GRAEME COUSINS finds out the story behind a Manchester United flag fashioned in Ulster that has become a club icon
A giant football banner created in Northern Ireland has travelled the world with Manchester United since 1999, achieving iconic status.
And now the flag known as Big Lily, which is part of an ongoing documentary, has found itself painted on a new Belfast peace wall mural.
Its creator, Whitehead man Keith Norris, 52, said: “It was formerly a Carrickfergus Reds flag. The first match it went to was Milan for the quarter final of the Champions League in 1998/99, the treble season.
“Then it went to Turin for the semi final against Juventus and then it was at the FA Cup Final.
“I can’t exactly remember why we decided to make it bigger but we added to it and then brought it to Wembley for the cup final when we sealed the treble.
“After the World Club Championships in Brazil in 2000 we took ‘Carrickfergus Reds’ off it and put ‘Manchester United FC Stretford End On Tour’.”
Keith said some newspapers had gone over the top with the dimensions of Big Lily: “It’s been reported that it’s 100 by 60 feet but I’d say it’s closer to 40 by 30.
“I’ve gone through about eight or nine bags these last few years carrying it. She gets a bit heavier when she’s wet.
“There’s the big MUFC crest on her that puts on another few pounds and then the logos and the writing adds some more.”
Keith created the banner along with fellow Northern Ireland man Martin ‘Faceman’ Cleary, two friends of different religions.
They named it to represent the Protestant Orange Lily and the Catholic Easter Lily and have used it to promote friendship around the world.
Keith’s friend and co-creator of the flag died of a heart attack in 2007.
They met due to their love of Manchester United when Keith moved to Whitehead to in the early nineties.
Keith said: “I think of him every day. After he died I never went to a Manchester United game for a few years. I couldn’t face going over without him.
“The last time I actually spoke to him was from Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid.
“Faceman was a legend. Everyone liked him. He got on well with the fans, the players past and present. He was so friendly and down the middle.
“I was talked into going back and bringing Big Lily in his memory.
“All endeavours are dedicated to his memory.”
The flag has many famous friends – from footballers including Gary Neville, Raul Gonzalez and Cristiano Ronaldo – to dignitaries such as Dieter Reiter, Lord Mayor of Munich, Mark Magowan, President of Western Australia and former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, all of whom contribute to an upcoming film about Big Lily.
Keith said: “Supporters from across the world love Big Lily for the passion she evokes and what she represents.
“Manchester United’s 60-year-old Malta Supporters Club invited Big Lily to lead their anniversary celebrations in June and the club was first recipient of a ‘Wee Lily’ commemorative flag.
“Big Lily was one of the main guests at the anniversary dinner along with Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Wilf McGuinness and his son Paul. It was awesome.”
Perth Manchester United Supporters Club – who in July hosted Manchester United’s pre season tour – had Big Lily lead a fans’ parade to the Optus Stadium.
The club was also presented with a tribute flag with the words ‘Pride of Down Under’ emblazoned on it.
Most recently Houston Reds – a Manchester United fans group in Texas – held a function in which a Wee Lily flag donated by Keith and personally signed by Eric Cantona raised 1,500 dollars for the Snowdrop Foundation in aid of paediatric Children’s Cancer Charity in Houston.
Keith, who attended his first Manchester United game in 1979, said: “Because of the flag we’ve got to know a lot of Manchester United fans.
“How I know it’s struck a chord is it’s been invited to all sorts of occasions. It was invited to a cremation in January.”
The flag now features in the peace section of Belfast’s International Wall Mural where it will be viewed by many of the city’s 9.5 million annual visitors.
The flags on the mural are from the different countries that the Big Lily flag has visited - Catalonia, Japan, Australia, America, Italy, Germany, Poland, Russia, Brazil, Spain.
The mural will be part of an ongoing year-long documentary about the influence Big Lily has around the world.
Keith said: “We have filmed amazing characters and events which portray the global passion for Manchester United in a unique manner.
“This mural will be an integral part of the film and Big Lily’s journey. Further filming is scheduled for USA and Scandinavia.
“We are seeking to attach influential movers and shakers in the film industry including global broadcaster and distribution partners”.
“We started filming in Munich last year at the memorial service. Last year was the first year we took the flag.
“Ronaldo is going to be in the film too as is Raul and Hierro.”
