"It's unfair": Sheffield-based Barmy Army on a mission to dispel group's 'yobbish image'
An image is conjured up at the mere mention of any sporting fanbase, sometimes complimentary, more often not so.
Every football club has one; ‘that lot’ are too quiet, too raucous, too small, too deluded. In the mind’s eye of many, February brings out the boorish, ale-soaked, chino-and-loafers brigade as rugby union takes hold, while the growing legion of Superbowl savants deliver a picture of whooping, oversized Americanisms and chicken wings by the bucket.
Of course, any sport is a broad church, and the idea that any congregation of thousands can be pooled into one soundbite image is absurd.
But what of cricket? Is that image still of the shuffling 70-something settling into his seat for an afternoon of cucumber sandwiches, crosswords and dot balls, or is it that ‘new breed’ – the Friday evening T20 fare – male, vocal and, frankly, worse for wear?
Towards the end of last year an article did the rounds online that name-checked The Barmy Army – a 25-year-old organisation that lay on cricket tours following the England team across the globe and are now based at Sheffield’s Kelham Island – in a damning description of a section of England cricket fans. That description – of drunken, loutish yobs obsessed with their own importance – was underpinned by the notion that it was an organisation draped in nationalist overtones.
It was not the only one. National newspapers have carried stories on an ‘imperialist’ attitude within the group, accusing the thousands of travelling ‘Barmies’ of deliberately disrespecting their surroundings. This winter England supporters in Sri Lanka went under the spotlight when play was interrupted by streakers and a fight between spectators broke out during an evening session. Despite the fact none of these incidents involved a Barmy Army member, the media reaction was typical: “The Barmy Army are at it again”.
It’s an image the team that run the organisation say is grossly unfair and have worked hard to scrub away. Last year managing director Chris Millard, just 24, oversaw an ambitious re-brand designed to freshen up its offering. Though they still use the St George’s flag on matchdays and in much of their marketing material, it was removed from the official logo.
“It was time to make a change,” he said, “the old logo was a bit tired, it needed tidying up and sadly the St George’s flag had come to represent a political symbol in some parts of society that we didn’t want to be associated with.
“We want to appeal to all England cricket fans, no matter who they are. This idea that we’re all about this yobbish, loud, alcohol-centric culture is rubbish. The first thing I do when I see someone make out we’re something we’re not is invite them to a day at the cricket with us, to come and sit with the real fans. But they never do.
“The biggest misrepresentation of the Barmy Army is of lads abroad, hammered and up to no good. The guys that write about us being that way and have never taken the time to come and speak to us, they see us but they don’t have a clue what we’re about.”
What is under-reported, Chris says, is the thousands of pounds raised in Barmy Army charity efforts over the years – somewhere in the region of £750,000 – and the warm reception they get from locals wherever they go. In 2017 even the Australian media welcomed them ahead of the Ashes tour, claiming travelling England fans – 20,000 of them affiliated with the Barmy Army – would pump $400 million into the economy. In less-well-off countries such as Bangladesh and St Lucia, the Barmy Army’s presence every four years is absolutely vital.
The only place they have a questionable reputation, Chris says, is in their home country.
He concedes misbehaviour is an obvious risk, and is happy to admit there have been issues along the way. But these are the exceptions to a firm and proud tradition, with any breaches of a strict 12-rule code of conduct resulting in revoked membership.
“When you’re dealing with such volumes of people there are always going to be odd issues, whether you’re the MCC or the Barmy Army,” he said.
“We were accused of streaking in Sri Lanka, which was a massive cultural no-no over there, and put out a message straight away reminding members of their responsibility, that we were investigating and that if anything like that happened they would be stripped of their membership.
“It quickly turned out this bloke was nothing to do with us, he was a city boy who had a bet with one of his mates, but our name was immediately lumbered in with that incident. If someone does step over the line, or someone says something that oversteps the mark, it’s a very self-policing organisation, the members care about the image of the Barmy Army and they stamp it out. If it continues, they come to us.
“We’re not just a load of blokes singing in a stand. We’re a group of guys and girls, we’re a network of 33,500 members, we’ve got 250,000 social media followers. It’s a massive group that we’re very proud of and the last thing you want is a bad reputation. The process is ongoing with that.
“In many ways I can understand the misrepresentation we are sometimes given. It’s up to us to continue changing that.”
A group of people believed to be firmly on-side with the Barmy Army is the England camp itself. Every traditional morning blast of Jerusalem is greeted with an ovation from the expectant slip cordon, every player’s song followed by a wave of approval. By sheer coincidence, test skipper and Sheffield-born Joe Root is a childhood friend of Chris’, and has been unequivocal in his support of the Barmies since long before his involvement.
Speaking ahead of a World Cup campaign teetering on the edge ahead of today’s clash with New Zealand, Root said: “The growth of the Barmy Army over the years is fantastic and seems to go from strength to strength on every tour we go on. In what will be a huge year for cricket we will be looking to the Barmy Army as our ever-present twelfth man.
“Their presence is ever strong, supportive and never wavers. As players we hugely appreciate the atmosphere they create and are massively grateful for what they do for the team.”
That the England cricket side and its most vocal supporters are run by Steel city lads is a source of great pride for Chris, who was instrumental in moving the Barmy Army operation up north from its previous base in London.
He said: “We’ve been good pals for years and we’re able to work really closely together, which is great. It works well for both of us.
“We decided we wanted to come up north to broaden our appeal. We didn’t want to be seen as another London-centric organisation and we considered Leeds or maybe London, but why not Sheffield? I’m really proud to have brought it here.”
One of the Barmy Army’s flagship chants claims that ‘the people’ want to know who they are. With the help of Joe Root and the efforts of Chris Millard and his Kelham Island team, the hope is that they just might get to.