Banners have a long history in the UK and have been associated with many social and political movements and events. In the nineteenth century, for example the Chartists, a working class political reform movement, carried banners on their mass marches, but sadly, there are no surviving examples. In the early twentieth century, women in the suffrage movement carried hand-crafted banners in demonstrations. Religious processions involving banners used to be common on important dates in the Christian calendar and some still take place nowadays. Recent demonstrations against austerity measures or for and against the Brexit vote have also seen a display of banners on our streets, attesting to their ongoing importance in collective action. All of these have been the subject of academic interest, but little attention has been paid to the role of banners in an area where they play an equally significant role in reflecting how we communicate and signal kinship or opposition - football fan culture
Banners of all types are often created or adapted to suit the needs of a particular occasion and may be fairly simple, especially if their main purpose is to display a single current demand or slogan. They may be small, cheap and mass produced in order to be carried by a large number of people. Others, such as trade union banners, on the other hand are often unique, large and elaborate creations celebrating a union’s history and the skills of its members. Their production requires significant skilled work, using valuable materials such as silk, and they are often designed to be carried by more than one person. So too are football banners.
These artefacts are important for historians, and they may involve great skill and be considered works of beauty. Could they also be considered works of art?
As part of the Manchester International Festival in 2009, the artist and Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller organised and filmed an event that celebrated the British working-class history of parades and processions with hundreds of participants. Celebrated British artist, David Hockney, was one of the contributors with a banner demanding rights for smokers.
Football fans’ banners can also exhibit considerable artistry, both visual and textual, but their contexts are far from simple to describe. They are designed to be displayed at a particular time and in a particular place, so the place, time and occasion are all relevant. They are usually held, carried or waved by supporters, so it is also relevant to consider the people holding or carrying them.
Football (or rather men’s football, as this does not apply nearly as much when the game is played by women) has a huge worldwide following. The popularity of football is such that it has been seen as recruiting more followers than any other activity or even belief. It is an example of a cultural activity; that is, something involving practices, ways of thinking and representations (images, language and ideas associated with the activity) which provide ways for people to state who they are. It provides them with an identity, a way of belonging, and of connecting, with others. Football offers a particularly rich source of multimodal examples, tied in very strongly to social and cultural identities. Supporting a football team is not only (if at all) about having an interest in sport. It is also a means of creating and expressing identity, forming connections, reinforcing a sense of belonging to a group and marking out differences from other groups. It can also, of course, be about enjoyment and celebration and it affords many opportunities for the playful use of language whether in conversation, in a song or chant, or on a banner. It has the potential to create and foster bonds between people and within communities – or to claim particular identities, as in this example:
In a discussion broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2012, Richard Holt, Tony Collins and Mike Cronin, who are all professors and historians of sport, made a strong case that the history of sport and the social and cultural importance of sport deserve study, just as much as, for instance, the history of religion. Cronin argues that sport is:
the third largest global business after oil and sex and although there is no longer a British Empire, sport is one of the two main legacies of colonialism along with the English language.
(Mike Cronin in The State of Play, 2012)
Even if you have no interest in it, it is difficult to ignore football (especially during global events such as the World Cup) because of its massive media coverage and the celebrity status of many of its top players. Football is all about belonging; belonging to those who support one team and making it quite clear that that is where you belong and not in the camp of an opposing team. You might show you belong by wearing a scarf or the team strip to matches (or in other situations if you are really keen). The whole enterprise is often a group activity. People go to matches or watch television coverage with a group of fellow supporters. Commitment to a football team can engender very powerful feelings and loyalties.
At club level, many people are deeply committed to supporting their local team and individuals may feel that they belong to a football club; they are part of that community of fans. One dimension of football as culture is its association with a particular place. From the very early days of the sport, football has been strongly linked to ‘place’ and different places carry different meanings. The game was a powerful vehicle for promoting territorial loyalties, within different countries, between nations and across the globe. Football has generated its own stories and myths and support for a club gives symbolic meaning to belonging to a community, whether it be in Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow.
Football as a sporting practice is also deeply embedded in a culture of masculinity. It is more than just a question of whether it is women or men who play the game. For a long time, football has been linked to traditional working-class masculinity and what has been called ‘muscular masculinity’, for example, the celebration of physical strength and fitness, loyalty to ‘mates’ and to a specific place.
Some banners are in a way similar to a national flag and carry a general message of support and identification with the club. They do not need to change and can be seen on many occasions. Others have more specific messages, for instance directed at an opposing team or player and their supporters, or celebrating a particular player or manager.
When we see the banners not as individual artefacts but as part of a broader, collective tapestry, we can see that they document not only the history of the clubs but also of the times they were created in and the social, cultural and political contexts that led to their creation – where, when and why they were displayed – as well as showcasing the visual and textual artistry, and often humour, fans use in support of their team. Here, for example, we see in the foreground a banner displayed during a memorial service for the 96 Liverpool fans killed in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. The words on the banner are taken from a poem by the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy written in response to the Hillsborough Independent Panel report, which exonerated fans from any responsibility for the events of that day. The poem itself quotes from the club’s famous anthem, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, which is sung every match day. A fine example of how football culture is woven into the broader fabric of our social and cultural lives.
There are many features in all these examples which illustrate the ways in which people assert their sense of belonging to a particular community. Visually, colour often makes the most immediate impact and we have seen many pictures dominated by the colour red, in a display of affinity for a particular team. Clothing, the banners’ backgrounds, lettering, all contribute to this effect.
You also see the same recurring symbols used or adapted, placed centrally, or used as logos almost as a shorthand way of reminding us, visually, of a banner’s meaning and context. The Liver bird symbols are an obvious example in Liverpool FC banners, and they have a double meaning since they signify not only the football club but also the city itself.
The words used in banners, and to some extent the imagery too, rely on a considerable amount of audience knowledge. This may be of popular culture (film, pop songs), of football players and managers, or of religious language and iconography.
So next time you see a football banner, think about all the different things it is made up of – materials, colours, images, words, and yes, even beliefs, hopes and dreams. It’s more than just team colours that are being nailed to the mast.