Have you ever stopped and wondered what life would be like without that great soccer institution, the corner flag? I often have. It seems unthinkable, but my research leads me to believe that such a time existed back in the mists. To you and me, a soccer pitch without a corner flag is like a woman without an arse, or a Status Quo song without a bass line, but to the hardy pioneers of soccer in this country, corner flags were simply unheard of.
In the pre-League of Ireland days at the turn of the century, referees, having as much intelligence as they do today, were finding it increasingly difficult to tell where the goal-line ended, and the side-line began. Hasty seminars were arranged by eminent mathematicians to explain the concepts of perpendicular lines, and ninety-degree angles, but it was all too much for the poor men in black to fathom. It was decided that some physical manifestation of the corner of the pitch would have to be introduced. And so the concept of the corner flag was born.
Thomas O’Connor and Sons, Banner and Pennant Producers to His Majesty, were given the job of producing the corner flag. The first prototypes were crude and unwieldy, over twelve feet tall, with a girth of a two hundred year old oak tree. If they had been unveiled at Tolka, where fans were used to craning their heads around stanchions, they might have got away with it, but it was back to the drawing-board for the men in brown shop coats.
With a fine grasp of the concept of scale, the next corner flags to be produced were two inches tall, with a flag the size of an old sixpence. It was not a success, as the referees’ eyesight was more or less the same as it is today.
The Great War interrupted the quest for the corner flag, and by the time it was over Ireland was a very different place. Thomas O’Connor and Sons had been burnt to the ground and a new mood was in the air. The people were hungry for new corner-flags, and optimism was rife when de Valera sent Collins over to London to negotiate their size and shape. Collins, put in an impossible situation, was pressed on by Lloyd George to accept the triangular pennant. When he came home, de Valera exploded. What was wrong with the square pennant, he demanded? What in God’s name were triangles? A bitter row ensued, and the two men never spoke again [well, to each other, at any rate], but to this day the triangular pennant remains the norm.
A further breakthrough occurred during the thirties, when a shortsighted groundsman in Waterford accidentally planted one of the corner-flags “upside-down” i.e. with the pennant on top of the pole, rather than having it buried in the ground. After the initial hoots of derision, the crowd agreed that the corner-flag looked much prettier that way. Despite objections from the bishops who claimed it was “unnatural” and “against God’s law,” all clubs had adopted this way of planting their corner-flags by the end of the decade.
The War Years were lean years in the annals of corner-flagology. Many flags were stolen to wave angrily at passing Luftwaffe, and many were eaten when rationing kicked in, despite the recommendations of the Geneva Convention. In what became known as Black November [even though it happened in March], no fewer than fourteen League of Ireland games were cancelled due to lack of corner-flags. Questions were asked in the Dail, and the Government fell, although it quickly picked itself up and went limping away with nothing worse than a grazed knee.
The fifties began with Dev eulogising about comely corner-flags dancing at the crossroads – during one of his less lucid moments – and ended with Eric, the first corner-flag to be launched into space aboard Sputnik. Sadly, he was burnt to a frazzle during re-entry and the FAI demanded compensation. Several people turned out to see his funeral procession along O’Connell Street and into a bin on Parnell Square.
The sixties were a decade of colour and fashion and in football grounds across the country, corner-flags adopted the psychedelic kaleidoscopic colours that were sweeping the country. Plain blues and greens were out and polka dots were in. Some corner flags even adopted a revolving bow tie, but many traditionalists felt this was going a wee bit far.
As laughter often turns to tears, so the following years were marred by a series of crippling corner-flag strikes that brought the country to its knees. Some clubs tried to get around the strikes by using sticks with bits of rags on them, but the general public, enraged, boycotted them. Riots ensued and the Government fell again.
And so the story of the corner flag is the story of an age, an evolving, magical mirror of the life of the country. As George Bernard Shaw put it, “Where’s me vest?” Nowadays the corner flag sits proudly in the corner of the pitch and many spectators are unaware of its rich and colourful history. A new Millennium brings new challenges, and already there have been experiments on corner-flags in the areas of luminosity, textiles and reflectability. There are even rumours that a corner-flag has been successfully cloned at a private clinic in Termonfeckin. One thing’s for sure – this story ain’t over yet!