When four friends took a photo after a train trip between two English cities on a drunken day out, the idea of the snap ending up on a Manchester City team news announcement to millions of fans, it is fair to say, seemed remote.
In a symbol of just how huge the viral photo sensation had become on social media, Premier League giants City reworked parts of it when they revealed their team to play Crystal Palace last week, joining in with the fun as part of a frantic, thrilling explosion of fame for the unwitting men involved.
England defender Kyle Walker, 2018 World Cup star John Stones and Brazil goalkeeper Ederson had their heads superimposed in honor of the picture, which first took off last June when it was viewed as a quintessential portrait of modern English “lads”.
While Champions League contenders City are by far the most high-profile team to have highlighted the image to date, dozens of clubs and thousands of fans have reinterpreted the work – often including famous faces to produce a rich seam of jokes.
How 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗹𝗮𝗱𝘀 line-up tonight! 🙌XI | Ederson, Walker, Dias, Stones, Zinchenko, Fernandinho (C), Gundogan, De Bruyne, Bernardo, Sterling, Jesus SUBS | Steffen, Rodrigo, Torres, Mendy, Mahrez, Cancelo, Foden, Delap, Doyle⚽️ @HaysWorldwide 🔷 #ManCitypic.twitter.com/UzqJLu4blK
— Manchester City (@ManCity) January 17, 2021
Premier League managers Steve Bruce, Sam Allardyce, Sean Dyche and Roy Hodgson featured in one version, and the photo has gone beyond football to feature UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other leading political figures looking unusually muscular and preened.
Connor Humpage, Kevin Rooney, Jamie Phillips and Alex Lacey are the pals in the picture. “Who would have known what a sh*t storm this photo would cause?” asked Humpage, who runs his own tattoo business and was one of the quartet traveling between Coventry and Birmingham.
“It’s been a rough year for me personally, but I’m so f*cking happy right now.”
The disbelieving group have appeared on national TV and radio in the UK this week, winning praise from the likes of loudmouth interviewer Piers Morgan.
For Lacey, there has been a sense of relief after he was targeted by trolls when the image initially surfaced, including prank calls to his work telephone number and comments left on his mother’s social media accounts.
“We’re having a right laugh and loving the ride we are on,” he said. “However, it wasn’t always fun and games.
Seeing as we haven’t seen the lads on the pitch at Bridge Road for a few months now… here’s a throwback to those famous title celebrations in 2019. 🔴⚫️ pic.twitter.com/BPDAjWTc5n
— Histon Football Club (@HistonFC) January 18, 2021
“It got out of hand last year – for me especially – and some of the abuse and trolling wasn’t OK, judging a book by its cover. I’m happy to be through all that and excited for the future.”
Phillips said he hoped the interview with Morgan, which was seen by millions, had “opened some eyes to how words can affect people.”
“The meme has taken us on a rollercoaster,” he admitted. “I’m loving the ride but people need to be aware of what they say to others on the internet and be kind.”
As well as an animated version of the picture being used as part of the “sea shanty” trend on social media platform TikTok, one of the most popular versions of the meme has featured the friends debating various sporting contests, including a potential rematch between UFC rivals Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor.
“Yes, Conor smashes Khabib in a rematch,” said Rooney, playing along as he published an illustrated version of the snap.
“Yes, Logan Paul does Anthony Joshua within three rounds. Yes, [Manchester United midfielder Scott] McTominay is a better Paul Scholes. And yes, Bozza [Johnson], we want our gyms back [open after lockdown].”