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Manchester’s Mark E Smith had music, wit and football in the soul

The Fall frontman, who died this week, was an avid Manchester City fan and contrarian

Mark E Smith: The Fall’s unyielding frontman and the great contrarian of England’s music. Photograph: Kevin Cummins/Getty

“The working class and the real upper class have a lot in common. They know where they’re from, they like a drink, have a sense of humour. It’s the middle you have to watch out for.”

Mark E Smith – Renegade

Every so often you come across questionnaires where people are asked to name their ideal dinner companions, in which the likes of Gandhi, Marilyn Monroe and Winston Churchill are thrown together without any consideration given to what you’d feed them or who’d get a word in edgewise. But imagine how much fun it would be to seat, say, the late Princess Margaret next to Mark E Smith. Watch those sparks. The Fall’s unyielding frontman and the great contrarian of England’s music scene died this week and was quickly celebrated for his wild singularity and perceived eccentricities. But there wasn’t half enough attention paid to the fact that he was about as brilliant an observer, through song and word, of how postwar England feels as you could hope to find and that, like so many English boys born in the 1950s, he had football in the soul. He just couldn’t escape the game.

In the days since his death, the views of Smith reading the classified football results on BBC’s Final Score have rocketed. Because they used The Fall’s Theme From Sparta FC on the show, they asked Smith on as a guest announcer. And it’s a jape because, after dispensing with the latest performance from Manchester City (“hopeless as usual”), he quickly pounces on Ray Stubbs, the presenter, for his crew cut, demanding to know what he’s doing with a number one. “You look like you’ve escaped from Strangeways.”

But what is noticeable about the entire pageantry is the solemnity with which Smith reads the results of the four divisions. See him in any of his live performances and he owns the room, but he looked almost bashful at the start of this performance, sat behind one of those peculiar square-steel microphones favoured by football men. As well he might have: the football classifieds – the voices – were part of the fabric of Saturday life in England (and Ireland) for decades. When you heard Len Martin or Tim Gudgin gravely calling out the scores from across the country – in the same tone with which they might announce the outbreak of a world war – it meant that afternoon was giving way to evening. It was England’s version of the Angelus. And it seemed that Smith was honouring that in just reading through all four divisions, playing an utterly straight bat.

Warmly scornful

Smith had a unique sensibility and genius feel for his homeland and remained warmly scornful and amused by attempts to mould his art into a more commercial guise down the years. Running through his interests and quirks was a fascination with, and loyalty to, places and people that, he felt, knew who they were and what they were about.

Here he is in Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith, easily one of the most funny and piercing memoirs to come out of England, talking about a chance meeting with George Best on what was Smith’s first visit to Stringfellows nightclub in London. He told Best that as a kid in Manchester, he used to go along with his dad to see City one week and United the next.

“He gave me a lot of good advice really. He said to me, ‘Why should I play to 50,000 people a week and get paid f*** all for it? Just get kicked to death.’

“I remember seeing him just standing there for 80 minutes on this shabby pitch, holding his sleeves. United were basically playing without him. But then in the last 10 minutes he got the ball, dribbled all over the place and scored the equaliser and just walked off on his own. Nobody even patted him on the back. It’s all very well those United players saying how they all like George. You could see the reality then – they just totally ignored him. They weren’t playing with him. He was a different school of football. And I told him that and he said, ‘You’re quite right.’ It wasn’t the drink talking. ‘Stick with your game – it’s better for you because you’ve got some control over it,’ he told me. It was nice that he took some time out for a complete stranger. I can’t see Rooney or Lampard doing that nowadays.”

Manchester City: Smith’s favourite ever City player was Harry Dowd, the goalkeeper in the ’68 championship team. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

It’s impossible to imagine everyday Mancunians like Smith and his dad flitting between United and City now. And there is a perfect irony in the fact that Smith’s favourite team have eclipsed even Chelsea as the new money team. It’s not to suggest that Smith didn’t enjoy the brand of football played under Manuel Pellegrini or Pep Guardiola or got a blast out of the league title. But the club is no longer part of the teeming city that energised Smith.

Football kid

His favourite ever City player was Harry Dowd, the goalkeeper in the ’68 championship team. “He still worked part-time as a plumber and my dad was a plumber too,” he told When Saturday Comes in a brilliant interview from 2000. He was a football kid: a collector of World Cup cards, Malcolm Allison’s Colours of My Life his favourite ever football book. When in 1983 The Fall released Kicker Conspiracy, a song about football, the game was in malaise and the response from the music critics was sniffy.

“And now, of course, all the old music hacks are sat in the director’s box with Oasis.”

And throughout the benders and brilliance of Renegade runs the constant theme of how football was subtly appropriated from the communities who had enjoyed their teams for decades. He is unforgiving and brilliant on the problems, as he saw them, with City (“I could have told City that Stuart Pearce was the wrong man ages ago. I saw him on a plane once; he looked deranged then. All that running up and down the pitch and firing up the fans – that’s had its day, that shit. He’s been mingling with the Keegans too much: the dated English.”) and the England football scene (“It’s as if defeat is ingrained in them – as if they can only handle defeat”) but most of all with the game: the steady, unstoppable rise of ticket prices, the corporatisation, the new stands and stadia, the spiralling wages. “How can anybody truly follow somebody who’s on £100,000 a week? I don’t begrudge them the money; if they’re good they’re good and I’d rather a working-class lad had it than some slippery Ken, like it used to be. The simple fact is, though, money’s clouded the heart of the matter.”

Forever down on the middle class, Smith blames, just for the fun of it, “drips like Nick Hornby and David Baddiel and Damon Albarn” for hijacking the game in the 1990s. “As soon as they started in on it with their university humour, it shot its bolt.”

By “it” he means the tradition and vitality of English football as a game and Saturday entertainment for the masses, the idea of “thousands of people sharing in something”. The demise of the role of the club in English life has been one of the consequences of the gentrification of the game. Mark E Smith saw that disappearing early and he skewered it wisely. Anyhow, Manchester’s lost a one-off and George Best may well have found a good companion with whom to go on the sauce and put the world to rights.