“On the Ball, City”

Football fans have a proud tradition of chanting at football matches. These chants can be supportive or critical of their team, critical of the opposition, hostile, crude, humorous and on occasion seemingly pointless.

But why do we chant at football? Where did it start and how did we reach a point where football is considered an arena in which almost anything can be shouted, resulting in various obscene chants hitting the headlines on a regular basis?

Academic studies on football chants have compared them to a modern version of storytelling and folk music, with the influential folk musician Martin Carthy going as far as to label them “the one surviving embodiment of an organic living folk tradition”, noting the content of the songs and their communal singing. Carthy states the similarities between the two: “a network of songs which evolved out of existing songs, sung by the people, adapted to meet the specific needs of a geographical identity and seemingly created by spontaneous combustion, the unheralded originators remaining anonymous.”

This aspect of being ‘by the people and for the people’, found a perfect match in football. Football chanting as we know it has remarkably classical origins with Norwich City’s “On the Ball, City” composed in the 1890s and originally sung with full piano accompaniment, the oldest still sung today. Some claim that “He Banged the Leather for Goal”, written in honour of the Wolves striker Billy Malpass by Edward Elgar predates “On the Ball, City” but it has, anyway, fallen into disuse. Often credited to Albert T Smith, who would go on to become a director of the club, “On the Ball, City” predates the football club with which it is now synonymous, which was formed in 1902.

“On the Ball, City” was originally written for a local works team, but in the same way modern fans take tunes and inspiration from popular culture, Norwich fans adopted the song as their own and 120 years later it still rings out around Carrow Road. Unsurprisingly, given its 19th century conception, “On the Ball, City” sounds like no other chant you’re likely to hear on the terraces elsewhere. Initially featuring two verses and a chorus, the song features none of the tub-thumping one-upmanship which characterises many modern chants and instead focuses fully on the club: 

Kick it off, throw it in, have a little scrimmage, 

Keep it low, a splendid rush, bravo, win or die;

On the ball, City, never mind the danger, 

Steady on, now’s your chance, 

Hurrah, we’ve scored a goal!

City, City, City.

Once Norwich joined the Football League in 1920, “On the Ball, City” was exposed to fans across England and led to other jovial, club or location specific chants springing up, notably, “Play up, Pompey, / Pompey play up,” sung as the bells chime at Portsmouth’s Fratton Park, “Blaydon Races” at Newcastle and “Glory, Glory, Tottenham Hotspur” at White Hart Lane.

Early football chants were harmless and cheerfully parochial. It would be Cilla Black and the Beatles who would spark a change 40 years later.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone”

The parochial joviality of the pre-war football chant began to shift towards the more antagonistic ditties of today at the same time as pop music began to dominate the UK Top 40.

Nowhere were these shifts more pronounced than in Liverpool and it is no coincidence that the rise of one gave birth to the other. With an estimated 350 bands in the city at the beginning of the 1960s, the banks of the Mersey were fertile grounds from which a phenomenon that would dominate English popular culture for the next 50 years would grow.

As local acts, Cilla Black, Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Beatles leapt to the top of the charts, Liverpool’s Kop picked up their nationally known tunes as a transferable vehicle for expressing local pride.

As the sports historians Andrew Ward and John Williams noted, “the Kop was always a noisy place. People shouted and roared, and there was banter and bad language. In the early sixties however, the noise changed. The Kop began to sing, and singing made the fans feel good. The Anfield Kop covered a succession of Beatles songs soon after they appeared. They sang the whole of Cilla Black’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and adopted a new local anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, a song from the musical Carousel, covered by Gerry and the Pacemakers.

Originally written as a show tune for the 1945 musical Carousel, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was sung to comfort the widow of Billy Bigelow, who had killed himself to avoid capture after a failed robbery. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” caught the imagination of the Kop, remaining associated with the club to this day.

Such is the affinity between the club and Liverpool, the title featured on the club’s crest and atop the famed Shankly Gates at Anfield. Shankly, for his part, would later pick the song as his final selection for BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs broadcast on the eve of the 1965 FA Cup Final win over Leeds.

Like Norwich’s “On the Ball, City” before it, the full version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is much longer than the now famous chorus, although the full lyrics continue to be sung prior to Liverpool home matches.

With its message of solidarity, support and loyalty, the chant not only caught on with fans at Liverpool, but has also been adopted by Celtic in Scotland – there are those who claim Celtic sang it first – and has a large following on the continent with fans of Borussia Dortmund, Mainz, Hoffenheim, St Pauli and Kaiserslautern in Germany and Feyenoord, Twente and Cambuur in the Netherlands all routinely belting out their own renditions.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone” also captured another moment in the evolution of football fandom in Britain. Through their pop renditions the Kop became the focal point of chanting at Liverpool and with it began the culture of ‘home ends’ that would go on to shape both future chants and the game itself.

