Tales from the terraces: The chants of a lifetime

As the World Cup approaches, the England Supporters' Association is asking fans not to hurl offensives from the stands in Germany. Stan Hey investigates the colourful, cruel and troubled history of the football songs

"Don't mention the war" is one of the prime pieces of advice to anyone going to Germany and it's now been joined by the admonition to England football fans not to chant "Two world wars and one world cup, doo-dah, doo-dah!" when they set foot on German soil in June.

The Foreign Office minister Lord Triesman has ventured a step further out of high culture's defensive wall by suggesting that England fans should show respect for their hosts by chanting in German, to which The Sun's response was to print a few helpful translations, including "Fünf zu eins, fünf zu eins!" ("Five-one, five-one!"), celebrating England's last win over Germany. Foreign Office 0, Popular Culture 1, would be the score so far.

And it is fairly certain that England's football fans will take with them a songbook going back nearly 40 years, containing dozens of chants that can be witty, vulgar, inventive, scabrous or downright sick. Academics have suggested that football chants are part of a tradition derived from the French blasons populaires, a collection of gibes hoarded by rival villages, but fans just know they were forged on the terraces as a response to triumph, defeat, contempt or just some happening on the pitch.

They know that the chants celebrate a last redoubt for working-class ribaldry, designed to uplift their team and to denigrate the opposition and its supporters. There's even been a political edge to some of the chants, as when Liverpool fans chanted "Arthur Scargill, Arthur Scargill, we'll support you ever more!" to the massed ranks of Yorkshire police at Hillsborough, in the FA Cup semi-final of 1988.

"Without the crowd it wouldn't be the same match because, with a yelling, baying, bawling crowd around him, a player's metabolism rises as each swell of sound gushes towards him from the terraces as he heads for goal. If there was no crowd he would still be heading for goal but there would be no sound to make him wallow in the moment, in which needles of piercing devotion are driven into his bloodstream from the terraces." The sports journalist John Moynihan wrote these words in his book The Soccer Syndrome, first published in 1965. "Those supporters who... let their voices roll," he continued...." are the ulcerated hard core with whom an ordinary, shy spectator feels no real bond or brotherhood, only a condescending admiration from afar."

What Moynihan was witnessing was the transition from a post-war communal jollity, as illustrated by the singing conducted by Frank Rea, the man in a white suit on a podium, before Wembley Cup Finals, to a harsher, non-conformist chanting, based on club and regional loyalties. It was exemplified by Liverpool fans at the 1965 Cup Final, who refused to sing Rea's repertoire - Yes, We Have No Bananas and so on - preferring to hijack the national anthem by singing "God save our gracious team, Long live our noble team ..." The Queen, on hand to present the trophy was, reportedly, not amused.

Up to that point, fans of football clubs had adopted or invented their own quaint chants and songs - "On the ball, City" at Norwich, or "Glory, glory Tottenham Hotspur" at White Hart Lane, predated by the late-40s chant at Fratton Park, Portsmouth, "Play up Pompey, Pompey play up", sung as bell chimes, and still the club's anthem today. They were harmless and cheerfully parochial.

But by 1965, there were other chants to sing, personalised for occasions or for visiting teams.

A few days after that 1965 final, Liverpool's Kop - a terrace named after Spion Kop, a hill fought for in the Boer War by local regiments - were tormenting Inter Milan by chanting "Go back to Italy" to the tune of "Santa Lucia".

Such was the Kop's perceived novelty that, a year earlier, a team from BBC's Panorama was sent to Liverpool to - as reporter John Morgan claimed - "investigate the other Mersey sound". Standing in front of the swaying, chanting masses, Morgan was quite overcome. "They don't behave like any other football crowd ... they sing the music that Liverpool has sent echoing around the world, with a gay and inventive ferocity.

"An anthropologist studying the Kop would find it as rich and mystifying as any Polynesian culture, their rhythmic swaying is an organised ritual. They seem to know intuitively when to begin singing. Throughout the match, they invent new words to old Liverpool songs, with adulatory, cruel or bawdy comments, but their heroes are acclaimed in Roman style."

The chanting that so moved Morgan soon became a feature around Britain. It wasn't always innocent. Clyde Best, West Ham's Bahamian forward, one of the first black players to appear in the main English league, would often be greeted by a chorus of "Day-oh, day-oh..." from the "Banana Boat Song", a tame precursor to the monkey chants that scarred the game for almost 30 years.

There were sectarian chants too - and not just in Glasgow - along the lines of "Oh, I'd rather be a billy than a tim". But the saving grace of the football chant was the abrasive humour, either directed at the opposition, or the hapless home team. "Show them the way to go home, They're tired and they want to go to bed - for a wank! Cos they're only half a football team, Compared to the boys in red", would ring out around northern grounds, where London teams would also be treated a chorus of "Shit on the Cockneys, shit on the Cockneys tonight..." to the tune of Roll Out the Barrel.

