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The art of banner banter: Poetry on the terraces

Shouting from the sidelines isn't the only way that sports fans can make their views known. Will Dean looks at a new exhibition that highlights the art of the well-written banner

The modern football fan has lots of ways to make his or her voice heard. Whether it's through old-fashioned means like terrace chants and calling local-radio phone-ins or, latterly venting on internet forums and social media. If anything, it's a bit much. For purists, the terrace banner, strung up from a rickety second-tier lip, is the best way to make a succinct, often wry, often celebratory point.

We remember the famous ones, Lazio fans reacting to conceding a goal to Inter which cost rivals Roma the league with a giant, sarcastic "Oh nooooo"; Manchester United's players being greeted at Ataturk airport in 1993 by the sight of a Galatasaray fan holding up a banner bearing the immortal "Welcome to the Hell" or Republic of Ireland fans parading around Poland with an Irish tricolour emblazoned with the legendary "Angela Merkel thinks we're at work".

Football banners are integral to, and help define, clubs' identities. Think of two of the most lauded fan-powered projects, AFC Wimbledon, formed from the ashes of the relocated Wimbledon FC and FC United, by disillusioned Manchester United supporters. Both teams have had to construct new identities and you can see this from fans' artwork. Wimbledon's fans' banners take ownership of the Dons' history, with the mantra "We are Wimbledon", while FC United's ape the colours of their antecedents but romanticise their disruptive birth: "FC United: Punk Football" "Rebel Reds" and "Ten Division Love Song".

My personal favourite is at my own team Manchester City's ground. It was erected soon after City moved to their new east Manchester stadium when the Blues were a pale imitation of their current cash-rich squad and it sums up the desperation of supporting your local team, perfectly: "We dream of playing in the shirt. Today God chose you. Play like we dream."

On the other hand, at a recent match I attended against Leeds United in the FA Cup, there was a banner with a slogan that managed to break several contempt, defamation and libel laws all at the same time. So it's not all working-class poetry.

But that's the beauty of football banners – some can help football fans' gripes make it to a wider world – witness Ajax protesting the wealth of some clubs with their "Against Modern Football" flag which they displayed during a game against City. Others are campaigning, like the Justice banners at Anfield which have punctuated the Hillsborough families' quest for justice. They can also be toxic: in February, hardcore fans of Beitar Jerusalem objected to the signing of two Muslim players from Chechnya with banners reading "Beitar – pure forever" and many racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic slogans have been displayed at grounds around Europe.

But, for better or worse (or for Beitar or worse), banners and flags are a way for people actually at the ground watching the game to stake their claim in the action.

But while it's easy to stick "Tamworth FC" on a St George's cross and be done with it, the real artistry to be found in football, and sports banners in general, comes with the funny ones. Which is why Irish whiskey firm Tullamore Dew is touring an exhibition of the best funny banners around the country over the next month. The pictures include Russian rugby fans dressed as astronauts with a bedsheet emblazoned with the words "We won the space race", the aforementioned Irish Merkel banner, plus another wonderful Irish effort: "Spain, Ireland, Italy – the Group of Debt".

Dr Jamie Cleland, a sociologist at Loughborough University, is helping to promote the exhibition. He thinks that "sports fans are often downplayed, but they're quite intelligent people," giving the example of one Manchester United fan's response to Britain's credit downgrading, a sign that said "MUFC – AAA rating".

And while creating a chant is incredibly satisfying, ownership of a new verse is often intangible – "I started that," "Yeah, sure you did, pal". If there's a picture of you holding your banner going viral on Twitter then things are a lot more concrete.

Banners – in spirit at least – have travelled from labour movements, religious marches, political protests and seeped into football. And though signs appealing for universal suffrage or fair pay don't quite equate with the "Keep the Faith" or "Northern Soul" banners, the spirit is similar. It's all about projection and identification, says Cleland, "if you go around the world in football, those huge banner-type flags that get passed around the ground before the game – it gives them a form of cultural identity with that club – they can touch it through the flag." In a league of oligarchs, sheikhs, shady geezers, and American billionaires, it might be as close as some fans get.

The Art of Banner Banter visits Brighton, Bath, Cardiff and Bristol. See tullamore.dew.com/banner banter for more details