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Sports

The Beauty and the Bollocks of Football Songs

Football songs range from the ingenious and beautiful to stupid, irritating, or even racist. But at their best, they capture what makes being a fan so special.
August 3, 2015, 1:50pm
Photo by PA Images

This story originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

It was a joy so dense that I still remember it more colourfully than any failure in my life, of which there have been many.

A familiar anxiety hung over the Emirates. As per usual, Arsenal were frustrating the home crowd with a brand of football more beautifully useless than the patterns on a snowflake.

The game was heading towards a frustrating 1-1 draw with a feeble Newcastle side, and every one of Tim Krul's excruciatingly dramatized goal kicks evoked an impotent anger akin to your older brother holding your favourite toy overhead and laughing at you.

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"SMALL TOWN IN TOTTENHAM, YOU'RE JUST A SMALL TOWN IN TOTTENHAM"

Spurs were above us in the league at the time and looking impervious. The Geordie fans were loving every moment of it, making us squirm as the game creaked into the 90th minute.

Come on Arsenal; for fuck's sake, come on.

Then it happened. A break down their right-hand side, a clipped ball into their box that yet again bobbled over the top of Van Persie's bouffant, but WHAT THE FUCK IS VERMAELEN DOING UP THERE GOAL! GOAL!! GOAL!!!

My chest exploded like John Hurt in Alien and a surge of about 100 of us ran to the barrier separating the home fans and the now-dumbstruck Newcastle crowd:

"WHO ARE YA! WHO ARE YA! WHO ARE YA!"

We bellowed it directly at them. We were grown men, facing similarly grown men, separated only by nervous looking neon orange grown men, screaming a question that we very well knew the answer to, repeatedly. We had become death, destroyer of worlds.

That simple terrace chant turned a moment of uncontrolled ecstatic madness into a uniquely British piss-taking harmony. And it's something onlya football chant could do.

So what is your favourite chant? We all have one. Even in this day of mobile goal updates, live feeds and the titanically profligate battle between Sky and BT, you could probably belt out two or three straight off the top of your head, and if you did it in a pub the nearest pissed bald fat guy (like me) would join in.

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But where do they come from? You don't even know. You just were born with the songs programmed in your head, like Minesweeper on Windows. All the notes are already waiting for you in your mind, sitting there filed next to "Ability to Walk" and "Farting". I'd like to think they are made by people like the classic Dennis Penis character Labian Quest.

But in reality, aren't they actually just made by a pissed bald fat guy down the pub who randomly thought of the songs then just sung them until they caught on?

The answer is quite literally yes. That particular pissed bald guy is Pete Boyle, Man United's resident chant maker. Apparently he's down their local Wetherspoons every match day, standing on tables and creating slurred, orchestral poetry like some kind of football chant laureate.

That's right, laugh at the idea of a football chant laureate – as if that would ever happen. Oh no wait, it actually did. Premier League perma-lizards Barclays sponsored a competition to have an official "Football Chant Laureate" in a desperate attempt to be seen as anything other than the thing that Martin Tyler says right before "Premier League" every time he's commentating. A bloke called Johnny Hurst won, so I guess now he makes all the chants, ever.

Thankfully, that's not the case. Although today's fans at times seem to follow a more regulated approach, the beauty of making chants is that they are simple moments of inspiration. Flashes of brave genius, a lone voice piping up among a nervous throng with a request to be followed, assimilated and celebrated.

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Take this guy here.

Everything about this guy's hairline, physical appearance and probable levels of intoxication reeks of the Footy Chant Creator Gold Standard. I imagine this guy to be called Trevor Monday to Friday, and work in accounts. But on the terrace he is 'Big Trev', and he is the essential component in a 500-strong crowd of fans going absolutely batshit crazy to One Step Beyond by Madness. He'll trudge back to work on Monday, with Jane from HR asking him how his weekend was in a disinterested voice, and he'll think back to the one brief moment on a Saturday afternoon where he was king.

Or take this guy.

Here he is, seemingly pissed, presumably on a train back home from a game that, knowing Aston Villa, they lost. Everyone's loudly cursing the moment the club sold Ashley Young without any irony, when 'Krazy Kev' spots his moment and pipes up with a piercing cry about Christian Benteke, to the tune of "In The Jungle, The Mighty Jungle". The tension dissipates, the laughter flows, the trip back from the arse end of nowhere suddenly doesn't seem so bleak. Nice one 'Krazy Kev', you've saved Saturday evening for the lads.

Usually though, when getting a large crowd to go along with something it's best to keep the idea simple, and that's why most chants you'll hear are lifted from traditional melodies like nursery rhymes, hymns and classical music, like this historic melody used for "Same old [insert team name], always cheating" chants.

