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Plane protest: A tale of two banners

It is being widely reported that a group of fans have hired a plane to trail a protest message over Old Trafford this weekend. It's not been a good season for banners.

Alex Livesey

Interesting times on Planet United. As knowledgeable citizens you will doubtless be aware that there is, at the moment, an almost unprecedented level of banner-related bickering. Grown men being driven to apoplexy by the fate of two long pieces of reinforced, painted-on cloth, the arguments coiled around one another like a double helix of hot air and fury.

The noisiest and youngest of the two arguments concerns the upcoming game against Aston Villa. A group of outraged season ticket holders have hired a plane to circle above Old Trafford for the ten minutes before kickoff and the five minutes afterwards, trailing a banner that reads 'Wrong One: Moyes Out'. This wording was decided by a poll on one of the more active United forums; other mooted but thankfully less popular options included 'Chosen 1 United 0' and 'Kill Yourself Moyes'.

The other, older argument concerns a banner reading 'The Chosen One' next to a picture of David Moyes's face. This banner went up prior to the nil-nil draw against Chelsea back in August and is the handiwork of Stretford End Flags (SEF), a fan group who do this sort of thing. As results and performances curdled, and as the atmosphere around Old Trafford soured, pressure grew on SEF to remove the flag. Rumours even circulated that a gang of vigilantes would attempt to remove the banner halfway through the home fixture against Olympiakos, a rumour that prompted United to deploy extra stewards to keep an eye on the thing.

After those rumours emerged, SEF mouthpiece Andrew Kilduff took to the pages of the Daily Mail to explain the thinking behind the Chosen One banner's elevation and retention. If you can stomach the Mail it's worth reading in full — it fairly drips with unwitting and unthinking self-importance — but otherwise, the key points are as follows. First, the banner was, in part, a swipe at Jose Mourinho: "We knew the ‘Special One' had wanted the United job and this was our way of telling him we had chosen someone else". And secondly, the banner will stay up because "the focus should be on the team", and "there has been nothing particularly visible or verbal against Moyes during games at Old Trafford. No ‘Moyes Out' flags or anything."

That second line was, in hindsight, a particularly thick thing to say. As sure as the insipid loss of possession follows praise from a television commentator, so the plane banner was brought into being. A statement from the organiser explains:

What I hope to achieve is to quash the perception that David Moyes has the full backing of the fans. [...] Moyes is misconstruing the support for the team as support for him and he needs calling out. [...] The banner is a way to voice the disapproval towards the banner and those backing him, without booing and slating the team.

Both banners are, of course, deeply embarrassing in their own special way. The plane perhaps more obviously; there is something profoundly pathetic about the sight of those little airplanes puttering away, dragging their earnest slogans behind them. This is a communication method best suited to doomed wedding proposals and advertising pranks, and deserves to be taken just as seriously as either. It is deeply and fundamentally small-time. At least Burnley and Blackburn's exchange of planes had the upside of being both genuinely spiteful and a bit funny.

But set against the Chosen One banner, it pales. The recent upsurge in printed individual A4 posters has been roundly mocked, and rightly so, but one of the great advantages of is that it is easily attributable. 'This is the thing that I think,' and here is my face, handily positioned just beneath it, grinning for the greedy cameras. Hi Mum! Such is the size of the Chosen One banner, however, that it purports to speak not just for its designer or funders but for the stadium, for the congregation as a whole. This is the party line. The sight of Manchester United employees actively guarding it only reinforces that impression, and transforms the thing from being hilariously simple and embarrassingly naive, to something approaching propaganda.

Here is what will happen. The plane will fly over Old Trafford on Saturday, trailing its little flag, and the club will look ridiculous. The Chosen One banner will either remain for the rest of the season, or be quietly removed after another embarrassing defeat, or will be torn down on live television by a group of black-masked vigilantes. It will go down in history as the most premature banner since Alberto Aquilani — a hero didn't rise — and the club will, naturally, look ridiculous. As for Moyes, well, he'll last until the end of the season and be given either £100-200m to spend or his P45 and a regretful handshake, a choice that at least comes in two different flavours of ridiculous.

It is tempting to think that whatever happens to Moyes, the 'Chosen One' banner should remain up at Old Trafford now and forever more. If he turns everything around and becomes Ferguson II: Ferg Harder, then all very well. If he doesn't — and it's not looking good — then it can hang there as a warning against hubris, a memento mori. A reminder that adulation follows achievement, not the other way around. That just because a great man says that something is such and such a way, that doesn't necessarily make it so. That being chosen doesn't necessarily mean being the right choice.