Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

Di-dong! Di-dong! Di-dong! Helen Turner was the ultimate Manchester City super-fan

Frances Burscough

Isn't the human memory an incredible thing? All it takes is a sight, sound or smell to activate it and you're suddenly back to some moment in the past that had lain dormant and unconsidered for so many years.

This happened for me last week, when I was in front of the TV watching Manchester City playing in one of the last, crucial football matches of the season. Yaya Touré had just scored a goal so the crowd duly erupted and, as the cheering subsided, I heard something I hadn't heard in decades.

It was the distinctive clang of an old, heavy, brass hand-bell, ringing out in time to the jubilant chant of the fans.

Di-DONG! Di-DONG! Di-DONG!

Oh my God: Helen! It was Helen all over again!

Helen Turner was a flower-seller who made her living from a stall outside Manchester Royal Infirmary for the latter part of the 20th century. She was such a distinctive-looking character — with a beehive like Bet Lynch — that anyone who regularly travelled up and down Oxford Road would certainly have noticed her.

During the week she sat there selling bunches of colourful carnations to hospital visitors, but football fans all knew that she was just passing the time until the next big match.

You see, Helen was the ultimate Manchester City super-fan. Every single game, come hell or high water, rain or shine, (usually rain) she was there at Maine Road, supporting the team in her eccentric way by ringing an old heavy hand-bell.

She'd been doing it for so long — 40 years or more — that she was treated with reverence by players and fans alike who knew her as “Helen the Bell”. She had a complimentary season ticket provided by the club.

She even had her own seat reserved for her in her favourite spot — directly behind the goal in the Old North Stand — where she began each match by handing the goalie a bunch of lucky heather she'd brought from her stall. They wouldn't start it without her.

Helen was officially the team’s unofficial mascot; a fixture at every fixture.

By the time I started going to matches at Maine Road in the mid-Eighties, she was an old lady, in a wheelchair, partially crippled by arthritis. Nevertheless she clutched her bell and faithfully rang it after every key moment. After a while, like everyone else there, I too began to associate the sound with anticipation, excitement, celebration.

Not that there was much to celebrate during that period, to be completely honest. City were the underdogs at that time and remained so for years. Manchester United, Liverpool, Leeds, Everton, we had lost out to them all so many times that it felt like we were destined to be the laughing stock of English football forever.

Meanwhile, I moved to Northern Ireland in the early Nineties and had to resort to Match of the Day to keep up to date with the ins and outs of the team.

But by 2003, our fortune had started to change. We got a new owner with enough money to invest in MCFC and the club then moved from the much-loved, but run-down, Maine Road stadium, to a shiny new home across town in Eastlands.

On the last game there, I was told that Helen was given a standing ovation as she rang her bell from her favourite spot for the very last time.

Two years later, in 2005, Helen died aged 85 and she bequeathed her bell to the club. Of course, jokes were made about the fact it took up some of the space that was available in the empty trophy cabinet.

But since then things really have gathered pace. We started to win again and after a lot of money and effort was invested over the next decade, the Blues eventually started to get ahead of the game.

So why was Helen's bell ringing out last week? According to my friends at MCFC, fans are allowed to borrow the treasured bell for key fixtures, to ring out as a tribute to Helen's memory and to bring the team good luck.

It certainly worked last weekend. We won the greatest prize there is in English football. The Premiership Trophy and Capital One Cup will now be standing besides a simple old brass bell in the Manchester City trophy room. I have no doubt Helen Turner will be there in spirit, too.

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