Of the peace wall mural and documentary he said: “Big Lily represents Manchester United Supporters, irrespective of creed, colour or ethnic background.
“Faceman would have been so proud, as I am, of this amazing tribute to Big Lily and the fact that we, in some small way, contributed to meaningful friendship across the divide in Northern Ireland and across the world.
“To think of United’s Big Lily on a wall dedicated to peace and a tourist attraction is truly amazing.
“The documentary will tell the story of Big Lily’s origins and many global footballing friendships through a shared love of everything Manchester United.”
He said: “The flag is representative of the friendship between Martin and I. There’s a plethora of people involved who think the same way as we do. It’s not just hands across the divide, it’s hand across the sea. The flag represents friendship around the world.
“We’ve filmed in Madrid and Munich where we’ve handed over flags thanking them for their help post-Munich.”
The Munich air disaster on February 6, 1958 claimed the lives of 23 of the 44 on board. Eight Manchester United ‘Busby Babes’ were among the fatalities.
Real Madrid played five friendly games from 1959 to 1962 and the funds went to United to support the club after Munich.
There are now a series of smaller tribute flags dedicated to Manchester United legends including George Best, Harry Gregg and Eric Cantona.
Clubs who have an association with Manchester United have also been presented with ‘Wee Lily’ flags.
They include Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Kyoto Sanga.
Smaller versions of Big Lily have also been made for club stalwarts such as Jimmy Murphy, who carried the flag for Manchester United after the Munich air crash.
There is also a tribute flag to the Busby Babes, which leads a procession each February at the site of the 1958 crash in Trudering Riem, Munich.
Keith, pictured above with Cristiano Ronaldo, said: “We now have 15 smaller flags all dedicated to our heroes. For example Harry Gregg, Gary Neville, Lou Macari, Sammy McIlroy.
“I’m enjoying meeting so many people to present the flags.
“Harry Gregg has been described a reluctant hero. He’s now a very good friend.
“It’s moving when you see people like Harry Gregg getting emotional because we’ve made a flag with his name on it saying ‘Legend’.
“We were at Liam Whelan’s grave in Dublin. His brother and sister took my hand and thanked me for keeping the memory of their brother alive.
“It’s so deep, there’s so many layers to it. It’s those things that spur you on.”
Christopher McCollumn was never more happy than when he was in Manchester watching his beloved Red Devils.
The Bangor teen who became friends with many of the club’s players including David Beckham and Roy Keane died at the age of 16 from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.
On the 18th anniversary of his death last month Keith Norris visited Christopher’s mum and dad Geraldine and Gerry to present them with one of the ‘Wee Lily’ flags to honour their son’s memory.
Gerry said: “Christopher loved seeing Big Lily at the matches and looking out for it on TV.”
“When I met Keith at unveiling of George Best statue (at Olympia Leisure Centre in May) I told him Christopher’s story and he asked could he feature it in the documentary that was being made.
“When he came to our house to film he presented us with a Wee Lily flag and a letter from Ole Gunnar Solksjaer.”
Christopher’s dad said: “His whole life was United. He wasn’t diagnosed until he was five but you could see he had problems. By age eight he was in a wheelchair. Even though he had this passion for football he never played. He was quite lucky because he started supporting United in the nineties whenever they were winning everything.”
The first United player Christopher met was Lee Sharpe at a function in the Europa Hotel and he fixed it for Christopher to come to a game at Old Trafford and meet the rest of the team at the club’s training ground. Further trips to meet the players were facilitated by coach Jimmy Curran.
Such was Christopher’s relationship with the players that when he needed help to get a new wheelchair the family got a £1,000 cheque from Gary Neville and Roy Keane.
Gerry said: “Christopher said to me many times that he thought the players were his friends. So many of them knew him by name and made time to come and speak to him.
“We always knew he had a life limiting disability though when he died (in September 2001) it did come out of the blue.
“After Christopher died we were at a retirement function for Jimmy (Curran). Roy Keane came over and asked how we were coping with Christopher’s loss. There’s people in your street don’t say that to you. He’s somebody who Christopher admired for his determination.
“He met David Beckham four times. On one of the occasions he was outside a hotel, he saw Christopher and came over. He didn’t have to come over. He remembered his name and asked him how he was. That was a very special moment for somebody at 12 or 13 years of age.”