“Here… civilized man is turned back into savage”
— Alexis de Tocqueville in Manchester, 1835 (Qtd. in Kidd, Alan. Manchester. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002, p.31)
Manchester, England, was the site of much celebratory revelry on the night of 14 May 2011. Earlier that day, the city’s two professional football (a.k.a., ‘soccer’ to some) teams had secured England’s two major honors in back-to-back games. First up were Manchester United, who, by drawing with Blackburn Rovers, assured themselves victors of the Premier League title for a record 19th time, in the process supplanting Liverpool as the most successful club in the nation’s domestic football history. Following, at Wembley Stadium, Manchester City won the F.A. Cup by beating Stoke City 1-0, thereby bringing to an end their barren 35-year trophy-less period. With each team enjoying simultaneous moments of glory, it appeared that—at least temporarily—an armistice might be called on Manchester’s historic football rivalry. As if!
No city in England “enjoys” such an entrenched, venomous, and savage sports rivalry as Manchester does with City and United. Throughout the week, Mancunians—one-and-all—go about their business, working and shopping together, sharing activities and friendships…until Saturday afternoon arrives. Then they retreat into their sky blue (City) and red (United) corners, all connections severed, their respective minds dead-set on just two thoughts: victory for us and defeat for them. The main way in which these thoughts become manifest is via football’s rich panorama of folk humor: through incendiary jibes, inciting disses, insulting chants, and ingenious public pranks.
One particularly long-standing practical joke has become newsworthy (again), thanks to Man City’s recent triumph. Prior to that day, City’s trophy drought dated back to 1976, the year they won the (less-than-prestigious) League Cup. Conversely, since 1991, United have consistently collected myriad trophies—both domestic and European—multiple times. This divide between the two clubs’ fortunes has made City easy and constant prey for United fans, who have ceaselessly bombarded them with many modes of “superiority” humor. Nowhere is this better exhibited than in “The Ticker”, a banner that United fans erected in the Stretford End of their Old Trafford stadium.
Stark and simple, the ticker merely showcases the number of years City has gone without winning a tournament, thus publicly mocking them for their years of football futility and impotence. Over the years, the ticker has been the comedic gift that keeps on giving for United fans, while it has been a festering embarrassment for City fans. Indeed, after the ticker was turned to 34, City’s irritation spilled from its highest ranks as (then) new coach Roberto Mancini—no doubt intending to rally the dispirited troops—told fans of his intention to “get his hands on” the offending banner. In retort, United fans sent a letter to Mancini inviting him to personally roll the number over to 35 next season. And while no RSVP was received, as of 14 May one was not needed. United supporters, undeterred, appear unwilling to let such a provocative public prank go to waste, though, and are vowing to keep it ticking on as a marker for the last time City won a league championship, starting at 43.
Football humor, like the game itself, is about attack, defense, and then counter-attack. Rarely polite, pleasant, or politically correct, its funny quotient is always subservient to the raw aggression at the core of its intent. A civilized surrogate of hooliganism, football humor unites the us while insulting them. Mockery is the main weapon in the arsenal, a form of humor that collectivizes one group—what Andy Medhurst calls attaining “togetherness through offensiveness”—while attempting to disarm another (Medhurst, Andy. A National Joke: Popular Comedy and English Cultural Identities. London: Routledge, 2007, p.193). Like the disses and dozens humor prevalent in inner-city African-American subcultures, football humor is territorial, identity-driven, and protective of (self)-perceived personal and socio-cultural status. As with dozens humor, the call-and-response mechanism maintains a momentum of retaliatory counter-attacks between opposing factions, while the put-ons and put-downs keep tensions high and mutual relations competitive.
The “superiority” humor that football wits indulge in has been theorized ever since such old timers as Aristotle and Plato first mused upon it. More recently, in the 17th century, philosopher Thomas Hobbes spoke of the “sudden glory” to be had from acts of mockery, as we take pleasure in the misfortunes and afflictions of others. Elliott Oring, paraphrasing another great humor theorist, Sigmund Freud, further reminds us that such humor is “rooted in repression” and that “jokes afford people a way of expressing feelings of aggression that otherwise would be prohibited”; or, alternatively, would be acted out in more physical terms on the streets and the terraces (Oring, Elliott. Engaging Humor. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003, p.x).