“Those were the days, my friend…”

As the Kop grew in volume, its reputation spread across British football, hastened by a new breed of younger fan who began to follow their clubs home and away, aided by the introduction of cheaper transport via British Rail’s ‘Football Special’ trains. 

The rise of the Kop coincided with two League Championships for Liverpool and, naturally enough, it was mimicked. Vocal fans of clubs across Britain began to congregate in one area with local versions of the Kop, also known as ‘ends’, appearing across the country.

Four years after Gerry and the Pacemakers released “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, the creation of dedicated ends had spawned a new wave of hooliganism as away fans saw the home end as a prize to take with violence. Within ends, hooligan firms began to take hold and new identities were forged.

As hooligan firms took over and the quest to take ends became as important as on-field success, the main inspiration for chants switched from pop music to aggression. As a result chants began to draw on memories of violent skirmishes in faraway places, such as this from Everton:

Those were the days my friend, 

We took the Stretford End, 

We took the Shed, 

The North Bank Highbury, 

We took the Geordies too, 

We fight for Everton, 

We are the Street of Everton FC. 

La, la, la, la, lala, la la la, la, lala…

Where “You’ll Never Walk Alone” referenced the positive success of a proud son of the city and spoke of loyalty through dark times, “Those Were the Days” fondly recalls away games, not for on-field success, but for violence. Outright abuse and needless cruelty had become staple ingredients, and the height of wit now was to rip off old chants with violent equivalents, highlighted in the conversion of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” into the rather more ominous “You’ll Never Walk Again”.

This change took place during games as well, with fans of clubs from rural areas such as East Anglia or the West Country beginning a game by being mocked with “You’re going home in a combine harvester”, transformed into “You’re going home in a fucking ambulance” as the mood darkened and violence flared.

“Those Were the Days” is also notable in that the key identity expressed is that not of wholly of Everton, as the earlier parochial chants of “On the Ball, City”, “Glory, Glory Tottenham Hotspur” or “Play up, Pompey” had been about Norwich City, Tottenham Hotspur and Portsmouth respectively, but of Everton’s hooligan firm The Street.

The shift was complete. Fans now saw themselves as a group in their own right and chanting was one weapon in their armoury with which to hurt opposition fans. Chants were therefore no longer just about celebrating the identity of a place, but a masculine quest for status and social recognition.

An arms race of abuse had begun.

“Who’s that Lying on the Runway?”

As outright hate replaced Top of the Pops as the main motivation for chanting, chants became even darker, foregrounding violence, death and disaster, rather than on-field success. Just as the best of chanting began on Liverpool’s Kop, the worst of it originated there too; born in a burgeoning rivalry with Manchester United.

The two most successful English clubs, domestically and in Europe, Liverpool and Manchester United share a rivalry which runs deeper than football and takes in two fiercely proud cities. It began in the Industrial Revolution as the two cities competed for economic prosperity and grew as the red footballing halves of both cities competed for supremacy at the top of English football, leading to a rivalry Sir Alex Ferguson described as “unparalleled”.

The journalist Brian Reade summed up how unfriendly things had become when the two sides met for an FA Cup semi-final in 1985 saying, “There were re-enactments of medieval pitched battles in the streets, a Stanley knife exhibition in Stanley Park and, on the terraces, the kind of tribal exchanges you see in Gaza on a bad day.”

These exchanges included one of the most infamous chants in English football, which rather than celebrating their glorious on-field pasts and well-stocked trophy cabinets, concerns a human disaster which had taken place in 1958: the Munich Air Crash. “Who’s that lying on the runway? Who’s that dying in the snow?” it began, before referring to Busby and his side stricken on the airfield.

A fierce rivalry was becoming marked with hatred and the rise of the Munich chant nearly two decades after the disaster highlights just how hateful it had become. Just over a month after that FA Cup tie, Liverpool themselves were involved in a tragedy as 39 fans died at Heysel at the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus. Liverpool fans were widely blamed for the deaths. United fans saw Heysel as a chance for revenge for the Munich chant and marked what happened with chants of their own including “39 Italians Can’t be Wrong” and “Murderers“.

After the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans at Hillsborough four years later, United fans again used references to the disaster to chant abuse at Liverpool, which in turn helped some Liverpool fans legitimise their own continued referencing of the Munich Air Crash. As late as 2011 a youth-team match between the two clubs was disrupted by chants about Munich and Hillsborough.

“There ain’t no black in the Union Jack”

As fans began to use the tragedies as tools to abuse rival fans, the hate for players, both rival and otherwise, was more personal. Racism and homophobia, fuelled by a surge of extreme right-wing supporter groups, became commonplace on the terraces. As early as 1968 author Arthur Hopcroft noted that chants such as “Ey-ay-addio the Goalie is a Queer” and “Where’s Your Handbag?” occurred at every league game, at every ground in the UK.

