Wit loses its working-class heart

The repertoire included "You only sing when you're fishing!" and an obscene numberinvolving Captain Birdseye
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The Independent Online

My recent lament about the decline of witty terrace chants seems, aptly enough, to have struck a chord. Craig Dorlick of Northampton writes presenting a reason, arguing that it all has less to do with the disappearance of the terraces themselves than with the erosion of football's working-class fan base.

Mr Dorlick has a point. I know that the comedian Frank Skinner, for one, rather provocatively believes that the gentrification and feminisation of football has gone too far - too many posh people and women at matches, in other words - and rather regrets his own part in the process of turning it from a sport into light entertainment. Traditionally, he points out, football was there to give working-class men some fleeting refuge from life's grim realities.

Indeed, Frank has vivid memories of standing on the terraces at The Hawthorns, watching his beloved West Bromwich Albion, and overhearing an exchange between two fans. One of them was swearing angrily at the players. The other, who was there with his young son, turned round and asked the loudmouth to tone down his language. A highly sanitised version of the response goes something like this: "I work all week doing a rubbish job in a smelly factory, allowing my boss to treat me like dirt, so that I can go to my horrible home and hand over my inadequate pay packet to my ungrateful wife, so that she can feed my miserable kids, and this is the only opportunity I get to release my emotions. So if you don't want to hear me shout and swear, go somewhere else." Which they did.

Mr Angry of West Brom did not, by the sound of it, bring much wit to the terraces. But his point, however vulgarly expressed, was surely a valid one. As for the business of chants, I have received an interesting letter from Stephen Morris of Bredgar in Kent, asserting that wit might have diminished in football - in Premiership football, at any rate - but that it is alive and kicking in rugby league. Of course, when Mr Morris said that rugby league fans are a riot, he was not to know that they would promptly cause one - at yesterday's Leeds v Hull Challenge Cup semi-final. But it takes more than a few daft fans to sully a sport in which, by and large, good humour prevails.

Mr Morris is one of the few travelling fans of the London Broncos, who are used to being out-chanted, and used to their team being outclassed, in the rugby league heartlands of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Well aware of their inferiority, they are, says Mr Morris, wittily self-deprecating. He describes an away match last season against Sheffield Eagles. With Sheffield on top for most of the game, the London fans were mocked by the home crowd for their feeble vocal support. Yet in the dying minutes the team staged a remarkable comeback and actually took the lead, prompting the fans to break into an enthusiastic rendition of "We only sing when we're winning!"

There was further irony that same season at Bradford, where the Bulls thundered to a 70-point lead in front of a roaring Odsal crowd. "The only lull in the cacophony," writes Mr Morris, "came a few minutes from the end when London grabbed a consolation try and 'You're supposed to be at home!' rang out for a full minute while 12,000 Bradford fans remained silent, not quite knowing how to respond to a chant coming from 40-odd away supporters." Excellent stuff.

And I received another splendid letter from N James of Newton-le-Willows, an Evertonian of similar vintage to myself, who was stirred by my memories of standing on the Gwladys Street End in the 1970s being led in song by an improbable choirmaster, a hard-nut known to us all as Fozzie Bear. If Mr James was as tragically blinkered as I was in his devotion to the Blues, then he perhaps made the long journey to Grimsby one wet Wednesday night circa 1978, as I did, for a League Cup tie. There, inspired by Fozzie and others, the Everton fans produced an impressive 90-minute repertoire of songs mocking the Grimsby fans. The only two I can remember are "You only sing when you're fishing!" and an obscene number involving Captain Birdseye. But I do recall that a couple of others made me laugh all the way home, which took some doing given that Grimsby had emphatically won.

Now, in this space two weeks ago I invited readers to suggest how some present-day footballers might, wittily yet cleanly, be serenaded. As an example I recalled that the Kop used to greet the hapless Leeds goalkeeper Gary Sprake with a burst of "Careless Hands" (I mistakenly attributed the song to Ken Dodd, causing my colleague Phil Shaw to thrash me with his tickling stick, because it was in fact Des O'Connor). Anyway, congratulations Mark Cargill of Torquay, who cleverly changed the words of the Beatles song PS I Love You, suggesting it be sung by the Stretford End to PaulScholes. Mr Cargill gets a bottle of champagne. Although as Frank Skinner would doubtless point out, a crate of brown ale might be more appropriate.