The clock is running down; the rain-soaked scoreboard says your team is one goal to the good, and you’re standing with twenty thousand other fans on the brink of victory. Euphoria wells inside as somewhere, a chant rises up, rhythmically pounding across the stadium. Before you know it you are swept up with all around you, bellowing: Oléééé Olé Olé Olé! Oléééé! Olééééé!
That’s how it started. Two syllables repeated ad nauseam to a primitive tune. It’s not aggressive or constructive, it’s just a way of expressing a good mood, a tune to sing when you’re winning: a football chant.
But inevitably, as with everything in football, it evolved, and inevitably there are moments when you ask yourself whether this was a good thing. These days football chants fall into the categories of support or criticism, but within these boundaries one can witness some of the most creative and unexpected linguistic trickery on display in the English language. Charles Dickens may have created Scrooge and defined a season, but would he have seen the subtle implications of the Frank LeBoeuf BEEF! chant? I wonder. To the uninitiated, it involved shouting BEEF BEEF BEEF BEEF until you were bored. Effective and to the point. One can’t help wondering that if Dickens had, Jacob Marley might have stayed dead and we’d all have been done with it.
Stamford Bridge chants vary from week to week. Some are of mysterious origin, involving celery or mowing meadows, and have survived for decades, while others have died before reaching row C, never to be heard again. Perhaps because of this, in 2004 Poet Laureate Andrew Motion and breakfast twat Chris Moyles gave their backing to the spectacularly ill-thought out concept of a Football Chant Laureate. Barclaycard were to sponsor someone to the tune of £10,000 to write chants to “chronicle key events in the football calendar.”
That’s right. A Chant Laureate. A man paid to squeeze apt footballing metaphor into structured verse. “Ooh ah, Cantona, said ooh ah Cantona.” Where’s the metre there, Motion? To think you can influence the football chant is to misunderstand its origins completely. Chants are a good reflection of modern sporting culture precisely because they are chosen by a bellowing mob rather than a single artist. They are the evocation of a communal spirit. If you take away the conditions of their birth you’re not going to get a football chant, you’re going to get a bad poem, and all the lyrical subtlety in the world can be eclipsed by a well-timed “who ate all the pies? you fat bastard!” put-down. Which is why five years later, no one’s heard of the Chant Laureate.
The truth is football chants are subject to natural selection. Fans can sit in the pub and beaver away at inspired pop song rewrites, stand nobly on a Saturday afternoon and set them free over ten thousand heads only to watch impotently as they die a hideous, mangled death. Accordingly, here are some of the more ambitious chants witnessed at Chelsea over recent seasons:
“Duff the magic dragon, plays for Chelsea.” On the surface a good idea, although when you think about it, he wasn’t really a magic dragon, was he? And besides, there was never any more than that line, which kind of left the whole thing hanging.
“Essien Express (to the tune of S. Express) he’ll score a goal for you, da dada, da da ..” This was ambitious – any chant that requires a thousand fans to reach the synchronicity of a techno beat is going to be tough. That said, it might still make it.
“De-CO! Deeee-CO! (to the tune of the Day-O) Deco come and he wanna score goals.” Now this one had a lot of promise. When I first heard it I thought, here we go – a modern classic. And then the singer did a little Calypso dance and put on a goofy Caribbean accent. That’s fine if you’re Jamaican, not so much if you look like Steve Davis.
And most recently Shirley Bassey turned up in the stands, or rather a man who looks and sounds nothing like her, with: “BoooooSinGWAAAAA! He’s the man, the man with the Midas touch! He’s mister… BoooooSinGWAAAAA.” I admire that. I really do.
In the end, the evidence points to the most successful chants not being rewrites of pop lyrics, but simple rehashes of old favourites. “He’s here, he’s there, we’re not allowed to swear: Joey Cole, Joey Cole.” pops up whenever a player expresses disapproval at the crowd using colourful language. Similarly, the Arsenal Emmanuel Petit chant that came over with the Frenchman: “He’s blond, he’s quick, his name’s a porno flick: Emmanuel, Emmanuel.”
It is interesting that football chants shouldn’t respect partisan borders. Clubs can adopt each other’s songs without any feeling of unoriginality or betrayal. Thanks to Gerry and the Pacemakers, You’ll Never Walk Alone is considered a Liverpool anthem, but it’s also sung at Celtic, Hibernian, Feyenoord and FC Twente.
Perhaps the best example of football chant adoption and adaptation came when Eric Cantona moved across the Pennines and the original Leeds Ooh Ah chant went with him. The only change was applied whenever he played against his old club, as it became the taunt: “Où Est Cantona, said Où Est Cantona?” And yes, I know it’s lauding a Man U chant, but it was against Leeds, so that’s ok.