Adrian Chiles: Originality the key for fans who always win when they're singing

I've got a question for you: give me the link between the war on terror and the following football chants: "Sing when you're winning" or "score in a minute".

I've got a question for you: give me the link between the war on terror and the following football chants: "Sing when you're winning" or "score in a minute".

Have you got the melody yet? Let me help you out. Most often this chant is used to praise a player. For example: "one Emile Heskey, there's only one Emile Heskey". Repeat ad nauseum.

It helps if the player's name has four syllables although, oddly, it doesn't seem to matter that much because, with judicious lengthening of vowels, any name can be stretched to fit. Take Raul, an extreme example, admittedly. It really is possible to sing "there's only one row-hool", although it does necessitate some quite strenuous lip gymnastics and you end up sounding like a dog desperate to be let out for a wee.

Similarly, really long names can be shrunk to fit. The longest I can think of off the top of my head is Aljosa Asanovic, formerly of Derby County. Seven syllables there and perfectly possible given some high-speed jaw movement: "one al-yo-sa-a-san-o-vitch". Tough, but if you loved the player enough, you'd certainly give it a bash.

The greatest living football chanter in my book is Pete Boyle, a follower of Manchester United. I've incurred the wrath of Liverpool and Manchester City fans in the past for bigging Pete up, but I'm afraid I've got to do it again. It started for Pete when he had a poem published in the Manchester Evening News when he was eight: 'I'm football crazy, I'm football mad. I like Man Utd. And I go there with me Dad.' Well, it was a start, wasn't it?"

The young Pete couldn't have imagined that many years on, away supporters, apparently to a man, woman and child, would be singing his words. The clever bit is that he tries to steer clear of the standard tunes most fans stick to, like Bread of Heaven, Go West and so on. Hence, we have one about Ryan Giggs to the tune of Robin Hood; Fab the Red to the tune of Nellie the Elephant and one about John O'Shea whose name scans perfectly into Yesterday. I ask you, who could quibble with this:

"John O'Shea, All our troubles they were here to stay, Now it looks as though they've gone away, Oh I believe in John O'Shea."

My favourite is his interpretation of Inspiral Carpets' This is How it Feels. Though I must admit I'd like it a lot less if I was a Man City fan.

"This is how it feels to be City, This is how it feels to be small, This is how it feels to win nothing at all, nothing at all, nothing at all etc." Inspired. And exclusive to Man Utd fans.

And that's the point: the only tunes really worth singing are the ones that only your supporters sing. Plenty of fans make up witty words to the standard melodies but I don't know of many - and I'm sure I'll be put right on this - who take different tunes and put words to them. Though there are many examples of clubs with fine anthems all of their own: Stoke City's Delilah; Newcastle's Blaydon Races and Man City's Blue Moon being good examples.

I rather defensively pointed out to Pete that we have some "originals" at West Brom too: we jump up and down and chant "boing boing" for some reason and I'm no clearer why we also break into The Lord is My Shepherd when something good happens.

"Yes", says Pete, "but like everyone else who comes to Old Trafford you didn't bother with those so much. All you sang, like everyone else who comes, was "shall we sing a song for you"; that one about 60,000 muppets and "it's just like being in church [tune: Blue Moon]". It's tragic. All visiting fans sing the same songs and they all think they're the only ones who do it. Pathetic. You won't like this Adrian," he said, "but Wolves were the only ones who stuck with their own songs and credit to them for doing it."

Pete's something of an old hand now - he has at least five albums and a tour of Ireland behind him, I kid you not. He talks of declining standards in the terrace-chanting business with the tired resignation of an ageing rocker bemoaning the musicianship in boy bands: "Liverpool did have a good song book, I must admit, but they're not doing much good stuff now."

The trouble for Pete, of course, is that he's now got to expend some creative juices on paying tribute to a Liverpudlian, albeit a blue one. I can exclusively reveal today what's on the drawing board: "It's only a work-in-progress," cautions Pete, "but this is what we've got for Rooney so far:

'He's only a very young scouser, His shirt was all tattered and torn, He started brightly, By banging in three, And we know he's gonna score more'."

I love all this stuff, as you can probably tell, and on Wednesday night I found myself telling a couple of women I was working with all about it. I'd never met them before so Louise and Georgina had to try to look interested. But the glazed look in Louise's eyes wasn't boredom, after all: she was suddenly so captivated by a precious memory of a football song she almost went into stream of consciousness: "Late Seventies at Forest. Trent End. Mull of Kintyre." And with that she broke into song: "Ci-ty Ground. Mist rolling in from the Trent. My desire... etc." Georgina gasped at the memory too.

So it's not just me who is moved by these things. And that, in case you wondered, was what I was doing in the restaurant at a Holiday Inn in Leicester on Wednesday night, being sung to by two not unattractive women.

Finally, back to the war on terror. The song on which "sing when you're winning" and all those others are based is Guantanamera. I was astonished to read the following about it on www.musicalspanish.com: "The original lyrics of Guantanamera are the opening stanzas of Cuban hero Jose Marti's Versos Sencillos. Marti was a writer and intellectual who died in 1895 fighting for Cuba's independence from Spain.

His immensely popular verses were combined with the chorus in a way that suggests the song is addressed to a young woman from Guanta'namo on the southern tip of the island."

adrian.chiles@btopenworld.com

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