Friday, 27 October 2023 10:39

Bobby, Frannie and what we have lost

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Bobby, Frannie and what we have lost

Bobby Charlton: 1966 World Cup Winner, 1967 First Division Champions, 1968 European Cup Winner.

Frannie Lee: 1968 First Division Champions, 1969 FA Cup Winner, 1970 League Cup Winner and European Cup Winners' Cup Winner. 

The red and the blue halves of Manchester have always been divided, yet for four years were united – no not that United – in their pomp, a shared Mancunian Supremacy. Never before, never since, always been one, or the other, or neither. Only the city 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 of Liverpool six league titles, Everton two. Two clubs, two cities divided, but united by these shared periods of quite extraordinary success.

Northern clubs and cities, too: London clubs have had their moments – well Arsenal and Chelsea – but it is different in a two-club city when fans are for one and against the other. Add the geographical antipathy to all things southern, and London in particular, and how much this means to the fans is obvious.

Toxic masculinity and fan culture

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 player, Bobby Charlton – arguably England’s greatest too. Sunday will be a uniquely poignant moment for the vast majority of fans, red and blue, perhaps for a vocal minority the opportunity to offend too. Hence the emergence of the phrase ‘tragedy chanting’, indicative of a rotten element within all that is so magnificent about fan culture. Never a majority, or even close to, but ever-present nevertheless, it justifies itself by the warped morality of love of our lot, hate of the other lot. It’s amplified by the toxic masculinity 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. The opportunity to connect this loss to a collective experience as part of a stadium crowd makes it all the more poignant and powerful. In a way, almost no other act of mourning comes close to stands packed with the raucous crowds of fans, transformed into universal silence for a few moments – and then the release of a huge shout when the moment ends.  

Sunday’s derby will of course have an extra edge. City are enjoying a period of absolute dominance over United in terms of trophies won for an extended period. The reign of Guardiola is condemning the Ferguson era of even greater success to the history books – and to date there is no 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 – 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, 1966-68, nor City legend Frannie Lee’s, 1967-70. The pair of them overlapped in life and now in death, Frannie having passed away this month too.

They shared something else too. They were undoubtedly stand-out stars of their respective clubs, yet also very much part of teams of all the talents. Denis Law, George Best and bobby Charlton at United. Francis 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 are currently finalising their own stadium statue for Lee, Bell and Summerbee. Football, however modernised, commodified and globalised it has become, can never escape from its history: good!

Nothing is constant but change

This history, however, shouldn’t be the subject of a hagiography. In those halcyon days of the 1960s it was a parochial game, a foreign player back then meant a Scot, a Welshman, a Northern Irishman. It was a mono-cultural game, black players 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, and where it did exist 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 feature 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, we must loudly understand why our present, good, bad and in-between, is so vastly different to the one belonging to those we mourn.


The memorial T-shirts Law, Best & Charlton and Lee, Bell & Summerbee are exclusively available from Philosophy Football  

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