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
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"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