1989 was the year that football changed forever. On April 15th that year, ninety-six Liverpool fans died needlessly at Hillsborough football ground, and we all knew there and then that the game would never be the same again. The sport had undergone a bit of a renaissance from the dark days of the seventies and early eighties, the crowds were flocking through the turnstiles, and football, dammit, was fun. Hillsborough changed all that. It is no longer the peoples’ game, for shame, instead it has gone corporate. Executive bums on seats. But I remember the years before all that. I know, because I was there.
If she don’t come
I’ll tickle her up the bum
With a stick of celery!”
There are times when you cannot help but shit yourself with laughter. And when Chelsea came to call, usually the cue to run away in fear of your life, we spent more time watching the terrace hi-jinx than the match itself. Y’see, the Chels had this new chant. It was about celery. And to illustrate the words, they brought celery to the ground. Tons of it, hidden inside jackets like illicit clubs and flick knives, to be thrown onto the pitch and at each other as soon as the singing started.
With tears running down my face, we all joined in with the celery song, as the Reading goalkeeper ran for cover under a shower of salad. The following week, there were dire warnings in the local press and the match programme about the consequences of bringing greens to the match. But we did anyway, smuggling it into the ground down the trousers, like a scene out of Spinal Tap.
There were, however, people who got it horribly, horribly wrong. As the celery song started, I was clubbed in the back of the head by a Tesco’s cucumber portion, closely followed by a handful of spring onions. You just can’t trust anybody to get anything right.
The police crushed the celery craze ruthlessly, saying (and I kid you not) that a stick of celery might actually take some’s eye out. They punished transgressors as if they were plotting the downfall of the monarchy. They would wade into the terrace mob-handed, returning to their posts proudly clutching enough salad to start a small picnic, while the rest of the crowd was still lobbing the stuff around like there was no tomorrow.
Tomorrow came, and celery was so last week. The inflatables craze had begun.
It started at Manchester City. They had a player called Imre Varadi. Chant his name enough times from the Kippax end and it starts to come out Imre Banana. The name stuck, and some wag started bringing a Fyffe’s inflatable banana, dressed up in a City shirt, to the game in his honour. The police were so panicky about ANYTHING illicit getting into football matches (I’ve actually had a bike pump confiscated, and at Norwich they used to make you take your shoes off before you go into the ground), that Imre Banana had to be inflated surrupticiously in the gents’ toilets before appearing on a packed terrace.
Before long, everybody at Maine Road had an inflatable banana, and like any good craze, the world soon sat up and took notice. Bananas started turning up at matches everywhere, and as usual there were sternly worded warnings in the match programme about the dangers of such a fad. You guessed it - they spoil the view for everybody, and could take someone’s eye out.
At the height of the craze, I stood on the North Bank at Highbury in a forest of bananas, watching awestruck as they celebrated another goal going in by either bopping your neighbour over the head, or simply chucking the thing in the air.
The variations were the best. Everybody remembers the Grimbsy fans with their thousands of Harry the Haddocks when they played Wimbledon on live television one Sunday, perhaps one of the most surreal things I have ever seen. Nottingham Forest did a rather dodgy line of inflatable trees, while at West Ham, the police went absolutely ballistic at the inflatable hammers, which when only half blown up, made a rather painful weapon. Timmy Mallett sued, and won.
We Arsenal fans had seen it all before, though. A couple of years earlier, David Pleat, manager of arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur, was arrested for inviting young ladies of the Oldest Profession into his car in the dead of night. Young genius added the two together and turned up at the Arsenal vs Tottenham derby match - covered live and direct from Shite Hart Lane by ITV - with an inflatable woman. The type with the realistic hair and orifices, I’m led to believe.
As the match action swung towards the Arsenal fans, she was thrown onto the pitch to an almighty cheer of approval, followed closely by a despairing steward trying to prevent disaster. Inevitably, he tripped just short of his target, landing on top of her in what can only be described as the missionary position. The crowd roared "One-Nil to the Arsenal". Those who were there still remember this episode with fondness today. She still appears, to this day, as a lucky talisman to most Arsenal matches, and had a seat to herself at last year's Cup Final.
Of course, we had to rip the shit out of it. England vs Poland was a World Cup qualifier at Wembley and fans felt something special had to be done. I took me to Wall’s Carnival Stores in Reading and got me a four foot long inflatable tiger which could be swung about by the tail - clearly visible on the TV footage as England scored their second in a 3-0 victory. My brother just had to go one better. He went down to Brighton with some mates and got himself an inflatable killer whale. Eight feet long with its own carrying handles. Only one problem - while people were getting their bananas and other ephemera into Wembley on the nod of the copper at the gate, Orca was refused entry without his own ticket.
So, back to the car, let the air out, and stuff it down your trousers. What about the pump? No worries, we’ll blow it up when we get into the ground. So we did, only with a few tinnies inside us, this was a harder job than we realised. It was half time before Orca was inflated enough to see the game, and by then, four of us had puked our guts up from blowing.
Blummin hell, why couldn’t we have just stuck to celery?
It was a nightmare. None of us could see the game, our heads spun from the effort of blowing the thing up, and on the way out, he got dragged through Wembley Stadium's legendary River of Piss (the most expensive part of the new stadium development) and jammed in the gate. Apart from that, a one hundred per cent success. Someone had the bright idea of tying him to the roof of the car as some sort of bizarre mascot on the way home. All fine and dandy crawling out of a packed Wembley car park at five miles per hour, but an utter disaster once flying round the Kingston Bypass.
There was this blue flashing light in the mirror... and so our football inflatable craze came to an abrupt end.
Best thing for it really. Paul "Gazza" Gascoigne came along soon after - the world’s first inflatable footballer.