Av Tim Stickings
In 2003, the Premier League announced it was searching for an official writer of football chants. Jonny Hurst, a Birmingham City fan, was chosen from around 1,500 applicants as football’s first ‘Chant Laureate’, and awarded a salary of £10,000 per year. Andrew Motion, Britain’s ceremonial state poet and chair of the selection panel, enthused about the “huge reservoir of folk poetry” expressed in the form of football songs.
Mr Motion’s tribute is glowing, but perhaps misleading. In March 2014, Channel 4 broadcast a programme entitled Hate on the Terraces, making use of hours of undercover film gathered at a range of football grounds to show the continuing racism and homophobia audible in football. Songs can be uniting and uplifting, or abusive and hateful. The difference between the two can be just a few words. Poetry it may be, but not always of the sort Mr Motion imagined.
Some chants are used by fans of all clubs, while others are the property of particular sides. The song ”You’ll Never Walk Alone” can be heard at many European football grounds, but in England it can only ever mean Liverpool. The chorus, sung at every Liverpool home game, goes as follows:
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone
Many clubs have theme songs, but Liverpool’s signature tune is surely the best-known. The song gained particular significance following the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, which claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans at an FA cup semi-final. Before the final against city rivals Everton at Wembley, both sets of fans joined in a minute’s silence and a moving rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. As new and scandalous information about the tragedy came to light in 2012, the song returned to the top of the charts.
West Ham United’s pre-match song, ”I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”, is another of the best-known club songs, and has been associated with the club since the 1920s. Its lyrics are not directly related to football:
I’m forever blowing bubbles
Pretty bubbles in the air
They fly so high
Nearly reach the sky
Then like my dreams they fade and die
Fortune’s always hiding
I’ve looked everywhere
I’m forever blowing bubbles
Pretty bubbles in the air
The song is played at every home game and is accompanied by the blowing of actual bubbles as the match kicks off. The song’s resonance comes more from the club in question than from the song itself. More than some modern clubs – fans often joke about the number of Manchester United fans who live in London – West Ham remains rooted in its local community. ”Bubbles” has been heralded as the ”national anthem of Essex and east London”. In other words, the song is an expression of more than just footballing loyalty, which perhaps explains why a song without a single mention of football should become an established club anthem.
Regional identity makes its mark elsewhere. Some away fans at Liverpool matches change ”You’ll Never Walk Alone” to ”You’ll Never Get A Job”, mocking Liverpool fans for the high unemployment in the city, especially prevalent in the 1980s. Fans from wealthier London sometimes supplement this with a refrain of ‘We pay your benefits’.
Major tournaments bring out a rare expression of English, as opposed to British, national identity. The Union flag flying at 10 Downing Street was replaced by a St George’s Cross during the 2010 World Cup. England fans enjoying an easy victory poke fun at their opponents with chants of “Are you Scotland in disguise?”.
Some chants have overtly political connotations. A recent controversy has surrounded Tottenham Hotspur, a club with a large number of Jewish supporters. Spurs fans have often been victims of anti-Semitic abuse, some of which is too horrible to repeat. A topical issue is fans’ use of the word ”Yid”. The word is used by some opposition fans as a term of abuse, but such provocation has in turn led Spurs fans – Jewish and non-Jewish – to adopt the term ”Yid” as a nickname, labelling themselves the ”Yid Army”. In 2013, the FA called for anyone using the term to be prosecuted, leading to a consultation with fans. Even the Prime Minister waded in, arguing that Spurs fans using the word should be free from prosecution. Regardless of the dispute, in 2014 many Spurs fans continue to identify themselves as the ‘Yid Army’, sometimes supplementing that chant with a refrain of ”We’ll sing what we want”.
The violent history of Northern Ireland provides a further example of the politics of football chants. Sixteen years on from the Good Friday Agreement, fans have not forgotten the Troubles. England fans make their point even during the national anthem. Between the lines ”God save the Queen” and ”Send her victorious”, there is a gap of a few seconds, which some England fans – regardless of whom England are playing – fill with a chant of ”No surrender”, meaning no surrender to the IRA. Ahead of a friendly against the Republic of Ireland in May 2013, England manager Roy Hodgson asked fans to put a stop to their anti-IRA chants. Nonetheless they were still clearly audible when England visited Kyiv for a World Cup qualifier against Ukraine the following September.
Unifying football songs
But football songs can be unifying as well as sectarian. One such song was the 1996 hit ”Three Lions”, best-known for the slogan ”Football’s coming home”. Written for Euro 1996 in England, with lyrics by comedians Frank Skinner and David Baddiel, the song was a huge success. Its lyrics are both self-deprecating and cheerful, highlighting England’s underachievement ever since the 1966 World Cup but remaining optimistic for the future:
Three lions on the shirt
Jules Rimet still gleaming
Thirty years of hurt
Never stopped me dreaming
The ”thirty years of hurt” have since ballooned to fortyeight, but the point still stands. Official team songs have been recorded at many subsequent tournaments, but have never matched the success of ”Three Lions”. Players too have found their way into recording studios: the Chelsea squad in 1971/72 recorded the song ”Blue is the Colour”, which reached number five in the charts, and as of 2014 is still played before kick-off at every Chelsea home game. Spurs managed something similar in 1981 with ”Spurs are on their Way to Wembley”.
Force of the fans
Between opposing sets of fans, songs are an exchange. A chant by one set of fans demands a counter-chant from the supporters opposite. A particularly quiet set of fans will be taunted by the opposition, with chants of ”Shall we sing a song for you?” or, if the home supporters are silent, ”You’re supposed to be at home”. Highbury, Arsenal’s home ground until 2006, was nicknamed the ”Highbury Library” by visiting supporters, on account of the supposedly quiet atmosphere. Managers and players, on the other hand, do their best to ignore criticism from the stands. Shouts of ”You’ll be sacked in the morning” will be reported in the press as a sign of a manager’s imminent departure: a response from the club is usually a sign that the songs have hit a nerve. Chelsea fans aimed chants of ”You don’t know what you’re doing” at manager Luiz Felipe Scolari during a frustrating home draw in 2009; assistant manager Ray Wilkins fumed that the chant was “out of order”. Scolari was sacked two days later.
Thankfully, fans are able to poke fun at themselves as well. In 2010, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger raged at Stoke City’s physical tactics, comparing Stoke to a rugby team. A furious Stoke manager complained to the FA, but fans took the comment in good humour: the next time Stoke played Arsenal, the home end broke into a chant of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, the sonorous chant sung by England fans at rugby union matches.
Clubs are defined by their fans. Players, managers and owners come and go, but the fans stay put. Even in the lower reaches of the English football pyramid, fans of amateur sides use songs to express their hopes, regrets, identity and loyalty. Nothing expresses the social and political background of football more clearly than the songs on the terraces. The reputation of football fans has made a recovery from the depths of the 1980s, when English football was synonymous with drunkenness and hooliganism. What remains is to deal more firmly with the minority of fans who use football songs to peddle hatred and prejudice. The chance to live a match with the fans is part of what makes going to a match an enjoyable pasttime. And that is all that football should be.
Tim Stickings is a Chelsea fan and has watched football since the age of seven. He studies History at Durham University.