Racist abuse peaked on the terraces in the 1980s. Fifteen years after the 1965 Race Relations Act, footballers were routinely subjected to monkey chants. When Paul Canoville became the first black player to play for Chelsea in 1980, his own fans used the N-word to tell him he was not welcome. As late as 1988, the black Liverpool player and England international John Barnes was photographed nonchalantly back-heeling away a banana that had been hurled at him.

One such chant which began life on the terraces, but whose reach extended outside of the football grounds in the early 1980s runs, 

There ain’t no black in the Union Jack, 

Send those n*****s back, 

If you’re white you’re alright, 

If you’re black, send ‘em back.

Such was the chant’s popularity and reach that the UK’s national flag is now seen by some as an overtly racist symbol, with the majority of England fans shying away from it in favour of the cross of St George.

While overt racism has been on the decline in part thanks to new measures to make it illegal, less obvious examples of racism and xenophobia remain common. As recently as November 2014, England fans were being asked to refrain from singing “No Surrender to the IRA” 17 years after the Northern Ireland Good Friday Peace Agreement.

Homophobic chants also remain sadly commonplace, particularly in games involving Brighton and Hove Albion. In April 2013, The Brighton and Hove Supporters Club and the Gay Football Supporters’ Network collated a dossier of abuse which they submitted to the FA and the Football League, noting they had already spent more than 15 years trying to get the authorities to take the abuse seriously.

The dossier recorded homophobic specific chants by 72% of opposition fans over the course of the 2012-13 season, including: “Town Full of Faggots”, “We can see you Holding Hands”, “We Always Shag Girls,” “What’s it Like to Suck a Cock?” and “You’re Queer and you Know you are.”

The dossier helped shine a spotlight on homophobia in football, helping to kick off a campaign for homophobic abuse to be given the same legal classification as racist abuse. But it would take a single chant, sung in December 2008, to bring the two themes of racism and homophobia together and break enough societal taboos to spark a noticeable sea-change in the attitude towards football chanting from fans and the majority alike.

“Sol, Sol, wherever you may be”

If one chant sums up the depths of hatred fans were able to express through the medium of chants it was that aimed at Sol Campbell by Tottenham Hotspur fans during their meeting with Portsmouth at Fratton Park in December 2008. A firm favourite after coming through the ranks, Campbell incurred the wrath of the Spurs fans who used to adore him, by leaving on a free transfer for their arch-rivals Arsenal in 2006. 

On his return to White Hart Lane with Arsenal, Campbell expected some stick but was surprised by the level of hatred he encountered, including 4,000 white balloons and countless cards and flags emblazoned with the word “Judas” in blue. Among the fans releasing the balloons and holding the cards, Campbell saw his brother.

If that was a surprise, the level of abuse which Campbell continued to receive even after leaving Arsenal for Portsmouth proved truly shocking. When Campbell next faced Spurs, he was met with a chant to the tune of “Lord of the Dance”, for which four people were arrested and later banned from attending any football match for three years (seven others had bans overturned on appeal).

Sol, Sol, wherever you may be, 

Not long now until lunacy, 

We won’t give a fuck if you’re hanging from a tree, 

You’re a Judas cunt with HIV.

The official reason for the arrests was that the chant was homophobic, but in truth it could have been for any number of offensive elements. Taking each in turn, the chant first abuses Campbell for perceived mental health issues referencing a match between Arsenal and West Ham in 2006 in which Campbell asked to be substituted at half-time and left the stadium. Teammates admitted he had “worries” in his private life, which were interpreted by some to mean he was gay.

The third line continues the mental health theme, but as well as suicide, also references both Campbell’s race and alleged homosexuality, recalling the only professional footballer in England to have come out as gay, Justin Fashanu, who like Campbell was black, and who took his own life by hanging. The image simultaneously conjures a suggestion of lynchings. After a brief deviation to again label Campbell a ‘Judas’, the chant returns to homophobia with the reference to HIV, a disease Campbell doesn’t have but which disproportionately afflicted homosexual men in the eighties.

The Campbell chant was widely seen as a watershed moment. Campbell himself called it a “human rights situation” while it sparked a crackdown on abusive chanting, from both fans themselves and the authorities.

The season after the chant, banning orders in English football shot up 15% from the previous season to 3,391. 

