A look at the ingredients of a prawn sandwich, and how it became a metaphor for football gentrification.
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Us Brits love a sarnie. One small aspect of the joy of sandwiches is that they can be used as a metaphor for just about anything. Google “how sport is like a sandwich,” and you’ll uncover a smorgasbord of varying results.
One sandwich-linked phrase has spread (excuse the pun) worldwide as a representation of class issues, demographic problems, and fandom’s influence, within football. 16 years ago, Man Utd’s controversial captain Roy Keane turned the humble sarnie into a symbol of the worst aspects of casual fandom, declaring the home crowd at United’s Old Trafford ground to be the type to “have a few drinks and probably the prawn sandwiches, and they don’t realise what’s going on out on the pitch.” Since then, the term “prawn sandwich brigade” has been used to mock the shift towards casual and more family/sterilised football fandom that’s less about the match and more about entertainment. This remark was revisited in the film The Damned United, with manager Brian Clough railing against club directors who sat in the plush corporate seats, again an attack on this perceived football snobbery. The term has now become a household phrase, but what does it actually imply? Let’s digest it down.
The prawn sandwich itself is a simple affair: cold shrimp, mayonnaise or Marie-Rose sauce (if you’re fancy) and bread, usually a soft wheat. Occasionally there’s lettuce. They’re wet, chewy, go down quickly, and depending on the supermarket where get it from, sometimes come with far too mayo-heavy, which is rarely a fun time. The tastiest ones have an orange-pink tint from the sauce and a subtle but welcomed sweetness.
The use of “brigade” is important. It’s used in this context as a dismissive collective term for a group which the writer is at odds with or finds ridiculous. The “Green Welly Brigade” term is the same – members of the middle class who participate in countryside pursuits such as fox hunting, shooting, etc. while rocking the Downtonesque riding boots and jackets. In both uses, “brigade” implies an “us and them” mentality.
We invented the thing, and chomp on nearly 11 billion per year. We have as many words for “sandwich” as ingredients to put in them: barm (cake), bap, butty, sub, sarnie, as well as obscure slang ones such as piece. Sandwiches are the fuel on which this country thrives (as Shakespeare probably wrote at some time or another). They’re in the workplace, at home, at the bar, and in their own fluorescent section of every supermarket, stacked uniformally, as vacuum-packed triangles. Usually sandwiches know no regional, cultural, professional or socioeconomic bias.
But there is, perhaps, a bit of ingredient bias. Sandwiches are the everyday food, but there must be a specific reason why Keane chose prawn. In a 2006 article about ticket price increases at Old Trafford, Andy Hunter makes a reference to the fans “who prefer prawn to bacon in their sandwiches.” Prawn will cost you a bit more at Tesco, as seafood tends to be more expensive anyway, so there’s a bit of a socioeconomic charge there. There’s possibly a gender issue of sandwich ingredients as well as ‘real men’ who are there to watch the match get the bacon butty but poncey out-of-towners get the prawn. This is not a game for the delicate, the casual.
The anger in Keane’s comments was somewhat understandable. The aggressive, passionate and more working class world of football with which he grew up has become infiltrated by casual fans looking for a day out and a way to spend way too much disposable income. The prawn-bacon sandwich divide illustrates something the sportsworld—not just football, and not just in the UK, and not just in 2000—has used as metaphor for a long time. That is, the benefits and drawbacks of the upper (and middle) class influence within sports.
So next time you bite into Asda’s BLT or a Waitrose organic Atlantic prawn mayo sandwich, have a think about the cultural, professional and socioeconomic metaphor wedged between two slices of bread.