Bobby, Frannie and what we have lost


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

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 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 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 of Liverpool's six league titles, Everton's two.  Clubs, cities divided, but united by these shared periods of quite extraordinary success.

Northern 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, how much all 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, 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 for our lot, hate the other lot.  It’s amplified by, cliché alert, though clichés are almost always borne out of a shorthand description of reality, the 'toxic masculinity' uniquely generated by a very particular version of 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, stands packed with the loudly raucous, transformed into universal silence 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 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, 1966-68, nor City legend Frannie Lee’s, 1967-70, the pair of them overlapping in life, and now in death, Frannie having passed away this month too. And they shared something else too. They were undoubtedly 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 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.

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 a Scot, Welshman, a Northern Irishman. It was a  mono-cultural game too, black players almost entirely absent. In the stands by 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. 

The greats of the 1970s and 197os for an older generation loomed large in our growing up as fans while for the fans of today feature as a star-studded cast of our club’s history. Whatever our age group the remembrance for all that they mean must be multi-dimensional if it is to connect past with 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 past represented by those we mourn.


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


Mark Perryman is co-founder of the self-styled 'sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction' aka Philosophy Football