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Some pop songs are so mind-numbingly simple that they can't help but be used as chant fodder as well, and can become so popular they spill out beyond the terrace and loudly smash any real life civilised society into pieces with the force of a thousand badly sung notes.

Take "No Limit" by 2 Unlimited, more recently used for the Kolo/Yaya Toure chant by Man City fans. It's become so popular that it's sung at other sports, like the darts. It's become so popular I sometimes whisper it to myself before I go to bed. It's become so popular I reckon if you started singing it at a funeral the four lads carrying the coffin would simultaneously drop it and do the 'bouncing high knee and finger poke the air' dance that is the official regulation procedure of the Kolo/Yaya song, while your nan would wave her blouse over her head.

Look at these pissed up lads singing it on holiday, completely oblivious to how stupid they look, who they support, or how much they are ruining their surrounding environment:

Now look at these lads from the Liverpool football team singing it on holiday, completely oblivious to how stupid they look, who they support as a team, or how much they are ruining their surrounding environment:

In both instances you can hear the unbridled joy in their voices, see the childlike bliss in their faces and almost feel the primitive bonding occurring, all from the simple pleasure of singing a repetitive '90s dance-based Toure brothers song together, over and over, potentially forever.

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But although these are great examples of when people interact en mass in public, as with anything that humans do in large groups there are always people who ruin it, and sadly football has a well-earned reputation for ruining things.

It would be nice to think that we left the acerbic racist chanting of the '80s behind, when players like Paul Canoville, Garth Crooks, John Barnes and John Fashanu were regularly blasted with unified racism from opposition and even sometimes supporting fans. These days we like to think better of ourselves, with organisations like Kick It Out and the fact that our top flight is the most cosmopolitan league in the footballing world. But a quick look at the last few years will show you that racism and prejudice still play a part in our terrace chants and fan culture.

The most obvious is the recent incident on the Paris Metro with the Chelsea fans and their racist chants. Although the incident brought worldwide condemnation from the football world and has led to recent convictions, it is still shocking and confusing to see fans of one of the biggest and most ethnically diverse teams in the world voice such racial vitriol, then go on to sing the names of players such as Didier Drogba and Ramires.

You don't have to go far back for instances of other types of prejudiced chanting either. In 2007, Spurs fans were subjected to anti-semetic chants from West Ham and Chelsea fans, while Avram Grant was subjected to Holocaust chants whilst manager of both clubs (again, sometimes from his own supporters). This is not to say there is any kind of pattern, but Chelsea do quite frequently pop up when the issue of racism in football is discussed.

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Tottenham supporters themselves appear to be torn on whether their 'Yid Army' chant is anti-semetic or a symbol of pride. Some people (mostly from outside the club) believe it to be inappropriate, while Spurs fans say it is sung to reclaim the insult (this is made more complicated by the fact that a large number of their crowd are not Jewish). So while chants are mostly seen as regressive things, they can belie complicated issues about how clubs express themselves (sort of like how Roy Keane appears to be just an angry man, but is actually on closer inspection an angry man with a beard).

Similarly, go to any Old Firm derby between Rangers and Celtic and the sectarian chanting is as much a part of the fixture as two-footed challenges and ginger managers. The long-standing battle between Catholic identifying Celtic and Protestant Rangers has seen fiercely bigoted singing from both sets of fans, with chants like 'The Famine Song' featuring at Ibrox as recently as last season.

Hopefully this type of racist, bigoted and prejudiced chanting will die out as the game floods with money and becomes more homogenised and sterile, with the brand damage of racism for huge global companies like Real Madrid and Man United becoming too great a PR risk. It would be a silver lining, if nothing else.

But take a quick look across the Italian and Spanish leagues and you'll still find Ultras singing nationalistic chants or songs with racist affiliations, and that's without even getting into the scary territory of Russian and Ukrainian fan culture.

Ultimately, although chants can be weaponised and used in negative ways, what they represent at heart is a camaraderie that is being lost in the modern world. Even racist fans are essentially coming together in a loose tribal way to sing about a shared world view, however misplaced and stupid it may be.

I live in London, a city that can make you feel more alienated than Radiohead's entire back catalogue, and yet every time I go to the Emirates, a few pints down, I feel a stronger connection with my fellow man than if I dropped a pill and hugged everyone in Fabric's smoking area. With their unique humour, their spontaneity, and their ability to unite a crowd of strangers that 15 minutes previously were silently shoulder barging each other out of the way on public transport, football chants are one of the greatest elements of the game. This is because they capture what makes being a fan so special: that sense of belonging, that feeling of being part of a something bigger than you, a shared sense of humour and outlook on life.

Of course, when you've been pelted with abuse by a bunch of mouthy Newcastle fans for 90 minutes, they're also great for shoving a last minute winner in their faces.

@williamwasteman