A weekend of big matches at Wembley included plenty of choreographed displays but no place for supporter originality. In WSC 342, August 2015 Jon Spurling explained why
If ever proof were required that the era of the eye-catching FA Cup final banner was long gone, it arrived in May  when an Aston Villa supporters’ surfer flag was banned by the FA. The Sex Pistols themed logo ran: “Never Mind The Arsenal, Here’s The Aston Villa.” The giant flag never reached the unfurling stage because it flouted an FA technicality by mentioning Villa’s Cup final opponents by name.
It’s a far cry from the 1970s, when along with bleached out Wembley pitches and rosettes the size of frisbees, the sight of homemade banners was a key part of the showpiece event. Usually daubed across an old bed sheet held aloft by a couple of flimsy looking garden canes, television cameras homed in on the often pithy – and occasionally crude – messages.
“Dennis Will Menace Leeds”, read one Sunderland banner as their team (and forward Dennis Tueart) prepared to take on Don Revie’s side in the 1973 final. A coterie of Newcastle fans scrawled “Supermac strikes more than the miners” at their 1974 final with Liverpool. It wasn’t exactly a portent of things to come, as striker Malcolm Macdonald was shackled by Liverpool’s defence during his team’s 3-0 defeat.
There were several recurring banner themes during the era. A pair of Manchester United fans dreamed up the message “Gordon Hill sells more dummies than Mothercare” at the 1976 FA Cup final, which their team proceeded to lose to Southampton. The message was adapted by Arsenal and West Ham United fans in homage to Liam Brady and Trevor Brooking respectively at subsequent finals. Sometimes, the message was more industrial. “Up your Arse ’N’ All Jimmy Hill” barked an Ipswich banner at the TV pundit in 1978.
Memorable banners didn’t simply appear at FA Cup finals in that era. When Liverpool faced Borussia Mönchengladbach in the 1977 European Cup final in Rome, Liverpool supporters held aloft the message “Joey Ate The Frogs’ Legs, Made The Swiss Roll, Now He’s Munching Gladbach” in homage to defender Joey Jones, whose team defeated French side Saint-Étienne and Swiss outfit FC Zurich en route to the final.
After Trevor Francis, bought for £1 million from Birmingham City, headed the winner for Nottingham Forest in the 1979 European Cup final, a group of Forest supporters displayed the message “Thanks A Million Trevor” at City Ground matches throughout the following season.
The history of banners at football games is a rich and varied one, reflecting the era in which they were made. A policeman demanded that a Tottenham supporter – protesting about the change to the offside law in 1925 – hand over a banner which read “The Death of Pure Football”. The fan did as he was instructed – the rule stayed the same.
When Manchester City signed goalkeeper (and former German soldier) Bert Trautmann in the aftermath of the Second World War, a small group of irate City supporters took a banner to Maine Road which read “Off With The German”. Thankfully, the club ignored the protests, and Trautmann went on to become a City legend.
At Dynamo Berlin matches in the late 1980s, a daring handful infiltrated crowds to protest against the ruling Communist party, and in particular Stasi chief’s Erich Mielke’s longstanding involvement with the club. Police invariably arrested the protesters, who held up “Eleven Pigs” (Dynamo’s derogatory nickname among rival supporters) banners at games.
Former DDR striker Jürgen Sparwasser, who defected in 1988, later described the Dynamo protests as “a powerful message of disaffection which seeped through football crowds as the Cold War came towards the end. Football was one place where protesters met and talked about the regime.”
In the modern era, banners have signified fans’ discontent with wealthy owners and unwanted managers. In 2001, Paris Saint-Germain supporters unfurled a giant banner which read “www.shit.com” in reference to their team’s dismal form, shortly after sponsors Canal Plus claimed: “We’ll turn this club into the world’s biggest team.”
Meanwhile, disgruntled Manchester United supporters brought “Love United, Hate Glazer” signs to games after the Americans’ takeover in 2005. A clutch of Chelsea supporters, keen to remind interim manager Rafa Benítez that he was precisely that, wrote “Di Matteo Chelsea Legend FACT Rafa Chelsea Reject” when the ex-Liverpool boss took over at Stamford Bridge in 2012-13.
It’s a far less liberal climate when it comes to brandishing banners at football matches these days, and fans have to demonstrate that they’re not offensive, discriminatory, sexist or flammable. In recent years, ultras across Europe have been prevented from bringing banners which are deemed provocative.
“Banners show how witty supporters can be,” said Kevin Keegan after the 1974 FA Cup final. Thirty-three years on, before a match at the Nou Camp, Liverpool fans unveiled the simple message: “This Is A Sheet.” Jon Spurling