Like most group (or folk) humor, the effectiveness of football barbs is dependent upon an in-crowd understanding and appreciation of the often esoteric codes of the subculture. Indeed, the wit can only function and succeed where “individuals can access concepts, associations, and values with which they are already familiar” (Oring, p.56). And a comic boast, as much as an insult aimed at the opposition, can bind a group’s status, self-worth, and identity. As a participatory practice, football humor unites…against others. It is self-congratulatory, self-serving, and self-satisfying, childish on the surface but as fundamentally tribal in essence as mankind itself. Its pay-off might be the “sudden glory” of a successful (counter-)attack or the cathartic recovery of a well-played defensive move; either way, the incisive wit invites “us” to belong, to join in, and to be a proud constituent of the subcultural community.
The humor emanating from the terraces of any and all British football grounds on a Saturday afternoon also contains a significant social class component. Like most traditional folk humor, terrace humor is subaltern in identity—or at least in its participants’ imagined and adopted identity. It encourages the collective to reject bourgeois mores and to assault the liberal consensus by transgressing (the expectations of) mainstream values and language. Within the terraced environmental enclave, otherwise polite, well-mannered citizens release and relieve themselves from the everyday confines of political correctness as they join the merry throng in singing songs and hurling epithets of ordinarily unmentionable irreverence, offence, and abuse. Andy Medhurst calls this transformation into the state of mass consciousness, “collective merriment over individual squeamishness” (p.193). And this is the world of the carnival, where normal rules no longer apply.
Largely a situational phenomenon, terrace humor, with its unifying boasts, attacking jibes, and raw vernacular, is oriented by its central venue and outlet: the stadium. As with carnivals, stadium gatherings are festive occasions where normal proprieties are either inverted or gleefully stomped upon. Here, the body trumps the mind; here, excess meets and mingles with the grotesque; and here, practitioners are emboldened and empowered as they flaunt authority by exercising normally off-limits forms of free expression. Essentially, the stadium offers permission to let off steam, to vent the frustrations of the working week, and to escape into an alternative self liberated from life’s perennial confines; (this new self is conspicuously symbolized by the game-day costume identity of team scarves, hats, and banners). And as much as the attack-and-defense songs of humor that resonate around the arena may reflect one faction’s distaste for the opposing team, they also vicariously empower these weekend fugitives in opposition to broader—and sometimes less tangible—institutional enemies.
Football’s most consistently creative humorous expression—and arguably one of Britain’s last actively practiced folk art forms—is the chant. Rivalry vocalized, the chant sets teams, towns, cities, regions, and nations against one another through its artful (dis[s])play of often blistering humor. Moreover, the intensity of enmity in the rivalry will invariably inspire the comedic “color” of a chant’s lyrical content. Arsenal and Spurs, Celtic and Rangers, West Ham and Millwall, Sunderland and Newcastle—all have custom-crafted chants targeting each other. As for Man United, their greatest “hits” of recent decades have been largely reserved for their major competitors, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool. However, with the recent resurrection of Man City, focus has returned to the long-dormant Manc rivalry.
“How many Man City fans does it take to change a light-bulb?” Answer: “None. They’re quite happy living in United’s shadows.” Such perennial jokes as this have long been leveled at the under-achieving City, and variants of it are constantly heard in chant-form on the terraces at Old Trafford where City’s inferiority (complex) is raked over by the merciless United faithful. Adding insult to insult, sometimes such chants are even adaptively aimed at other clubs while still referring to City. “Are you City in disguise?” has been a go-to sing-along line over the years, suited for any incompetent opponents, while Madchester’s very own Inspiral Carpets provided the template for a common chant with their song, “This Is How It Feels”, adapted thus: “This is how it feels to be City / This is how it feels to be small / This is how it feels when your team wins nothing at all.” Not only can such chants be re-applied for any and all winning occasions, but by using a local band’s song, a regional claim of identity, pride, and credibility is also made.