“Your teeth are offside”

Widespread revulsion at the treatment Sol Campbell received has not eradicated abuse but at least led to it being toned down, without losing the competitive ridicule and subsequent humour. Humour, like identity and rivalry, is a key ingredient of football chanting, particularly in England. As the social commentator AA Gill wrote, “Jokes are the English social currency, English women regularly report that a sense of humour is their first requirement in a mate [and] making mates and strangers laugh has a higher status in England than it does in almost any other country. Having a laugh isn’t just a national cultural affinity, it’s a large part of the behaviour and motivation of young English blokes. Football terraces are really, really funny and really, really horrible, both at the same time. It’s the volume and the power, the huge wattage of anger, sharpened with malevolent wit.”

However the use of humour, by its very nature, can lead to its audience being offended. Gill himself defines humour as “the sound of the bullies”. Lots of football chants are indeed deliberately offensive in order to further foster the ‘us v them’ mentality, meaning chants are often exaggerated insults.

Take a chant which began at Manchester United and spread across fans of Premier League clubs during the 2013-14 season, aimed at Liverpool striker Luis Suárez. Banned for racially abusing Patrice Evra, and for biting Branislav Ivanović, Suárez was instead picked on for his appearance and performance with, 

Your teeth are offside, 

Your teeth are offside, 

Oh Luis Suárez, 

Your teeth are offside.

The chant picks on someone with power and wealth, in an original and ridiculous but still potentially offensive way, although for offensiveness it’s not in the same league as the chant which Spurs fans greeted Campbell, or those United and Liverpool previously indulged in about Munich, Heysel and Hillsborough.

The chant spread across Premier League grounds as the season went on. It was also well-received in Europe and cited as an example of chanting and English humour at its best, with L’Équipe quoting the song and noting, “You can say what you like about England, there is a real football culture. And in the stands, humour inspired by Monty Python, silly, wicked and so funny.”

The French broadcaster RMC picked up on the key roles played by humour and offence in football chanting, with their piece on the game, declaring that the invention of the chant made Manchester United fans their winner in the battle of the terraces.

Whether the chant is offensive or not is open to debate and subject to a myriad of contextual factors. The linguistics expert Barry Blake sums up the difficulties of classifying something as being either funny or offensive when he says, “humour is universal, although what strikes some people as funny will not strike others in the same way.”

Chants can be offensive, they can be funny and they can also be funny and offensive. Sometimes they can also be inexplicably meaningless and quite frankly brilliant.

The Wheelbarrow Song

The evolution of football chanting from show-tune through hate-fuelled abuse and good-natured ridicule ignores one final aspect of chanting which has sustained chanting as a social phenomenon, helping to bind fans to their clubs and each other: chanting for the sake of chanting.

While the chants citing incidents with intrinsic shock value – death, abuse or taboo subjects – make the headlines and give football chanting a bad name, this doesn’t tell the full story.

Chanting is a way of expressing pride or worshipping something you are proud to identify with, in the same way that the sociologist Émile Durkheim described aboriginal clans coming together to worship the totem. Within these ritualistic celebrations, the aborigines experienced the social existence of their clan viscerally. The aborigines’ emotions were focussed on the totem of the clan and, since the totem represented the clan, the aborigines were worshipping their own society. 

Notts County’s “Wheelbarrow Song” is a perfect example of this and sums up all that is good about football chanting. To the tune of football chant regular “On Top of Old Smoky”, it is simply:

I had a wheelbarrow, 

The wheel fell off.

I had a wheelbarrow, 

The wheel fell off. 

County, County, County.

Why then is this the perfect football chant?

First, its origins are disputed, rooted in folklore and the memories of famous comebacks or misfortune depending who you believe.

Secondly, it’s simple and inclusive. It uses no divisive language or themes, but it brings a community together, finishing with a rousing rendition of “County, County, County.”

Thirdly, it is self-deprecating; the inference being that as a club they are so unfortunate that even their wheelbarrow is broken.

Finally, it is completely irrelevant. It has nothing to do with football, until the final reference to County, and is all the stronger for it.

The sole point of the song is the singing of the song itself. It expresses no particular support, derision, masculinity or geographical relevance and yet perfectly encapsulates what it is to be a football fan: you get a new wheelbarrow, bundled up in it are ideas of potential, excitement and achievement, then just as everything looks good, the wheel falls off, the promise remains unfilled, the excitement turns to abject disappointment. Yet, despite all that, we still love the wheelbarrow. We’ll get a new wheel, it’ll be as good as new. We believe again.

That is not to say that football chanting and those who engage in it should be given carte blanche to sing whatever they want, and the continued crackdown of abuse which draws on prejudice should be wholeheartedly supported.

It is by no means all bad, however, and any group of people who can sing publicly about their broken wheelbarrow or, as Norwich City did, having relegation confirmed with a 2-0 home defeat and responding to away fans’ taunts with, 

We lose every week, 

We lose every week.

You’re nothing special –

We lose every week

is worth saluting.