metaphorical response to the cover-up of the truth, manufactured in a cynical collusion between the police, media and Westminster, a cover-up that went ‘all the way to the top’, as the Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham pointed out in his powerful and moving statement in the House of Commons on April 27. Street signs, of course, are typically black and white, which is the very emblem of the clear-cut truth, but in this case, the truth turned out to be red. Blood red.

LFC Fan Banners – Seeing Red

Success has many fathers

I’m an applied linguist and Honorary Associate researcher at the Open University. I’m also a fan of Liverpool FC. This site is mainly dedicated to documenting the creativity of the club’s fans as expressed through their banners, but I also hope to put up other examples of how LFC fans use language in all its forms to express their particular creativity and identity.

I’ve chosen this banner as my first example because I think it’s brilliant and I know the person who created it – Paul Gardner. I talked to Paul about the banner and my interpretation of it. He wasn’t convinced.

The use of the Russian proverb ‘Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan’ is a very salutary one for all football fans. It’s easy to stick by your team when they’re in their pomp, but less so when times are tough. I also like the way Paul used the first part to connect it to the image of Shankly and four  other great managers. It emphasised both community and continuity.

I read the image as a religious one, too, with Shankly as God and the others has his four gospellers, spreading theword, keeping the faith. Paul didn’t agree and said he’d chosen four because he felt that gave it a better balance. He was also making an oblique reference to the five Champions League Cups LFC have won, a recurring motif in fans’ banners..

You decide. And let me know what you think; I welcome contributions from anyone who shares my enthusiasm.