Lyrical Play, Contextual Audacity, Revenge-Inspired Ridicule
Mancunian in-fighting cuts both ways, of course, and City have long drawn on the vocal support and back catalogue of their famous Manc fans, such as Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis, to bolster their public persona. The claim of which team most represents the city of Manchester is at the core of many internal struggles and is played out through many of the terrace chants of the two factions. “See you on the motorway” is a chant continually thrown at United, both by City fans and others. This line concedes that United have both the largest and most far-flung fan base, while attacking them for drawing that support from beyond the city confines, the suggestion being that United are essentially represented by fickle, part-time glory-hunters, Johnny-come-latelys from around the country (and world) who have merely jumped on the team’s success-driven bandwagon. Accordingly, United are thereby seen as less Manc in identity.
The chant tradition is as old as football itself; however, the shift towards more extreme and offensive lyrical content in recent decades has caused concern and consternation within the sport’s ruling bodies and institutions. Furthermore, the unfortunate victims targeted are as unpredictable as the chants themselves. Sometimes the character of a city itself is mocked. This has been a common thread in the Manchester United-Liverpool rivalry, where respective fans have engaged in a call-and-response “conversation” consisting of various geo-disses in the guise of ditties. Befitting two cities at the heart of the industrial revolution, their common infrastructural deterioration in the post-Victorian era has inspired regular back-and-forth banter about which city has fallen furthest. The epic “In Your Liverpool Slums” (a song adopted and adapted by many fan bases) has seven verses in total, offering quite a performance challenge to the multi-thousands of fans packed into Old Trafford each time the teams meet.
Sometimes the extreme chants are more individualized, targeting the personal peccadilloes of—or rumors surrounding—key figures. Star players are particularly ripe for the picking on, particularly those, like David Beckham and John Terry, who have been exposed in public scandals. Examples of comedic character assassination chants abound. Among them: “Robinho, she said ‘no’” was a popular chant that referenced the rape charges made against the Brazilian striker when he played for Manchester City, “There’s only two Andy Gorams” related to reports over the goalkeeper’s schizophrenia, and “The Gaza’s not yours” brought a political slant to a chant aimed at Israeli player, Yossi Benayoun.
Sometimes ethnicity and regional identity can feature in chants that are (intended to be) both endearing and offensive. To the tune of “Lord of the Dance”, Manchester United fans commonly sing an ode to their South Korean midfielder, Park Ji Sung, featuring the following cultural stereotype of his native land, “Park Ji, wherever you may be / You eat dogs in your country”. This chant also revisits the tried and trusted topic of Liverpool’s slums, with the slam, “It could be worse, you could be scouse / Eating rats in your council house”. For thousands of fans to voluntarily exit their ordinary realm of political correctness to indulge in such irreverent cultural slurs speaks to the unsanctioned and temporary permission that terrace humor allows. Andrew Motion, once Britain’s poet laureate, speaks of the “animal, impulsive instinct” of football chanting, but also adds that it can be “bracingly vulgar”, “very funny”, and even “ingenius” (“Shall we sing a song for you?”, by Tom Lamont, The Guardian, 03 May 2009).
The Bearded Genius’s take on the Welcome to Manchester sign—one of many interpretations easily found on the Internet
Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, no doubt finds neither funny nor ingenious the “Sit down you pedophile” chant that Manchester United fans periodically aim at him, while United themselves have long suffered the slings and arrows of jokes making light of the Munich air crash that wiped out much of their team in February, 1958. Such schadenfreude was recently met with consequences when Man United were about to play Crawley Town in the fifth round of this season’s F.A. Cup. Posted on Crawley’s website, a video song, “A Message to You, Rooney” (to the tune of the old Specials hit) seemed like an innocuous ribbing of United’s much heralded (and hated) center-forward, until close viewing revealed a fan in the background presenting a charade that aped the crashing plane and the number of victims in the 1958 disaster. Here, the offending 19-year-old may have felt that he was merely pushing the envelope of football humor, but the state felt otherwise, charging the teen under the Public Order Act.
