At a time when English football was at a bit of a low ebb, banned from Europe following the Heysel disaster, continuing hooliganism and the threat of a national identity card scheme being imposed by the government, there came a craze which brought a smile back to fans’ faces and gave football some long-awaited good publicity. And it all started at Maine Road with a single inflatable banana accompanied by a City fan called Frank Newton.
The story began when Frank went to visit his friend Allen Busby during the Summer of 1987. Allen was a toy collector and amongst the exhibits spread throughout his house was a five foot inflatable banana. Probably under the influence of some beverage or other, Frank thought it would be a good laugh to parade the banana on the terraces at Maine Road. Frank was loaned the banana on condition that he provided proof that he had taken it to the game.
And so on 15th August 1987, the first appearance of an inflatable banana at a British football ground happened. Frank went to City’s first game of the season against Plymouth Argyle with a friend, Mike Clare, and they took pictures before and during the game. The fans’ reaction was universally favourable as the huge yellow object was greeted with laughter wherever it appeared.
Being a hot August afternoon, Frank decided to remove his regulation City shirt and for the want of anywhere else to put it, put it on the banana. Within a few minutes a face had been drawn and a bobble hat completed the effect. The banana had taken on a personality.
Just like Frank, the banana followed City all over the country and became a well-known figure on the terraces. At West Brom in November, City fans called for the appearance of substitute Imre Varadi. The chant mutated and he was henceforth known affectionately as “Imre Banana”.
Gradually the numbers of bananas began to increase. Frank found a shop in Leeds that had a two foot inflatable banana for sale and promptly bought it. By the end of April there were two more as Noel Bayley (editor of City fanzine Bert Trautmann’s Helmet) and Peter Gregory found their own source. Soon outlets in the Manchester area spotted the gap in the market and started to stock the inflatable novelties.
The Summer break didn’t bring a halt to the craze as the inflatables crossed over to follow Lancashire Cricket Club. The county’s triumph in the Refuge Assurance trophy was greeted with a host of waving inflatables.
However, it was the 1988/89 football season that saw the inflatables craze really take off. As the Blue Army crossed the Pennines for the first game of the new season at Hull, the M62 was packed with inflatable-wielding motorists. Frank had moved up to a six-foot crocodile but the rest of the fans had caught up with him. At a pub outside Hull he was joined by fans carrying a toucan, a seven foot golf club, a spitfire, a Red Baron and two bananas. At the ground there were still more: parrots, gorillas, panthers and literally hundreds of bananas. You really had to see it to believe it.
Although bananas had a massive presence at Maine Road matches, the best displays were generally reserved for away matches. The match generally regarded as the high spot of the inflatables craze came on the 26th October against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns, an evening match which City lost 1-0. However, the drab match itself has largely been forgotten apart from Brian Gayle’s original excuse for the mistake which cost the goal – “I was blinded by the floodlights”. It is the array of different inflatables on show that lingers in the memory:
Four lads appeared carrying an inflatable paddling pool. There were sharks, penguins, all the usual bunch etc. and of course there was the epic battle of the monsters. At one end of the terrace stood Godzilla. Six foot tall, green and mean, this dinosaur was a match for anybody. At the other end of the terrace stood Frankenstein’s Monster. Slowly they began to converge towards the centre of the terrace. The crowd roared in anticipation. Eventually they met and the creatures commenced into battle – it was far more entertaining than the match!
Another memorable event was the match on Boxing Day at the Victoria Ground. Twelve thousand Blues travelled down the M6 to Stoke, around 2,000 in fancy dress and far more carrying bananas. The City players came out carrying 5 foot inflatable bananas which they lobbed into the crowd.
Everybody was getting in on the act now, including fans of other clubs. When Stoke played the return match at Maine Road during Easter, their fans came carrying inflatable pink panthers. Oldham fans had inflatable dogs, Grimsby fans had inflatable fish and of course West Ham had inflatable hammers.
The climax to the season came at Valley Parade, Bradford. City needed a point to clinch promotion but conceded a goal in the 25th minute. Although City peppered the Bradford goal with shots, it wasn’t until four minutes from time that the vital equaliser came. The away end was packed with delirious banana-wielding fans and anybody who was there will remember it forever. However, this was the last major display of inflatables, at least from City fans.
By the start of the following season and the opening game at Anfield, there was scarcely a banana to be seen. Although some clubs (Arsenal were one) banned inflatables as they could block people’s view and others thought that the bananas were racist symbols (definitely not), the phenomenon died a natural death. People just seemed to grow out of it.
It was fun whilst it lasted though.