The photograph above is used with the kind permission of Kevin Cummins. A lifelong Blue Kevin has taken some of the most iconic shots in music – from the Pistols to the Roses. If you’d like to check out his amazing work please visit http://www.kevincummins.co.uk/index.php
On Boxing Day 1988 12,000 Manchester City supporters descended upon Stoke’s beautifully dilapidated Victoria Ground dressed as superheroes, penguins, oversized Andy Pandys and, in my case accompanied as I was by my elder sibling, one half of the Blues Brothers. Almost everyone, to a man, woman and child, carried with them an inflatable toy of varying types and sizes – from enormous paddling pools to crocodiles, from seven foot golf clubs to more bananas than you’ll find at Spitalfields Market and to make matters even more surreal most were lavishly decorated with tinsel or dressed in hats and club shirts.
The day is now looked back on fondly by both sets of fans – by blues because it represents the zenith of the short-lived but wonderful inflatables craze that soon spread throughout football and by Stoke because they metaphorically deflated each and every banana that chilly December afternoon with a storming 3-1 win.
Nobody likes a party pooper but when the party is being held by drunken, daftly-dressed gate-crashers in your own house I guess it’s understandable why they celebrated the victory with such relish.
With highly unusual generosity City were allocated both the Butler Street and Stoke End paddocks that day which almost ceded home advantage to the rowdy hordes who’d piled down the M6. The decision was made by chairman Peter Coates out of financial necessity but that didn’t stop widespread disgruntlement from the home fans that was made even worse when they witnessed the City team emerge carrying large inflatable bananas which they gleefully tossed into the stands.
The swollen away support did however incite a cracking atmosphere with the Victoria Ground rammed to capacity many of whom were topping up their Christmas Day booze-fest and very much in seasonal cheer. It was a feral, fizzing, boisterous cauldron the likes of which it is impossible to imagine ever being replicated at a modern-day arena.
It’s just a shame that only one team showed up.
Ex-City player Paul Lake recently told the Cutter that losing that game ranks as one of the biggest disappointments of his career (“There were guys in fancy dress as clowns…to me there were also eleven clowns on the pitch, myself included. We let the fans down badly”) but although the defeat momentarily stung – I recall dragging my blow-up skeleton through slush puddles all the way back to the car – it was ultimately only a temporary blip on a successful promotion charge that eventually led to more banana madness at Bradford on the final day of the season.
In the intervening months the bizarre fashion for taking inflatable toys to games extended to grounds right across the UK – from thousands of haddock being waved on the Grimby terraces to black puddings at Bury and hammers at…well, you can guess where. Stoke meanwhile showed that they were not averse to the fun by turning up to the corresponding fixture at Maine Road soon after and filling the away end with a multitude of blow-up Pink Panthers.
Amazingly, considering the scale in which it eventually took off, it all started with one man and a bet.
So how did it all begin, this strange, daft and joyous craze that brightened football amidst a backdrop of hooliganism, the threat of ID cards, and being banned from playing in Europe? Amazingly, considering the scale in which it eventually took off, it all started with one man and a bet.
Frank Newton visited his friend Allen Busby one day and spied a five foot inflatable banana amongst an array of novelty items. Suggesting in jest that he take it along to Maine Road Allen dared him to do so and in August 1987 for City’s season opener to Plymouth Frank duly did to general mirth from those around him. In those days City had a terrace hero by the name of Imre Varadi who would often be demoted to the bench. When Frank lifted up his banana during one match (now complete with hat, shirt and felt-tipped face) whilst the crowd were singing for Varadi’s introduction the chant quickly mutated to ‘Imre Banana’. So it was that a legend was born and soon enough ‘Imre’ had many yellow comrades all waving in unison at each game.
The craze really hit another level however at a midweek away to West Brom in October ’88, just two months before the Boxing Day trip to Stoke. From a sea of plastic yellow emerged a huge inflatable Frankenstein that we’d all seen before and we duly greeted him with his signature ‘Frankie’ chant. But then, to the far left of the paddock, materialised an equally large dinosaur. No-one was expecting that.
Lakey later confirmed to me my long-held suspicion (I’d always hoped it wasn’t a memory distorted by time) that the rumpus occurring behind one of the goals was so ferocious that the players actually became distracted during the match and were turning around to see what the hell was happening. Was it yet another kick-off staining the image of the British game? Were there going to be yet more tabloid headlines denouncing fans as yobs and animals? Well no, it was two inflatables duelling above the heads of the throng, to the goading cheering delight of all present. I suppose, in a way, animals were involved. They just happened to be plastic.
Incidentally, the fight was complicated further by a third party – a large fried egg.
The City team that takes on the Potters later today is of course of vastly different pedigree to their ’88 counterparts in almost every conceivable way and though it is difficult to imagine something as gloriously immature as the inflatable craze ever taking off again – for one thing, as far as cult heroes go I cannot think of a fruit that even remotely sounds like Zabaleta – this is not a rose-tinted mourning of a better past. The Poznan is just one example of how fans will never change no matter how much corporate dosh is ploughed into the game whilst, although the Victoria Ground is sadly no more, the Britannia is easily the most vibrant and rocking stadium around.
It was great while it lasted though and, to paraphrase Rick in Casablanca, we’ll always have Stoke. It’s just a shame only one team showed up.