Flags of inconvenience
Thursday 30 April ~
The flag, draped over the front of a stand, is a modified St George cross with M, U, F and C written in the four corners and "The Religion" across the horizontal bar in the centre. It's one of many such flags you'll see around at Old Trafford and similarly bombastic messages are displayed at many other grounds on matchdays. Sometimes they take the form of declarations directed at a specific opponent – a group of Liverpool fans had "We Achieve Your Dreams" on a banner for one of their many Champions League ties with Chelsea a few years ago. There's nothing wrong with supporters declaring their attachment to their clubs, of course. But why do so many people have to be so pompous about it?
There was a time when banners were mostly slapdash homemade efforts, painted on bedsheets that were attached to sticks so they could be hoisted up on a crowded terrace. TV cameras would pick out the best ones on Cup final days and some entered football folklore as a result – the Leeds supporters' "Norman Bites Yer Legs" at the 1973 FA Cup final being probably the best known example. They disappeared for a while when changes to safety regulations in the wake of the stadium disasters of the 1980s led to a ban on flammable materials being brought into grounds.
Once the terraces had been replaced, we entered a new era of modified flags displayed across the front of stands announcing where their owners live – it seems that half the population of Bletchley go to England away games. Sometimes there's a commercial message (a regular at Liverpool's European ties displays the number of his cab firm) but mostly the humour has gone.
In much the same way that spontaneous singing has been replaced by music blaring from stadium Tannoys, clubs have also created their own messages. Aston Villa have "The Holte End – The 12th Man" displayed across the stand of the same name and on the opposite North Stand some lines from the TV commentary on their goal that won the 1982 European Cup. This a long way from the club-sanctioned ultra displays seen around Europe and South American stadiums where supporters are still able to exercise some degree of autonomy over what they do on matchdays.
Our flare-free stadiums are theme parks now. When supporters hold up their bar scarves in unison, you can see hundreds of camera flashes going off in the crowd as they photograph themselves having a football fan experience. Of course football grounds should be places where people can feel like part of a community but too often it seems like a community that has been corralled and cowed. Oh, and stick the flag in a skip – nobody cares where you're from. Carl Hawkins
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