Something extraordinary is happening on terraces across the country. At all levels of the football pyramid, we are seeing the emergence of a European-style fan culture, with fan groups increasingly investing their energies into organised support and “tifo” displays. We caught up with Steven McCormick, a pioneer of the UK’s first Ultra group and a man playing a crucial role at the heart of this nationwide phenomenon…
Where it all started…
As a teenager, Stephen travelled to Genoa in the summer of 1990 with Scotland’s Tartan Army. Notwithstanding Scotland’s insipid Group C performance, it was the trip of a lifetime for a young lad from Aberdeen and one that, over thirty years later, continues to shape his daily life.
He was taken under the wing of a group of Sampdoria supporters. With characteristic Ligurian generosity, he was fed and watered, invited into people’s homes and given a tour of the bars and clubs frequented by Sampdoria’s Ultras. These formative experiences ignited a passion that has never dimmed. He’s been going back ever since to renew those acquaintances and take his place on Sampdoria’s Gradinata Sud.
In Italy, Stephen witnessed first-hand how the vibrance and energy of the curva could elevate a team and was inspired to recreate that same phenomenon in the north of Scotland. Aberdeen’s Red Ultras – the first group of their kind in the UK – were born in the late 1990s.
At first, this pioneering group encountered a raft of administrative and cultural obstacles; facing animosity not only from the club and the police but even fellow supporters. However, over time, tension gave way to acceptance and, as groups formed at other British clubs, the Red Ultras continued to push the boundaries with their passionate support and visual displays.
In the years that followed, Stephen cultivated a wealth of expertise in the planning, organisation and execution of Aberdeen’s fan choreographies. In 2017, he had the idea that these skills could be put to wider use, speculatively reaching out to clubs across the UK with examples of what had been achieved at his club. He wasn’t sure if anyone would reply, but one club did: Tottenham.
From this single contact, things escalated rapidly when he was offered the opportunity to become the UK partner of Supporters.de, an established company based in Germany that serves the European Ultra scene. They supply anything and everything needed to produce a fan choreography; from flags and foils to lights and loudhailers.
What began as a weekend and evening sideline for Stephen, quickly grew into a full-time job for the communications engineer. “I was away with work on the Isle of Skye and pulled into a layby, trying to get signal for a phone call with a Premier League club. That was when I realised I had to go full time.”
Working across the spectrum of clubs…
Stephen works with supporters’ groups to supply the essential wares for tifo displays, shipping in foils, paints and textiles direct from Germany for the groups to use. A growing area of his work is the newer and emerging fan groups, to whom he provides guidance and ideas on how to prepare and implement a tifo. “You can see the phenomenon spreading across the UK. It’s happening at all levels with clubs like Oldham Athletic, Stockport County, Shrewsbury and St Johnstone”.
The cost of a tifo display varies according to what is planned. “The more experienced fan groups will buy the materials and put the hours in themselves; you can get a really impressive tifo for just a few hundred pounds this way.” The groups fund these displays through donations and the sale of ultras merchandise, such as stickers and t-shirts. However, at the other end of the spectrum, some of the biggest displays seen at the top clubs in mainland Europe can cost tens of thousands of Euros and consume countless man-hours.
Stephen has also worked directly with several Premier League clubs to produce displays for big occasions. For these commissions, he provides an end-to-end service that can take several weeks; advising on the display, providing a design service, supplying the materials and overseeing the set-up and implementation.
The expertise going into a tifo cannot be under-estimated; there are no dress rehearsals so everything needs to be planned with absolute precision. “It’s not at all glamorous. There’s a lot of physical work involved in setting up a big tifo; it means long hours over several days to set it out, counting seats, then checking and re-checking everything. I’ve had days where I’ve walked nearly 30km up and down stadium steps”.
Emerging trends in fan choreographies…
With COVID restrictions and the absence of supporters from stadia across Europe, it has been a challenging two years – but many fan groups are now marking their return to the stadium with impressive choreographies. “Ultras groups will always try to push the boundaries and outdo one another. The frustrations of COVID have amplified that”.
The introduction of foils, which offer a more dramatic visual impact than traditional materials, has been one of the most important developments in recent years. Aberdeen’s Red Ultras were the first to use foils in the UK (v Celtic back in 2005), but now it’s commonplace. Likewise, Stephen is seeing a growing interest in the use of confetti (as seen in the recent Rangers Europa League game against Red Star Belgrade) as groups experiment with different techniques and approaches.
“I’m now getting a lot of enquiries about 3D tifos”. This is a growing phenomenon amongst European groups that typically sees artwork on a net, which is hoisted up on a manual pulley system, creating the impression of a ‘floating’ display. This can present an incredible spectacle, but also presents some practical challenges; clearly, clubs need to be satisfied with the safety of allowing access to the stadium rafters on matchday.
Stephen has become expert in working with clubs to address potential safety issues, for example ensuring the materials he supplies meet fire safety standards. One of the most common questions he receives from clubs relates to the environmental impact of single-use materials. Having previously supported their customers with help and advice on recycling, Supporters.de will soon be going one step further by investing in their own plant in Scotland to re-use and recycle tifo materials.
The most memorable tifos…
Going back to his roots, Stephen picks out the One Love tifo created by the Red Ultras for Aberdeen’s 2008 Europa League game against Bayern Munich as a high point. It was an opportunity for them to demonstrate their prowess to established continental counterparts. Inspired by the home support, the Dons held the German giants to a 2-2 draw that evening.
Most recently, the Aberdeen fans put on a display to celebrate the return of Sir Alex Ferguson to Pittodrie. It was made possible by a generous donation from Manchester United’s Red Army, illustrating the camaraderie that can exist between supporter groups.
In a professional capacity, Stephen’s work has taken him to some of the biggest venues in Europe; including Wembley, Amsterdam Arena and Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. “Working in Amsterdam for the Euros was a dream come true. Sometimes I have to pinch myself, though there’s hardly a spare moment to enjoy it while you’re there”.
Stephen is particularly proud of the United By Football tifo he created for the Germany v Brazil friendly in 2018. “It was a huge display and one that was very important to the German Federation”; they were awarded the rights to host the 2024 European Championships shortly after this game, with the spectacular tifo thought to have played a part in swinging UEFA’s final decision.
Many thanks to Stephen for taking the time to speak to us – you can reach him via Twitter or email. If you enjoyed this and are considering a trip to Italy to watch a game, check out our Calcio Travel Notes section.