A brief history of football chants in England

Tilak Dutta at Goalden Times discusses the various aspects and historical importance of football chants in English culture.

An Arsenal supporter sings in the crowd during the English Premier League football match between Arsenal and Chelsea at The Emirates Stadium in north London, England on September 29, 2012. AFP PHOTO/ADRIAN DENNIS RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or ?live? services. Online in-match use limited to 45 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.        (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/GettyImages)

It had all started when famous English composer Sir Edward Elgar came by a few newspaper articles that celebrated then Wolverhampton Wanderers’ striker Billy Malpass’ goal scoring abilities. The newspaper reports that day described the way he had ‘banged the leather for goal’ in a match against Stoke City.

Elgar was inspired by the sturdy striker. The phrase struck the composer’s mind and he set it to a short piece of piano music. Entitled He Banged The Leather For Goal, the footy theme in honour of Billy Malpass back in 1898 can rightly be termed as the first ever football chant.

Ever since, with melodies borrowed and altered from Opera, Music Hall, Eurovision and nursery rhymes or lyrics rehearsed in pubs and bars before a football match, football chants have become an integral part of football, clubs and fans alike. It usually begins with a lone voice and within a few moments, thousands join in. The voices flow down the terraces and spread across wide until all the passionate ones are combined in unison.

Football Chants And Their Nature
England, being the home of fan culture, has a large variety of chants. Contrary to many other countries, English chants are oftentimes taken from real pre-existing songs, hymns or rhymes with lyrics and content modified to their needs.

In English football, chants are rituals. Everything from the display of club support to the choreographed method of clapping and arm waving – to the harmonious or melodious tunes used and words employed,  is a part of a clear ritual of support and cultural identity. Chants have a dramatic social process of occurring and re-occurring, constantly emphasizing the passion and seriousness with which one follows his favourite club or player.

They tell narrative stories about events as they occur. For instance, the well-known manager Tommy Docherty saw his love life come under media scrutiny in 1984 at his Wolverhampton team base when thousands of Sheffield away fans chanted: “Who’re you shaggin’ Docherty?”. Five months later, in January 1985, Elton John, the gay pop star and chairman of Watford FC was asked by hundreds of visiting Blades (Sheffield United fans): “What’s it like to be a puff?”.

The analysis of football chants is not always simple, for they contain attributes that cannot be easily measured. It contains aspects of a ‘carnival’, which sometimes teases the forces of authority and is therefore always possess the potential of social chaos. Even though exhilarating, this carnivalesque approach often creates the phenomena of ‘hooliganism’ which is a public dread.

In trying to pin down and analyse the social processes that occur when fans chant, we also need to consider the affinities between football and masculinity of warfare. In order to suppress the ‘fandom’ activities, which are male attributed event that leads to a much bilious state of affairs, politicians and concerned authorities have adopted strict measures to induce a ‘family atmosphere’ in the stadiums and off it. Yet, as Katherine Viner noted in The Guardian (18th March 1997), the male-female ratios at the game still deny any true gender equality in the crowd make-up:

“Last week I went to see Tottenham vs Leeds, a dreary mid-table clash resulting in a 1-0 loss for the Yorkshire side. It would have been a miserable day out, had it not been for the half-time entertainment provided by the Leeds supporters: they took their tops off, they danced a tribal war dance, they marked their territory on the stands. We could spot only one woman in the throng, who kept her Leeds top on, but danced with the best of them. In the old days, football fans made their macho-ness known by fighting each other; today they dance topless…”

Football Chants Over The Years
As a public collective expression of social and cultural identity, football chants have no modern-day equivalent. Although football crowds have chanted since the 1920s, the real growth of chants began in the 1960s. One of the main reasons attributed to its growth was the evolution of youth culture. The resulting loss of status of brass bands as a form of pre-match entertainment resulted in them being replaced by public announcement systems playing pop records.

These new anthems were quickly taken up on the basis of the old football cliché that ‘such vocal support is worth a goal start’. Whilst footballing success has always depended on the ability of the players, the luck of the game and the run of the ball create a large measure of uncertainty and thus the chants can be said to link to these unknown yet potentially crucial factors.

In the 1970s chants and songs towards individual players became increasingly popular. There were chants not just about the character, talent or skills of a player but about his perceived empathy with the fans. In the mid-1970s the words of  Has anybody seen my girl, a 1920s jazz song, were amended as this:
“Six foot two, eyes of the blue
Big Chris Guthrie’s after you

This was deeply ironic as Guthrie was rather two inches shorter, had brown eyes and was said by the fans to have the ‘menace of a kitten’.

Early in 1980s chants that belittled black players for simply being black had become increasingly common in football. Racist chants often took the form of members of the crowd making monkey noises at black players on the pitch. There was an instance after the Deptford fire in 1981 when 13 black youths were burnt to death, a chant that could be heard at Millwall was: “We all agree Niggers burn better than petrol”

Other forms of racist chants included anti-semitic chants against Tottenham Hotspur. Thus, football chants have also acted as the chiaroscuro in the canvas of a painter. In order to overcome this, racist chanting was outlawed during the 1990s, even though there have been unfortunate cases where racism still prevail.

Football Chants And Their Basic Types
Several football chants are based on hymns and classical music with Cwm Rhondda (also known as ‘Guide me, O great redeemer’),“You’re not singing anymore!” and “I will never be a Blue!” being the most popular tunes to adapt. Various fans have used the phrase “Glory Glory” (followed by Tottenham Hotspur, Leeds United and Manchester United), to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. There have been various adaptations of When The Saints Go Marching In and the tune of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

Spiritual and Folk songs like Simple Gifts have inspired many terrace chants that include Carefree, a chant associated with Chelsea. It was also used for a Tottenham song abusing Sol Campbell after his move to Arsenal in 2001 and for a popular chant sung by Manchester United fans in honour of Park Ji-Sung. Several football chants are also based on popular music. Music hall songs like My Old Man and I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles form the basis of many terrace chants.

Music of the 1960s influenced terrace chants significantly. Songs like Ring of Fire, Lola and All You Need is Love have been adopted by several sets of fans. The emergence of Funk and Disco also made its mark on terraces with songs such as Go West and Just Can’t Get Enough being the most famous ones to be adapted.

Some songs are very much traditional in nature. The song You’ll Never Walk Alone has been heavily associated with Liverpool and Celtic. Supporters of Sheffield Wednesday sing “Honolulu Wednesday” to the tune of Honolulu Baby. Before every match, Nottingham Forest fans sing Mull Of Kintyre, replacing Mull Of Kintyre with “City Ground”. Can’t Help Falling in Love has been adapted by many teams including Swindon Town, Huddersfield Town, Swansea City and Sunderland.

Chant Laureate
Barclaycard set up a competition to choose a Chant Laureate, to be paid £10,000 to tour Premier League stadiums and compose chants for the 2004-05 football season. On 11 May 2004, Jonny Hurst was chosen as England’s first chant Laureate.

Thus, the world of football chants is chaotic, organic,life-affirming, awe-inspiring and above all a realm of ecstasy. Regardless of their impact, both good and bad, they seep through the skin of all shades, mingle with the blood of the same kind, excite the heart of the same set of fans and finally echo throughout the arena to form an inseparable aspect of the game.



Tilak Dutta is a passionate football lover and supports Chelsea F.C. Apart from football, he’s into Films, Anime and Literature




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