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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 May 2006, 01:32 GMT 02:32 UK
England fans raise flag of pride
By Claire Heald
BBC News, Old Trafford

Ben Lindley is in the breezy East Stand of Old Trafford. In one hand he holds a bunch of red and white plastic rectangles.

England fans raise the flag
'Raising the flag' has become a feature at England home games

He's draping them over the back of seats while his partner on the job, Anne-Marie Mockridge, has an armful of elastic bands at the ready.

They're here nine hours before kick-off for Raise the Flag, an initiative by England fans, before their team face Hungary in a World Cup warm-up friendly.

They're spending the day with up to 50 other fans, putting 17,500 of the plastic pieces at each end of the ground.

When the two teams stand on the pitch at 8pm to sing their national anthems, 35,000 England fans will hold the pieces aloft to form a giant St George's flag.

"When you see the flag held up it gives you pride," says Ben thumping his chest. "I'm England through and through and I'm proud of it."

Anne-Marie agrees and admits she'd rather be here than at the pre-match build up in the pub.

"It's gobsmacking when you stand and watch it being lifted up. You get such a lump in your throat."

'Positive sign'

The irony about this exercise is not lost on organisers. It is being held on the day that those serving banning orders against travelling to the World Cup are handing in their passports.

Englandfans spokesman Mark Perryman had the idea under sourer circumstances, as coins rained down on him from Italian fans at an England away game in Rome in 1997.

Hugh Tisdale
I consider it to be a genuine major piece of public art, made up of 35,000 anonymous supporters
Hugh Tisdale

Italian Ultra supporters - not the usual role models - were holding their flag formation aloft. Mark thought a similar display could be a way to demonstrate the positive side of England supporters.

Now every England home game features Raise the Flag and he hopes it could be a feature in the World Cup.

"It's something you can become part of," he says. "A symbol of pride in your team. A symbol of the fans and the flag coming together."

One hour in, and the top tier of the East Stand is covered in flag pieces.

Helper Malcolm Dunn, an avid Manchester United and England follower, is hopeful Raising the Flag will be a force for good.

Violent history

Recalling the violence which has marred past overseas tournaments, he says: "It's important to give a positive reflection of England football fans."

"Our press has given us a bad press which has sometimes been unjustified. We have a problem but we are working hard to eradicate it."

Lunchtime. Old Trafford is filling up nicely - not with fans but with flag pieces.

If Mark Perryman is the voice behind the project, graphic designer Hugh Tisdale is the eyes.

Phil Treasure and Joe Morgan
Phil Treasure and Joe Morgan were among helpers at Old Trafford

It is he who holds the grand plan of which seats should be red and which white.

Today he is grappling with the split tiers of Old Trafford - a second fiddle to old Wembley's curves and Liverpool's Kop, whose layout is unbroken by executive boxes.

"We're making a huge mosaic and it will look really strong," Hugh says. "The first time we did it, and we didn't know if it would work, my sister-in law burst into tears."

"I consider it to be a genuine major piece of public art, made up of 35,000 anonymous supporters. It's our own flag without the middle man getting in the way - it has tremendous power."

But how much power can this action have outside of the ground? In the past the flags have been adapted: for away teams; with Swedish edges back when Sven was popular; and it has provided a symbol of England fans' politics.

Anti-racism slogan

When their players suffered racial abuse in Spain, the St George's Cross - partly so long associated with negative nationalism - carried an anti-racism slogan.

The supporters here today are a more mixed crowd than in the past. Mothers and sons, couples, families, black and Asian supporters - all committed England fans.

A friend suggested to Phil Treasure and Joe Morgan that they come along today after their preferred match, England v Jamaica this weekend, sold out.

It's a positive way of putting out the message that there's nothing wrong with holding (the flag) up
Rajay Naik

Both say the stands of their home grounds, Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers, do not represent the towns to which they belong. They take time out from efforts with Raising the Flag to talk over the reasons why.

"There's room for improvement," says Phil.

Joe adds: "I go to Wolves' games and you hear the chants and you hear people check themselves, but it happens in every walk of life."

On a lighter note, he said British Jamaicans will be coming down for the party and the match this Saturday.

Both men want to see more ethnic minority role models on the pitch. Joe adds: "I've watched England with seven or eight black players on the pitch and thought 'look how far we've come'."

One flag finished, just 17,500 pieces at the other end to go. It's back-breaking work.

Fans' reception

Rajay Naik has brought his young cousin Ghiren Desai along.

He says: "I love hanging the flag out of the window. It's a positive way of putting out the message that there's nothing wrong with holding it up.

"Once you're fourth or fifth generation you feel as much entitled as anyone else and it's important not to feel afraid of that.

"I think there's a real need, particularly at this time, as a country and as a global humanity, to put that sort of attitude and those sorts of voices out in society. "

Flag sheets on seats at Old Trafford
Finished, in time for kick off

Job done. And there's a round of applause for everyone.

Come 8pm and what is the score with their efforts? Well Old Trafford is half empty at one end, which punches a bit of a hole in the plastic.

The group say it's a shame, but the day was about more than the exercise.

One of the next generation of fans, Callum Hall, 8, and his dad Dave are convinced.

"We're patriots and it's about togetherness," says Dave.

"It makes a big flag and it's wicked," adds Callum.

And when the national anthem plays, every England fan who has one, raises the flag.

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