Similar efforts at control and/or censorship of sick or inflammatory humor have been made by the clubs themselves in recent years. Arsenal even offered an officially approved songbook to supporters in an effort to excise the racist components of their fans’ chants. Though ineffectual in practice, such institutional efforts to curb the extremes of fans’ enthusiasm show a worry that terrace humor, rather than serving as a relief “hydraulic” outlet for passions, might instead serve to incite physical abuse, hate crimes, and hooliganism.
Despite their raw materials and base intents, terrace chants are often carefully crafted for circumstantial appeal. To succeed, their wit must be widely accessible, subculturally binding, and technically manageable; thus, hymns, popular songs, and even advertising jingles serve well for melody backdrops to lyrics that—like children’s songs—resonate with easy rhythms, rhymes, and tone. More complex constructions might work at the pub or on the bus, but minimalism and starkly-drawn barbs are essential to uniting the multitude in the stands. Most teams even have their own unofficial chant composers, such as Manchester United’s Pete Boyle, who always tests his creations out on fans at his local, the Bishop Blaize pub. Once accepted by the “elite” base, his chants are then sent out for stadium testing where some take and some don’t. In recent years, chant writing has become validated as a treasured folk art form in the UK, such that a national competition now exists with the victor crowned as chant laureate.
As any observer at a football match will note, fan humor is conveyed visually as well as orally. The former is well represented by banners, which, like chants, prevail or fail by the criteria of how sharp, incisive, and quick their wit is. Man United’s rolling ticker is an exemplary example of an effective banner, as was their celebratory “M.U.F.C. 19 Times” diss-sign, unfurled in the midst of Liverpool’s final home game of this season at Anfield.
Such simple visual images can indeed speak a thousand words, and they can pack a comedic wallop, too. The now legendary “Welcome to Manchester” billboard is a case in point. In the summer of 2009, one of Man United’s most celebrated players, Carlos Tevez, transferred to City, the first time such a cross-over had taken place since 1999. Euphoric that they had “stolen” one of United’s prime assets, City proceeded to rub salt in the wounds of United fans by erecting a huge poster in the city’s Deansgate shopping center featuring an open-armed Tevez below a caption that read “Welcome to Manchester”. The implicit slight here was that as Man United’s Old Trafford ground is technically outside the city limits, only City had a legitimate claim to being Manchester’s team. Moreover, with United harboring a reputation for being supported by “refugee” fans from around the nation and beyond, this boast of regional identity added further ripples to the scope of the humor.
Reactions to the poster were immediate, with an estimated 11 million Brits knowing of the story within a week. As a PR stunt, it was a smash hit, garnering £5 million in media value from the initial £48,000 outlay. Before long, the billboard was replicated onto posters and T-shirts, while the image spread like a virus across the internet where copy-cat versions and alternative responses became ubiquitous. United fans photo-shopped the image, replacing the original caption with “Goodbye to Success”, “You’re Welcome to Him”, and “Welcome to the End of Your Career”. Sir Alex Ferguson even responded, calling City “cocky”, “small-minded”, and “noisy neighbors” (“Ferguson talk must please Man City”, by Phil McNulty, BBC Sport, 18 September 2009).
More objective critics recognized the genius of the humor: its lyrical play, contextual audacity, and revenge-inspired ridicule. One journalist called it “the most talked about piece of Manchester artwork outside The Lowry”, while the poster was also nominated for a “Buzz Award”, a media-sponsored competition that rewards successful brand campaigns (“Manchester’s feuding clans get ready to remember the ‘Barson Barge’” The Sport Blog, Guardian).
A recent data survey by Foursquare Engineering measured Manchester to be the “rudest city in the world”, and judging by the way its inhabitants respond to the game of football, one is inclined to find credence in that finding (see “How we found the rudest cities in the world – Analytics @ foursquare”). For Mancunians, however, “rude” and “wit” are often two sides of the same coin, and together they are represented by many precedents within the history of the city. Just as the Manc combative spirit dates back to a dissenting tradition that brought Britain trade unions and the women’s movement, so its often “savage” sardonic humor is expressed by many of its cultural artists, whether from film (Frank Randle, Mike Leigh), music (The Smiths, The Fall), or literature (Elizabeth Glaspell, Anthony Burgess). Combined, these spirited strains have “united” over time to make Manchester the exemplary setting for the coarse and caustic in the folk art of football humor.