Manchester’s Monkeywood Theatre, in association with The Lowry in Salford, is staging the world premiere of By Far The Greatest Team next month, four new stories by four Manchester writers (two United and two City fans) exploring and celebrating what it means to be a football fan in the city. Martin Gibbons, co-artistic director of Monkeywood Theatre and the play’s director, writes for Northern Soul.
It’s April 19, 2011, a balmy spring Tuesday evening and I’m standing in the away supporters’ section of Turf Moor, Burnley. We are 3–0 down to a mid-table Burnley side and yet I’m singing We are by far the greatest team the world has ever seen. I’m singing with gusto. And I mean it too.
And this is when I stop for a second. I look around me and another few thousand like-minded souls are singing the same song. And they mean it too.
This is probably the point I should mention I’m from Middlesbrough originally and that I’m a Boro fan. I’d like to say I always have been but that’s not totally true. I’m ashamed to admit but I was (age 7) a Man Utd fan (I liked Bryan Robson), then I moved on to Everton (my Scouse Dad supports them, and they were quite good in the 80s). I even had a minor dalliance with York City (see an FA Cup run in 1985) but then I went to my first Boro match: a 0-0 draw with Wigan at Ayresome Park (May 6, 1987). That result saw Boro promoted and the football gods decide that’s where I stop messing about.
Since then, it’s been quite a journey. Maybe the gods were cruel to stop me there but there’s nothing I can do about it now. So there I am in Burnley singing how we are the Greatest Team in the World, and my brain says “well we aren’t even the best team on this pitch” (this does not make for a great song) but my heart says we are the greatest and so I sing.
It’s when I get my half-time pint that I consider this further. All football fans (no matter which club they support, big or small, North or South) sing the same song on terraces up and down the land every week. What is that about? What is it to be a football fan? Why is football so important to people? What does supporting a football team do? Why do people who are apathetic with regard to politics or religion have complete unshakeable commitment to football, and to THEIR team? Why does a bloke in his 50s who has never cried at a wedding or the birth of a child weep so bitterly because 11 other blokes can’t kick a synthetic sphere into a synthetic net?
Four years later and we’re about to start rehearsals on our stage play By Far The Greatest Team. This is the Manchester Derby (apparently a play looking simply at Middlesbrough fandom is only interesting to a handful of people). Manchester is home to two of the biggest clubs in the land, two teams that are certainly closer to being able to claim ‘The Greatest’ status (*coughs* Barcelona). It’s a city where to grow up as a Blue or Red is a definition for life and that makes it a great place to look at what football means to fans.
We commissioned four writers; two who support Manchester City (Ian Kershaw and Sarah McDonald Hughes) and two who support Manchester United (Lindsay Williams and Andrew Sheridan) and they’ve each written a play (22.5 mins long – yes that’s 45 minutes each half). The writers were given the brief to explore what football fandom meant to them – brilliant, burning new stories, not anoraky statistics or macho posturing – stories that are honest and truthful.
These are four separate stories but we have woven them together so that, I hope, the experience of watching them mirrors the experience of a football match – light and dark, tragedy and comedy, life and death. More than that, I hope that the audience feel they’re are part of something, a community of people all going through this emotional, visceral experience together.
We will turn the Quays Theatre at The Lowry into a football stadium. By Far The Greatest Team kicks off there on September 17 and runs until September 20, supported with funding from Arts Council England through Grants for the Arts and in partnership with The Lowry and the National Football Museum.
I really hope that football fans come to The Lowry to see this show. I also hope that non-fans will come too. At its best, theatre hopes to evoke in its audiences the feelings that football fans experience every week – that live, immediate, communal experience. Thousands of people holding their breath or celebrating a last minute goal…I want our show to evoke that pure, emotional, in-the-moment response.
In the end this play might not be able to explain exactly why four years ago I sang that song. But at the final whistle we only lost 3-1 so maybe in that second half we were the Greatest Team in the World. For a bit.
By Martin Gibbons, co-artistic director of Monkeywood Theatre