Football Humor, Like the Game Itself, Is about Attack, Defense, and then Counter-Attack

No city in England “enjoys” such an entrenched, venomous, and savage sports rivalry as Manchester does with City and United. It's no wonder that a recent survey found Manchester to be the “rudest city in the world”.

“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.

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