But in the dark days of 1980s hooliganism, the football chants lost their humour and invention. Cruelty and abuse informed most of the regular chants. "You're going home in a fucking ambulance," one end of a ground would warn the other. "Yid-dos!" would cascade out of the mouths of visiting fans at White Hart Lane, berating the club's Jewish connections. Astonishingly, I even heard a black, West Ham full-back getting the monkey chant treatment at Highbury - from supporters of his own team.

Meanwhile Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester United engaged in a long-running, tripartite war of sick abuse involving chants - about the 1958 Munich air crash that killed so many of Matt Busby's young team; or about Liverpool's perceived poverty - "you find a dead cat and think it's a treat ..." rewritten from the folk song In My Liverpool Home. And "Sign on, sign on, and you'll never get a job," became the parodic response to Liverpool's own adopted anthem, You'll Never Walk Alone.

The stadium tragedies of the 1980s - the Bradford fire, the Hillsborough crush, the Heysel stampede - almost put an end to the poison, although you still heard the odd chant about "just another spick in the wall" as a last, contemptuous reference to the Italian deaths at Heysel. Sectarian songs and chants lingered on in Glasgow, especially when Rangers, the seat of rabid Scottish Protestantism, signed the Roman Catholic Maurice Johnston. "Get Mo to fuck!" was just one welcoming graffito on the walls of Rangers' Ibrox Park ground.

But with all-seater stadia being built from 1990 onwards, the surge of money from TV, and the importation of hundreds of foreign players, the desire for provocative chants diminished. There are only a handful of Scottish players in the Rangers and Celtic teams now, while English football's multiculturalism would confound even a Shakespeare of racial abuse. When the Israeli striker Ronnie Rosenthal scored a winner for Liverpool against Everton, the Kop broke into a chorus of Hava Nagila.

Indeed, this embrace of all things foreign and the campaigns against racism have all but eradicated the monkey chants from the English game, although they've been readily imported by some of the former Soviet bloc states and, most recently, Spain.

By and large, humour has returned to English football chants, often politically incorrect, often abusive, but with just enough wit to save the day. Liverpool fans, gathering at Old Trafford today for the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea, will still be baited about the city's alleged criminality, even though it wasn't in the top 10 of the latest burglary statistics, with the following ditty, to the tune of "You are My Sunshine":

"You are a Scouser,

A thieving Scouser,

You're only happy on Giro day,

Your mum's out stealing,

Your dad's drug-dealing,

Please don't take my hub-caps away!"

The Liverpool fans, surveying the assorted cabbies and wine-bar owners who recently discovered an allegiance to the mega-rich, Abramovich-era Chelsea will no doubt reply with the now traditional riposte to arriviste supporters: "Where were you when you were shite?"

In seven weeks, the show will roll on to Germany. Every effort will be made by police, Foreign Office officials, Fifa, the tournament's corporate sponsors and a media army to pasteurise the chants of the fans. But given the choice between singing along to Beethoven's Ode to Joy or chanting "You're scheisse and you know you are!", there can only be one winner.

Fans' favourites

* 'We've got Dom Matteo, you've got our stereos'

Leeds fans to Liverpool fans, to the tune 'La Donna e Mobile'

* 'Sing when you're ploughing, you only sing when you're ploughing!'

Liverpool fans to Ipswich fans, to the tune 'Guantanamera'

* 'Are you watching, Macclesfield?'

Manchester City fans as they watched their team being relegated to the same division as their Cheshire neighbours

* 'He's short, no neck, he looks like fucking Shrek!'

Chant about Wayne Rooney.

* 'Bought in the U.S.A!'

Liverpool fans parody the Bruce Springsteen song to taunt Manchester United about their American owners, the Glazer family

* 'You're just a town full of in-breds, a town full of in-breds!'

Bolton fans to visitors from smaller places than theirs

* 'You couldn't find a red shirt in an abattoir!'

Liverpool fans lose patience with the wayward passing of full-back David Burrows

* 'Who's the wanker in the green?'

Leeds United fans amend the traditional chant as referees change from black shirts at the start of the Premiership era

* 'Two Gary Stevens, there's only two Gary Stevens!'

England fans enjoy the irony of having players with the same name in the 1986 World Cup squad

* 'He's big, he's Red, his feet stick out the bed, Peter Crouch!'

Liverpool fans hail their 6ft 7in striker

* 'Your wife eats testicles, your wife eats testicles!'

Chelsea fans taunt Liverpool's Harry Kewell after his wife did the Bush-Tucker test on I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!

* 'Tell me ma, me ma, I don't want no tea, no tea, I'm going to Germany, Tell me ma, me ma!'

England fans announce their World Cup plans, to 'Que Sera'

For more, visit www.footballchants.org

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Sport
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates one of his goals during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
news
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Antoine Griezmann has started two of France’s four games so far
sport
Life and Style
techYahoo Japan launches service to delete your files and email your relatives when you die
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor