The Smiths & Football In Manchester

*“No, it’s not like any other love’:
The Smiths & the Beautiful Game*

The Smiths, the Manchester post-punk indie rock group formed in 1982, have been labelled by the NME as the ‘most influential artist ever’. Their jangle pop sound evoked the pop melodies of the 1960s and their literary inspired and melancholia drenched lyrics tapped into the angst of adolescence and the disenfranchisement of working class youth in 1980s Thatcher’s Britain. The quartet numbered Steven Patrick Morrissey, lead singer and songwriter; Johnny Marr, guitarist and co-songwriter; Mike Joyce, drummer and bassist Andy Rourke.

Morrissey & Marr

The name of the band was chosen by Morrissey as it was ‘the most ordinary name and I thought it was time that the ordinary folk of the world showed their faces.’ All four band members were of Irish descent, three of them having Irish parents during a period when anti-Irish sentiment was common in British society towards Emerald Isle migrants. Johnny Marr was an aspiring footballer who attracted interest from Nottingham Forest and had trials with Manchester City, his boyhood club (Mike Joyce also supported the blue-side of Manchester). Andy Rourke and Morrissey by contrast supported local rivals Manchester United. Yet as an article from the In Bed with Maradona blog notes ‘…there was barely any football in The Smiths. As football attendances dwindled in the 1980s, the worlds of alternative music and football remained estranged cousins, united only by a Venn diagram of haircuts and poor toilet facilities.’

‘The rain falls hard on a humdrum town / This town has dragged you down’
William It Was Really Nothing, The Smiths (1984)

The ‘60s saw Matt Busby rebuild Manchester United after the 1958 Munich Air Disaster to win two league titles in 1965 and 1967, the FA Cup in 1963 and the European Cup in 1968. The attacking triumvirate of Best, Charlton and Law had fulfilled Busby’s long held aphorism that ‘only the best in the world would be good enough’ by defeating Lisbon’s Benfica at Wembley. The glamour and glory of European nights dissolved into a dulling, perpetual gloom in the 1970s with relegation to the Second Division in ‘74, before a return to the top flight in 1975 and an FA Cup Final appearance the following season. A year later United returned to Wembley for another Cup Final appearance and defeated Liverpool in the Wembley showpiece, but scandal followed when manager Tommy Docherty was dismissed when the story broke he had been found to be having an affair with the club physiotherapist’s wife, Mary Brown.

As British society was increasingly and vividly captured through kitchen sink dramas and entertained by soaps like the Manchester-Based Coronation Street, the lines between fiction and reality became ever more blurred as the area declined further into the ‘80s under Thatcher’s Conservative grey Britain. Their Maine Road rivals had won a league title, FA Cup and League Cup under the management of Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison in the late ‘60s , but were overshadowed by United’s European success. Over the subsequent decades the blue side of Manchester drifted into the wilderness, even suffering the ignominy of being relegated to the English third tier in 1996.

The decline of both clubs was an illustration and exemplification of the deterioration of the city’s industrial base. The same year as Noel Cantwell captained United to the FA Cup in 1963, Manchester was the third largest port in the United Kingdom. This industry employed more than 3,000 people but steadily declined as the canal system was unable to handle larger ships and containers, ultimately leading to the port closing in 1982. More than 150,000 jobs were lost from heavy industry and manufacturing in Manchester between 1961 and 1983 with the economic policies of the Thatcher government causing further problems to the city’s prosperity.

“There is a light and it never goes out”
‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, The Smiths, ‘Strangeways, Here We Come'(1987)

The waxing and waning of the fortunes of the Manchester clubs echoed the fluctuations of the city’s music scape. Groups such as The Bee Gees and Herman’s Hermits (who in 1965 even outsold The Beatles) through to 10cc in the early ‘70s prospered, but Manchester music subsequently declined due to lack of investment in the local music scene. The creation of the Factory Records label in 1976 by television presenter Tony Wilson injected much needed impetus into the Manchester music vista.

