Just what is it about a red shirt that gets glory seeking fans of non-local teams in such a lather? I ask this as a somewhat bewildered Scots observer of English football from an Irish perspective – if that doesn’t sound like codswallop.
I’ll try to explain what I mean, but perhaps my point was illustrated by the recent, bizarre goings on at Cardiff City. You might recall that Cardiff’s Malaysian owners seriously proposed to change the club’s first team colours from their traditional blue to red, alter their club crest, and change their nickname from The Bluebirds to The Red Dragons. Officially, the reasons given were to “demonstrate the symbolic fusion of Welsh and Asian cultures” – but, more interestingly (or sadly), the move seemed to be more about foreign marketability.
It seems to come down to some kind of psychology. Tradition dictates that Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal have been easier to sell overseas than blue counterparts Manchester City, Everton and Chelsea. Here in Ireland, I’ve come to describe this as the “Munsterpool United” mindset.
I moved to Dublin from London in 1998 and very quickly realised Ireland is (in the words of northside friend) a football “twilight zone” – few people talked about their local teams, or even had one – everyone supported Celtic (from Glasgow, but you’d never know, listening to some people), and you had to support a Premiership team.
As soon as I started working in Dublin city centre, two local Liverpool fan colleagues asked me what “Premiership” team I followed. Having lived in England for a decade, I’d never had the slightest notion to adopt a London team, despite being very good friends with people who supported their own local sides – Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, Fulham, QPR, West Ham and Leyton Orient. I understood and admired their local affiliations, of course, it’s just that I couldn’t share them. But here in Dublin, it was looked upon with surprise that I could be a football fan, and yet not follow a (specifically) Premiership side. And, far more often than not, it had to be either Liverpool or Manchester United.
My reason for not participating was always simple enough – I’m not from England, I have no English relatives, I have no reason whatsoever to get behind an English team. When I was at school, any Scots friends who got behind English teams tended to do so for glory hunting purposes – therefore, in the late 1970s, early 1980s, it was normally Liverpool they supposedly “supported”.
I could always laugh that off, in much the way that Essex-born Manchester United followers are laughed off in England. But here in Ireland, “supporting” a big English team (by subscribing to Sky or wearing a jersey to a pub) is a serious business.
I asked one of my two Dublin Liverpool-supporting colleagues why you “had to” support a big English team – and not a small side, a nice underdog, who would surely be more fun. I was told (somewhat coyly, it must be said) that it was to do with clubs who had “traditionally looked after Irish players”. I thought about that Liverpool side from the 1970s and was pretty convinced it contained more Scots – still, I wasn’t in a position to argue.
It seemed to me (and this was not remotely scientific) that it was more to do with blanket media coverage, easy accessibility to TV games, and the realistic chance of regular success. Loyalty seemed way down the list – 1990s’ explosions of Irish support for (albeit Premiership) alternatives like Leeds United, Newcastle United and (most hilariously of all) Blackburn Rovers, seem like long-forgotten memories now.
Then, a few years ago, there was the Munster rugby fetish, based around two famous Heineken Cup wins. The country and its media went overboard to the most absurd and cringe-making degree. Not only were Munster routinely described as “the greatest rugby team ever” but their fans were “the greatest fans in the world” – even Kevin Myers said so. All well and good if you were from Munster, but it seemed that no matter what province you were from, you had to be a Munster fan. I spoke to two taxi drivers around that time who swore they were Munster fans despite being from Dublin, and a couple of others, including a work colleague, whose opinions were along similar lines.
It was at that point that I realised there was something substantial in the psychology of the red shirt. I was fully expecting Cork’s GAA sides to be described as “world beaters” by Dublin fans before too long.
So, Munsterpool United became my catch-all term for glory seeking fans of red-clad teams. I can barely differentiate between them and I still can’t understand them. I do my level best not to get involved in discussions about English football, it only gets me riled – like a red rag to a bull, in fact. Irish fans of Manchester United or Liverpool are, I’m sure, highly valued by the British economy thanks to merchandise sales – but I can’t help finding the whole thing chronically clichéd and embarrassing.
So, I extend my congratulations to long-suffering fans of Manchester City – while also offering the hope that Cardiff stick to their guns and don’t end up selling the jerseys to this bizarre mass cult of (thoroughly marketable) red.