SUPPORTERS’ banners have become so intrinsic to the culture of football it cannot be too long before somebody writes a book about them or they form the basis of a PhD thesis.
At their colourful fluttering-in-the-breeze best, they are integral to bringing a sense of occasion, while at the same time generating atmosphere and buoying up fans to get behind their team.
They have also served as a testament to terrace wit through the football ages. Probably the most famous banner ever was created in honour of the now Wrexham FC youth coach, Joey Jones, when he played for Liverpool in the 1977 European Cup final in Rome.
“Joey ate the frogs’ legs, made the Swiss roll and now he’s munchin’ Gladbach” it declared, in tribute to the combative full-back’s contribution as his team went on to lift the trophy for the first time.
There is a darker side to the tradition of banners, however. The notoriously right-wing fans of Italian club Lazio famously used theirs to honour the Serbian war criminal Arkan, while on certain grounds in Poland, anti-semitic creations which juxtapose Jewish facial caricatures, concentration camp uniforms and the Star of David have become sickeningly de rigueur.
It goes without saying, therefore, that there is an onus on clubs to be vigilant. Unfortunately, in addition to honouring their duty to remove offensive material, there is now a growing tendency towards confiscating banners carrying negative messages about club proprietors.
Manchester United have been particularly zealous in this area, pouncing on anything detrimental to controversial owners the Glazer family and even sacking a steward who returned a confiscated banner to its guardians.
This sort of cynical attempt at censoring protest certainly appears to have been at work during Wrexham’s home match against Crawley Town on Tuesday night when several fans were ordered to take their banners down. The outlawed messages included one which proclaimed 'This ground is for football'.
This action followed a message from the club last week warning that in future only banners supportive of the team would be permitted. At what point the word “team” metamorphosised into “club owners” remains unclear.
As Wrexham Supporters Trust spokesman Lindsay Jones points out, the ‘Fans United’ banner was displayed on the Kop at the Reds’ previous home match without sanction, while before games at Mansfield and Cambridge fans were allowed to parade it around the pitch.
Club owners could argue of course that they have the right to decide what can be brought into The Racecourse and what cannot. Fans, though, have an emotional stake in their club and such heavy-handedness is an abuse of their loyalty.
The longer this continues, the stronger the perception will be that club bosses are running scared in the current PR war with the various supporter groups.
They might do worse than heed the words of David Ben-Gurion, the first Israeli prime minister, when he warned: “The test of democracy is freedom of criticism.”