Johnny Marr noted in a Q&A with The Guardian:

There’s a big cultural explanation for the creativity in Manchester that goes back to the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of the Irish community, the Jewish community and the West Indian community, amongst others. All of these people set out their own entertainment culture. Manchester had more clubs per capita than any other city in Europe during the 1960s, which made it a very vibrant live scene during the beat boom and early pop years. All the important artists played there all the time and in turn inspired a generation of up and coming musicians and thinkers and radicals…

The quartet that would become The Smiths had witnessed the glory days of their local football teams and the decay of Manchester’s industrial heartlands; music would be the vehicle to express their discontent and sorrowful, hopeful yearning for things to get better.

‘Good times for a change’
‘Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want,’ The Smiths, ‘Pretty in Pink’ (1986)

The Smiths self-titled debut album release in 1984 was swiftly followed by Meat Is Murder (1985), The Queen Is Dead (1986) and Strangeways, Here We Come (1987); while single releases like This Charming Man (reaching 25 in the UK Charts) and There Is a Light That Never Goes Out (also peaking at 25) were recognised as bona fide classics. The group disbanded in 1987 but the adulation around them never diminished and they remain a cult band to this day.

The author Paul A. Woods wrote: ‘The Smiths brought realism to their romance and tempered their angst with the lightest of touches.’ This characterised English soccer in the ‘80s and that of football in Manchester. Perhaps this is personified in the national team and United captain Bryan Robson, a dynamo in midfield who mixed grit and industry with a flair for sublime finishing. Ron Greenwood, the England manager from 1977 to 1982, noted of Robson: ‘well, he does what he does and his future is in the future…’ A quote which wouldn’t be out of place in a compendium of Morrissey lyrics.

The ‘80s brought an upturn in United’s fortunes with the club winning two FA Cups (in 1983 and 1985) under Ron Atkinson who was subsequently replaced by Alex Ferguson in 1986. After a difficult time during much of the first six seasons he spent in charge, Ferguson subsequently led United to 13 league titles, five FA Cups and two Champions League victories. The city also saw regeneration, coincidentally from the time of the arrival of Ferguson, with the construction of the Metrolink, the Bridgewater Concert Hall, the Manchester Arena and the rebranding of the port as Salford Quays. As Manchester soared and United collected silverware, The Smiths were no more.

‘I started something / And now I’m not too sure’
‘I started Something I Couldn’t Finish’, The Smiths, ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’ (1987)

Morrissey’s solo career has seen him delve into more soccer related themes though songs such as ‘Munich Air Disaster 1958’, ‘Roy’s Keen’ (an obvious nod to Republic of Ireland and Red Devil captain Roy Keane) and ‘We’ll Let You Know’ (from the 1992 album ‘Your Arsenal’) focusing on the hooliganism which was prevalent in English soccer during the ‘80s. The punning theme is also reflected in the song ‘Frankly Mr. Shankly’ (conjuring the image of Liverpool’s iconic manager Bill Shankly).

During the 1990s Morrissey followed West Ham United before supporting Queen’s Park Rangers after becoming friends with striker Kevin Gallen. Gallen had broken Jimmy Greaves’ goal-scoring record at youth level for the *R’s* in the early 90s. In 2008, Morrissey was seen wearing a Millwall jersey in Los Angeles, noting in an interview with ESPN Music that he ‘knew the assistant manager at Millwall for a while.’

While Morrissey and Manchester United continue to carve their paths in the music industry and on the football field, Manchester City even managed a new era of glory after investment from the Abu Dhabi United group funded three league titles and a FA Cup win since 2008. City fan Johnny Marr memorably came out against former UK Prime Minister David Cameron for liking The Smiths, rebelling against Tory Britain is one thing but he has been less inclined to criticise the questionable elements of the City hierarchy who have brought so much success to the club.

The football connections continue with Morrissey being a distant relative of the Republic of Ireland’s national team’s record goal-scorer Robbie Keane (the latter’s grandfather and The Smiths frontman’s father being cousins). As an aside, the only club Keane never scored against in the Premier League was Morrissey’s boyhood team United. The journey of The Smiths, the economic fortunes of Manchester and the associations with football mirror that of any other ordinary supporter following their team. You fall in and out of love, battle with hope and despair in equal measure while often wondering why you even follow your team in the first place. Football, like music, can transport us to emotional places that may be missing in our own personal lives and it is why both resonate so much. A shared way of communicating, a common, global language.

To sum up, from the song ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,’- ‘the story is old – I know/ But it goes on’.


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