A city divide by loyalty, united by history. Manchester Red and Blue. A city divide by loyalty, united by history. Manchester Red and Blue. Source: Mark Perryman

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football explores the meaning of a game’s loss

Bobby Charlton, 1966 World Cup Winner, 1967 First Division Champions, Frannie Lee, 1968 First Division Champions, 1969 FA Cup Winner, 1970 League Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup Winner. The red and the blue halves of Manchester were always divided, yet for four years united (no not that United), in their pomp, a shared Mancunian Supremacy. Never before, never since, it has always been one, or the other, or neither.

Only the city of Liverpool, no not that City, can boast anything similar, not that any Manc would admit as much. From seasons 1981-82 to 1989-90, just once did Arsenal break the Liverpudlian First Division Supremacy, Liverpool six league titles, Everton two. Clubs and cities were divided but united by these shared periods of quite extraordinary success.

London clubs have had their moments, well Arsenal and Chelsea have, but it is different in a two-club city when fans are for one, and against the other; add to this, the geographical antipathy to all things southern, and London in particular. How much this meant to the fans is obvious.

This Sunday, City visit Old Trafford for the Manchester derby. Tuesday’s Champions League fixture at the ground came too soon for all the pomp and circumstance to mark the passing of undeniably United’s greatest, arguably England’s greatest too. Sunday will be a uniquely poignant moment for the vast majority of fans, red and blue, and perhaps for a vocal minority the opportunity to offend too. The very emergence of the phrase ‘tragedy chanting’ is indicative of a rotten element within all that is so magnificent about fan culture. Never a majority, or even close to it, but an ever-present element, nevertheless, justified by the warped morality of love for our lot, and hate for the other lot. Amplified by, cliché alert, though clichés are almost always borne out of a shorthand description for reality, the toxic masculinity is uniquely generated by male football-fan culture.

But for the vast majority of fans, whether we follow United, England or not, the passing of Bobby Charlton has been marked by a sense of loss, given the opportunity to connect this loss to a collective experience as part of a stadium crowd, made all the more poignant and powerful. In a way, almost no other act of mourning comes close to stands packed with the loudly raucous transformed to universal silence, and then the release of a huge shout when the moment ends.

On Sunday, a derby will of course have an extra edge. City is enjoying a period of absolute dominance over United in terms of trophies won, for an extended period. The reign of Guardiola condemning the Ferguson era of even greater success to the history books, and to date not much sign of a new edition. To extinguish this rivalry is to remove what makes football’s fan culture so uniquely special: the ingrained loyalty, the warm feeling inside that when the other lot chant, ‘Where were you when you were shit’, we were there with our team, never forsaking them. Keeping the faith, and now able to enjoy the success, the promotions, the cups, and league championships won, all the more, thank you very much.

Of course, none of this being shit applies to either the period of Bobby Charlton’s greatest success in 1966-68, or City legend Frannie Lee’s in 1967-70. The pair of them overlapped in life, and now in death, Frannie having passed away this month too. And they shared something else too.

Undoubtedly, the stand-out stars of their respective clubs, yet very much part of teams of all the talents too. Denis Law, George Best, and Charlton at United. Lee, Colin Bell, and Mike Summerbee at City. The site of Law, Best, and Charlton’s statue at Old Trafford is currently besieged by fans’ wreaths and tributes. City is currently finalising its own stadium statue for Lee, Bell, and Summerbee. Football, however, modernised, commodified, and globalised it has become, can never escape from its history: good.

This is a history, however, that shouldn’t be the subject of a hagiography. In those halcyon days of the 1960s, it was a parochial game; a foreign player was back then a Scot, a Welshman, or a Northern Irishman. It was a mono-cultural game; black players were almost entirely absent. In the stands, by the end of the seventies, there was a racist layer of support that was to take shape in large numbers of votes for the fascist National Front and streetfighters for the Neo-Nazi British Movement.

The women’s game was close to non-existent back then, and where it did exist, it was frequently banned from using men’s pitches and facilities. None of this should be extinguished from our memorialising.

Remembering what we lose when the greats, who for one generation loomed so large in our growing up as fans, and for the fans of today featuring as a star-studded cast of our club’s history, must be multi-dimensional if it is connect past to present and future. There’s a need to frame what we miss, in this moment of loss, the forces behind the changes from then to now, because as the philosopher Hegel so wonderfully put it, ‘Nothing is constant but change’. And when the minute’s silence is over, to use Hegel’s maxim, is loudly to understand why our present, good, bad and in-between, is so vastly different to the one belonging to those we mourn.

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Mark Perryman

Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is Corbynism from Below and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here