How many times do United supporters get quizzed on where we come from? Whether it’s on radio phone-ins or bumping into somebody on holiday, as soon as you say you support United the questions start. The hilarious “Oh, a United fan from Manchester” line comes out and you’re soon justifying yourself to some joker who ultimately knows nothing about United or football in general. United fans constantly get this but any number of other well supported English clubs similarly attract a fan base from all over the country. Boyley looks at a few clubs’ support and points out a few home truths.
Historically they’ve never really been a big club but before their post-‘94 successes they were very fashionable in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when a good side and their ground being a stone’s throw from the swanky Kings Road ensured the trendy image of London town rubbed off on Osgood and co. When their team declined, hooliganism was starting to make big headlines and Chelsea fans made a name for themselves, soon attracting a different kind of glory hunter who could claim to be hard and cool by saying they were Chelsea. Although attendances at The Bridge weren’t great they did have a good and loyal hardcore following, most of which came from the Home Counties. Chelsea have also always had pockets of fans all over England including a lot in Yorkshire and even Stockport, whose numbers have always been impressive and obviously grew over recent years. Chelsea also have a good number of followers on the continent due to a fascination with hooligan culture, especially in Belgium and Holland. Bizarrely a number of supporters clubs have been set up of late in Ireland but given that old skool Chelsea heads “No surrender” politics it’d be surprising if there haven’t been a few serious culture clashes on the Shed. Ouch!
Arsenal have great tradition but not perhaps the greatest fans to go with it. They have never been out of the top division and their trophy haul is bettered only by Liverpool and United yet crowds have rarely flocked to watch The Gunners as you might expect. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s Highbury had the highest capacity in the top flight and they won the double in 1971 on the way to appearing in five Cup Finals in ten years. Even though the ‘80s didn’t witness Arsenal’s most attractive football they did win the League Cup and championship yet despite all this Arsenal only used to get close to filling their ground if the visitors were Spurs, Liverpool or United. These days you get coaches and minibuses from all over Britain ferrying Arsenal fans to watch their heroes at Ashburton Grove, including their ever large Irish following.
Although they have won the league on a mere two occasions (the same as lowly City), Spurs are without doubt the biggest club in London in terms of supporter loyalty and actual fan base. Like Chelsea a lot of this goes back to the swinging Sixties and their great 1961 team that became the first Double winners of the century. A few years ago we arrived late at White Hart Lane and found ourselves parked behind a load of coaches from the length and breadth of England but it wasn’t Reds they were ferrying as they were all Spurs fans’ vehicles.
One thing about being a fan of a London club is that you can come from anywhere from Rugby to East Anglia to Sussex to Somerset and unquestioningly claim allegiance to any team from the capital. Chelsea fan from Southend? West Ham fan from Islington? Spurs fan from Dunstable? Arsenal fan from Crawley? No questions asked. Yet if you are a United from say Crewe or Chesterfield you have to explain why you chose United over your local team.
They have a shocking support for a big city club who were Champions of Europe as recently as 1982. Throughout the last two decades they’ve rarely filled their ground yet still attract fans from all over England (with many supporters club in the South) who see fit to tell us to “Support your local team”. Hmm…
A small time outfit before their promotion in the ‘60s but soon picked up a lot of support during their Revie-inspired period of continual capitulation interspersed with the odd success. To this day they have a large following from all over the UK and Ireland but considering the population of the city and its surrounding area in comparison to Manchester, and with only one team rather than two, their crowds have never actually been that great. There’s been a lot made of their loyal fans since they’ve been in the third tier and admittedly things have picked up from those days in the 1980s when they were regularly attracting around 15,000 in the old Second Division.
Once dubbed the ‘Bank Of England’ because of their wealth, Sunderland have a large loyal core support of around 25,000. They got a bit giddy with the ‘90s football boom and built a ground which they barely ever fill and started trying to attract fans from outside the area. Poaching of Scottish football fans was attempted but many Jocks wooed merely wanted to watch visitors to the Stadium Of Light. The club still has coaches of fans from all over the UK but every single one of them is a born and bred Mackem, honest.
In the late ‘70s and ‘80s Newcastle always brought a good following to Old Trafford for a big game but rarely matched those numbers for more mundane fixtures. In the 1990s when the Premiership made football hip all of a sudden there was a ‘Milton Keynes Mag’ flag on the Gallowgate whilst numerous other towns declared their own ‘Loyal Mags’ branches and following their promotion in 1993 and couple of years challenging for the title many a Newcastle shirt popped up all over England.
The only team to come from Manchester has branches all over the world, with City supporters clubs residing in many of those towns they accuse United fans of coming from. Last Saturday’s derby witnessed numerous out-of-towners’ flags on display at Wastelands and go in the Circus Tavern on Portland Street before a City home match and there’ll usually be a sizeable part of Portadown in wearing sky blue. Not long ago I was on a flight back from Dublin and there were thirty City fans on board on their way to Wastelands, presumably all having originally been born in Moss Side. Following their recently found wealth expect more and more far flung City fans to pop up to try and help them fill that ground. Meanwhile, the lowest derby attendance since the War for a game unaffected by reduced capacity remains the 29,668 at Maine Road in April 1996. Needless to say, the United end was sold out but home tickets were still on sale to members the morning of the game.
The real team from Liverpool? I’ve always wondered why all those coaches from North Wales were parked up by Goodison whenever we play. Everton certainly have a large ‘woolyback’ following and their successful 1980s team also ensured a load of glory hunters from around the country. During the Eighties every time they were on telly there used to be a flag declaring ‘Eccleshall Toffees’ but guess what? It’s never seen nowadays.
Plane loads from Scandinavia and Ireland help pack Anfield on a match day, together with their branches from all over the UK. As a proportion of both clubs’ followings Liverpool easily have as big a number (if not more) from outside Merseyside as United do from outside Manchester and LFC actually have more supporters clubs around the world and UK than we do. The Mickeys’ midweek cup attendances regularly slip as low as 20,000, suggesting that their vast out of town support isn’t quite as diehard as ours. That Liverpool fans can ever sing ‘Shit on the Cockneys’ to us is absolutely beyond belief, and ironic given the sheer number of coaches you see on a match day at Anfield – support gleaned primarily from their successes in corrupting impressionable school kids nationwide during the Seventies and Eighties.
Inevitably United attracted new support during the 1990s but United already had a large and loyal out of town fan base throughout the barren 1970s and ‘80s when Liverpool swept the board. Meanwhile Arsenal and Chelsea attract glory hunters galore, just as Blackburn did post-’95 and Newcastle did for winning, er, nothing. When City fans started the chant “you don’t come from Manchester” in the ‘70s it was in typical bitter City tradition regarding the fact that Old Trafford was recently deemed to be in the borough of Trafford and not Manchester. Why City fans then also sing “You’re the shit of Manchester” has never been explained but the Blue myth has grown and grown. So next time you get asked “do you come from Manchester” by a fan of any of these clubs point out these examples as I always do.
This article was first published by Pete Boyle in Red Issue magazine