Seeing red: a plane towing a banner flies over Old Trafford. The former Man United manager was sacked on 22 April. Photo: Getty
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“Wrong One – Moyes Out” read the plane’s banner

Football fans have always had a keen sense of the ridiculous. 

Fans just want to have fun. Which is why I watched the Man United-Aston Villa game live on telly, purely to see the aeroplane. What aeroplane, you ask? Not the one in the Indian Ocean?

It was an expensive stunt by some disgruntled Man U fans who’d hired a plane to fly over the stadium towing a banner which read “Wrong One – Moyes Out”. The rotten TV people never showed the plane, not on my set, they didn’t, but it did happen, oh yes.

“Wrong One – Moyes Out” was a witty reference to “The Chosen One”, which it says on a huge banner inside the ground, put up at the start of the season when Moyes was anointed. It is now protected by the club, in case of vandalism.

I also missed the open-top bus parade Newcastle fans had organised before last week’s home game, with the crowds encouraged to wave and cheer and hoot their horns. It was called the Magical Misery Tour, to celebrate in style Newcastle’s utterly boring, utterly pathetic, miserable season.

Footballs fans, since it all began, have had a keen sense of the ridiculous. That’s why for at least a hundred years, on the really big occasions, they have always dressed up in really silly clothes. If you look at photos of Cup final crowds, even before the Cup final moved to Wembley in 1923, you will see fans in funny hats, frocks and trousers, with painted faces, outsize umbrellas, rosettes, rattles, inflated fruit and objects such as hammers. (Signifying West Ham supporters: do concentrate.)

It was best when it was a north-south game, as it so often was, with the northern hordes coming down to make a whole day of it with their families, probably never coming to London again in their lifetime, parading around Piccadilly, showing off their fancy favours.

Look out for similar exhibitionism at the World Cup when fans of the different nations will paint their faces and wear stupid clothes. The reason this sort of thing mostly happens at big games such as Cup finals is that it is a Big Game. Fans are so pleased to be there, win or lose, determined to enjoy themselves.

Taking the piss out of your club also has a long history. In 1910, if you rang the HQ of Barnsley (telephone number 320) you heard hee haw, hee haw, hee haw, which was the sound of Amos, a donkey, the club’s mascot. I have a photograph of Amos, with a supporter sitting on him, taken outside the Clarence Hotel, on which there is a plaque saying “Headquarters of the Barnsley Football Club”. I suspect it was just the HQ of the Supporters’ Club. All the same, a good wheeze.

Gallows humour also goes back a long way. Among my 500 or so football postcards are some In Memoriam cards from the 1900s. They were joke versions of real In Memoriams and were very popular at the time, sold after vital Cup matches. They came complete with black borders, showing a horse-drawn funeral cortège, with some lines underneath in memory of the “deceased”, ie, the defeated team.

They sold so well that enterprising printers would produce two versions before the game, mourning the defeat of either team.

I have one dated 5 March 1910, nicely laid out,with some elaborate printing, which has the headline:

 

In Memory of
MANCHESTER CITY,
who fell at The County
Ground, Swindon, fighting for the ENGLISH CUP . . .

 

Below is the touching verse:

 

Bury Manchester City,
Their day is over and done,
Sing them a little sad ditty,
And cheer for the team
    
that won.
Oh don’t you think ’twas
    
rather a pity
You came to Swindon,
Manchester City.

 

The bottom of the card reads: “Funeral arrangements by GWR”, meaning Great Western Railway. I was so amused by this that I went mad and bought it at a Sotheby’s auction for £100. (The price is a secret, by the way; no one in this house knows.)

Fans have to have fun – otherwise you’d spend half your time in tears . . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era