Charlie Skillen recalls a time when the terraces were full of bananas, crocodiles, pink panthers & paddling pools.
Throughout the 1980s, the perception of English football was at an all-time low. However, for two years at the end of the decade, some much-needed fun was reintroduced to terrace culture. In 1987, a Manchester City supporter named Frank Newton brought a five-foot inflatable banana to City's opening match of the Division Two season against Plymouth Argyle. Fans reacted with much amusement, and the chant in praise of journeyman striker Imre Varadi morphed into ‘Imre Banana’. More and more bananas crept their way onto the Kippax, as well as wherever City travelled away, throughout the season. The real age of the banana was to come the following season however.
On the opening day of 1988-89, the still-Division Two City travelled to Hull. From the journey across the Pennines on the M62, to the pre-match pubs, to Boothferry Park, the inflatables had taken over. The hundreds and hundreds of bananas were joined by a giant crocodile, kids’ paddling pools, gorillas, birds and many more. Although bananas were the favourite of Manchester City, a host of other clubs soon adopted their own blow-up variant, including inflatable fish being waved at Grimsby, black pudding at Bury and hammers at, predictably, West Ham.
The craze took increasingly bizarre new forms as the season went on. Players got in on the act, bananas being thrown into the crowd by the Manchester City team before a Boxing Day match at Stoke. The Potters attempted to out-do the inflatable pioneers at the return fixture at Maine Road, armed with thousands of blow-up Pink Panthers. However, the staging by City fans of a mock ‘fight’ between a giant Godzilla and a blow-up Frankenstein at West Brom is perhaps seen as the highlight of the ‘inflatables season,’ completely overshadowing a drab match. It served as a poignant, if unwitting, reminder of the ‘other’ terrace fights that had dominated the decade, and how this gloriously childish trend had partly overwhelmed what was perceived to be the norm at football matches.
Indeed, this view had spread to the media, with numerous reports on BBC News throughout the season commenting on the fad, praising it for “putting the fun back into football,” as well as an interview with the then-Manchester City club secretary (and now life vice-president) Bernard Halford giving the inflatables a ‘thumbs-up’ from the boardroom. “Putting the fun back into the game…and taking away the hooligans is what this is all about” Halford said, “and the club are wholeheartedly behind it.”
The media also offered the alternative view of a growing dissent against the trend, the main argument being a not-unreasonable one that several hundred giant bananas, as well as paddling pools, dinghies and enough blow-up animals to start an inflatable wildlife park, might obscure one’s view of the action. Arsenal were the first club to ban the offending items, with other clubs soon following suit. Like all other fads, it died a death, and its popularity rapidly ‘deflated’ (sorry). By the start of the 1989-90 season, there was scarcely a giant fruit in sight. The bananas went out in style, however, with Manchester City’s promotion winning game at Bradford being a delirious mess of blow-up joy.
The events at the end of the 1988-89 season show that natural fashion decline may not have been the only reason for the death of the inflatables, and put the harmless craze in a touching light. On April 15th, 1989, 96 Liverpool fans died whilst watching their team in the FA Cup Semi-Final at Hillsborough. Despite the inflatables briefly combating terrace violence throughout the season, English football was only months away from its biggest supporter tragedy. The following inquest into events, the Taylor Report, placed a large percentage of blame on the failure of police control. The violence throughout the 1980s necessitated the experimentation of an array of police, government and club methods. Some worked, most didn’t. The Taylor Report did not deem standing inherently unsafe, yet the government took the disaster as the cue to make every stadium in the top two divisions all-seater. Just when light-heartedness had been brought back to the terraces, the tragedy took them away.
So, perhaps the inflatables didn’t quite stop the negative perception of football, and were no match for the impending disaster about to change the English game forever. They did however, briefly steal the headlines from the more sinister events that were the norm throughout the previous decade. Fans, albeit briefly, reclaimed the terraces in the name of fun, and it was a welcome change of atmosphere.
Even after the shock of the Hillsborough disaster and resulting Taylor report, no-one could have predicted the Premier League and Sky Sports boom of the 1990s. Football was fashionable, safe and wealthy again. Far from the Thatcher government showering scorn on football and football fans, politicians in the 90s were desperately attempting to show an allegiance to their team of choice. Attendances rose, and fan violence was largely kept out of the grounds. This is the reason you won’t see inflatable bananas covering the stands at your next match because - thankfully - we don’t need them anymore.
You can follow Charlie on Twitter @charlieskillen