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What Makes 'You'll Never Walk Alone' Such An Enduring Football Anthem?

It's sung at stadiums across the globe and holds different meanings for each set of fans. What turned 'You'll Never Walk Alone' from a showtune into football folklore.

by Graham Ruthven
11 August 2015, 10:19am

Photo by PA Images

Its opening few notes and lyrics are enough to send some of football's biggest and most impassioned amphitheatres into throaty chorus. You'll Never Walk Alone is sung by countless clubs around the world, but even when performed by a congregation of thousands at Anfield or Celtic Park or the Westfallenstadion, it is an anthem that means something different to so many.

But what makes You'll Never Walk Alone football's definitive anthem? How did a song originally written by Rodgers and Hammerstein in the 1940s for the Broadway musical Carousel become a terrace staple at some of the world's biggest clubs – Celtic, Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund, Club Brugge, Feyenoord, FC Twente, Hoffenheim, Mainz 05, Kaiserslautern, Borussia Monchengladbach and even FC Tokyo just to name a few.

In some ways, football's common adoption of You'll Never Walk Alone as an anthem is something of an anomaly. How has a track of such tenderness and compassion infiltrated the mindset of fans who spend the rest of their time shouting crude abuse at opposition players and flipping the fingers at the referee.

Irving Berlin – one of the greatest songwriters in American history – once said that You'll Never Walk Alone had as profound an effect on him as the 23rd Psalm. It's difficult to imagine Berlin saying the same thing about any other football anthem or chant (even anything written by David Baddiel and Frank Skinner...) For a sport not always known for its subtlety and grace, You'll Never Walk Alone captures the best of football's essence: community, unity and altruism.

Supporters of the German side SC Paderborn. | Photo: EPA/JONAS GUETTLER

First recorded by Frank Sinatra, reaching number nine in the Billboard chart in 1945, it wasn't until Gerry Marsden of Gerry and the Pacemakers performed the track in the 1960s that You'll Never Walk Alone made it to football's terraces. Elvis Pressley, Judy Garland, Ray Charles, Shirley Bassey, Barbara Streisand, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklinn, Bob Dylan, Slade, Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney have all recorded their own covers, but Marsden's is the definitive version.

Celtic and Liverpool fans debate amongst themselves over which first sang You'll Never Walk Alone on the terraces, but there is a general consensus over its first instance as an anthem on Merseyside. Around the 1960s it was common for the stadium DJ to play records by local bands and artists before kick-off and at half-time, with Marsden's You'll Never Walk Alone first played at Anfield one November afternoon. It was received so well by the Kop that it has been played before every home Liverpool home fixture since.

For Liverpool, the song resonates with the best and worst of the club's days. They see it as theirs over anyone else's, with the song's title featured prominently in the club's badge and on the famous Shankly gates at the entrance to Anfield. It's more than just an anthem for Liverpool, it is an ethos.

"My fondest memory of You'll Never Walk Alone will surely remain half-time [of the 2005 Champions League final] at the Ataturk," explains the writer and Liverpool fan Paul Tomkins. "I was shellshocked at the Reds being 3-0 down, and fearing it becoming six or seven after the interval. But the travelling Kop started singing it, and it did actually lead to a sense of hope. Sometimes songs start up when you're getting beat and then die down really quickly, as no one feels like signing anything, but on that evening it just got louder and louder. If you can't sing it and mean it in adversity, when can you sing it? I don't think anything else could have got the fans believing again, and it transmitted itself to the players."

Indeed, the anthem's rendition at half-time of the 2005 Champions League final goes down in Liverpool folklore, given its role in reviving a seemingly beaten team. But You'll Never Walk Alone's most heartfelt performance came just months after the Hillsborough disaster, with 90,000 Liverpool and Everton fans singing the anthem in unison at the 1989 FA Cup final. The song took on added significance in light of the tragedy, providing a source of comfort for a city in mourning. You'll Never Walk Alone is sung in a variance of circumstances, but football is perhaps not the most important one.

The song found its greatest significance as an expression of solidarity and hope in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. | Photo: EPA/PETER POWELL

But for the ultimate You'll Never Walk Alone, German football fans would take you to Borussia Dortmund. The Yellow Wall – or the Südtribüne as its known natively – is perhaps the only terrace in European football that can challenge Liverpool's Kop in the decibel stakes. And, just like their English counterparts, they sing You'll Never Walk Alone before kick-off at every home fixture.

"For Borussia Dortmund fans 'You'll Never Walk Alone' is an expression of deep loyalty," says Stefan Buczko, a life-long Dortmund supporter. "It's a pledge that fans will go through the toughest times with their club. Dortmund fans are very proud that they haven't abandoned their club, when it was on the brink of bankruptcy, and that they fill their stadium even if the football is terrible and the results are poor."

However, Celtic fans – some of the most vociferous in football – believe their rendition is the best. "It suits the Glasgow voice," explains Paul Brennan of website Celtic Quick News. "Listen to the song at Celtic Park then listen to a great singer giving a rendition during Carousel and it's clear the lone voice cannot capture anything like the emotion of the massed crescendo at Celtic Park."

Technically speaking, You'll Never Walk Alone is unusual in its nature, at least in a footballing context. It may rise to a feverish culmination – like all good football chants – but it is still essentially a show-tune, which in another setting might be better performed with jazz hands. Its adoption in the 1960s was peculiar, given that most football crowds until that point only clapped and cheered, and it remains something of a terrace oddity even to this day. It's certainly not the most obvious of sporting anthems.

At Celtic, Brennan insists, "the melody is more important than the lyrics," which is something of a contrast to the sentiment held by most clubs that have embraced You'll Never Walk Alone. "'The sweet, silver song of a lark' feels like a filler lyric when I sing it, as I'm sure few of us could point to a lark, never mind recognise its song," Brennan says. "The lyrics are also more about coping with adversity, whereas at Celtic Park the song isn't a recognition of adversity, it's about inspiring great performances."

Photo: EPA/ROBERT PERRY

"Repetition is key, I think, and simplicity," explains Mike Diver, a former NME and Kerrang writer now with VICE. He gives the lyrics more prominence: "It's four lines essentially, in terms of what's chanted, and that's easy to pick up after your first game at Anfield, or wherever. Understandable and relatable lyrics, too, that aren't just your crude sporting put-down but something more emotional. And fans are certainly emotional when their team's playing."

Perhaps it's little wonder then that You'll Never Walk Alone has been adopted by so many different clubs and fans around the world. Although some do it better than others, even by their own admission. "To be fair, it's not done properly at Club Brugge. It doesn't have the same effect compared to, like, Liverpool's Kop," admits Club Brugge fan Steven Imschoot. "For me Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes is the best football anthem. Why? Because Club Brugge fans are alleged to have introduced it into football!"

But You'll Never Walk Alone is more than your average chart hit turned football chant. There can't be many children named 'Seven Nation Army,' after all. "Obviously I'm biased, but I believe it's the best anthem in football," says Tomkins.

He doesn't walk alone in that opinion either.

@grahamruthven