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Dec 3, 2013

An inflated sense of power

Let's drift back for a short while to the 1980s in England: a dark period of industrial collapse, flash strikes, riots and a nation neatly divided between those in work and those not.

Margaret Thatcher is in charge, ruling over a country on its knees as major industries are closed down. One by one the great northern steel foundries, the shipbuilding wharves of Newcastle, Merseyside and Clydeside and the coal mines of Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire bite the dust, leaving a barren, mud-strewn landscape of disused cranes and spanked rolls of barbed wire fencing.

To go to the football every Saturday during this period is to risk life and limb at the hands and feet of clans of menacing crews who patrol the alleyways and the terraces in the name of Millwall, Chelsea, West Ham, Leeds, Birmingham, Liverpool and Newcastle United. Practically every big city club has its problems and things are getting worse, not better.

- Mooney: Too soon to give up on Lescott - Report: Kompany returns to squad

This was a time when Manchester City could name The Guvnors and The Young Guvnors as their own firms, one set of adult thugs, the other their younger teenage offspring, running the gauntlet at Tottenham and Wolves, in Stretford, on the Scottie Road and down the wide open slopes of Liverpool's Stanley Park. After the disasters of Hillsbrough and Heysel, Thatcher and her Sports Minister Colin Moynihan railed against the national sport. Followed by a group of acolytes, among them David Evans, chairman at Luton Town, Thatcher set about making it almost impossible to follow your team in the way you had become accustomed over the decades.

At Luton, for example, you were met by barbed wire and electronic turnstiles that refused to budge unless you had a home supporter's membership card to slot into the specially affixed machines. The era of the away supporter ban was upon us. Still, City fans managed to infiltrate the place to watch the Blues in action, but the perception of English football and its followers had reached an all-time low and with it the attendances. Great bare sections of terracing started appearing in every ground in the country, either devoid of supporters or closed off due to the onset of material decay. City, too, were experiencing a significant drop in numbers with some home crowds struggling to reach the 20,000 mark. A full analysis of this can be found here.

However, for a short period at the end of the decade, something would raise the spirits of those still visiting the stadia of England. Around 1987, City supporter Frank Newton brought a large inflatable banana to a match in Division Two. The reaction was unexpectedly positive for such a violent environment and quickly more and more bananas found their way onto the sweeping Kippax terraces for home games. It was, however -- as has often been the case down the years -- the away experience that really had to be seen to be believed that season.

Wherever City travelled, thousands followed, and by the time the teams emerged, the majority of away fans held an inflatable of some kind. The visual impact was quite stunning. Football, in its dire hour of need, had been partially rescued by a sea of blown-up childrens' toys. This quickly became newsworthy. "Bananas To You Maggie" screamed the back page of the Daily Mirror. Football had after all only succeeded in delivering bad news stories for the best part of a decade and this was well worth publicising. From the journey to the ground, to the prematch pubs, the inflatables craze had completely taken over.

You can watch a great news report of how inflatables took over the terraces right here.

The fad took a real hold during the 1988-99 season, with City coming out to an away following of over 13,000 at Stoke on Boxing Day, seemingly all holding aloft one object or another. The arresting sight was completed by the players themselves carrying inflatables and tossing them over the fences into the crowd. The highest form of flattery is to copy and Stoke returned to Maine Road with 3,000 blow-up Pink Panthers later that same season.

However, the fight between a giant Godzilla and an unfeasibly large blow-up Frankenstein at The Hawthorns was seen as perhaps the pinnacle of this shortlived but warmly remembered phase. In a few short months football had travelled from the horrors of knife-wielding gangs on the terraces, nail-spiked golf balls and airborne darts to this. As with today's over-excited political correctness, an army of killjoys were waiting just around the corner and the claim that thousands of large plastic objects were obscuring people's view of the game was put forward. Gradually, the craze blew over, with one last humdinging day out afforded the bananas, paddling pools, crocodiles and cigars at Valley Parade, Bradford, where City scraped a last minute equaliser through Trevor Morley to edge promotion ahead of Crystal Palace.

Arsenal were the first to officially ban the objects from their ground. As ever, a harmless bit of fun that reached its zenith at West Bromwich Albion one sepia-tinted 80s evening, was laid to rest by the know-it-alls that still infest the sport to this day.

There will be not a single inflatable among the City fans seated in tidy rows at The Hawthorns on Wednesday. Not one supporter will be standing. Stewards will prowl incessantly to gauge language, posture and etiquette. Our great game has come a long way, but has also suffered great over-sanitisation in the process.