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10 Wonders of Matchday: Chants of a Lifetime

Nick Catley looks at what makes going to football special


We don’t get many other opportunities to sing, really. Not many of us go to church these days, and karaoke is generally only attempted as the alcohol-soaked prelude to an extremely unwise kebab. But we sing at football. And it’s great.

We sing, I think, for lots of reasons. It emphasises our loyalty, as if the fact we have rearranged our weekend around a 12:15 Sunday kick-off in Burnley (or even, frankly, around getting to Vicarage Road every other weekend in preference to all the possible alternatives) doesn’t offer a subtle hint.

It also enhances the bond between us – so much of the attraction of football, I suspect, is about belonging. We follow the same team, we go to the same places – and we sing the same songs.

It allows us to comment on the game as it progresses. Individual shouts get lost in the general hubbub when the attendance is in the tens of thousands, but a chant can make itself heard, whether it’s about a player that’s doing well, a shocking referee, an incompetent opposition or even the silence of the other set of fans – essentially, a modern-day Greek chorus. Interestingly, I haven’t found this aspect on visits to watch matches abroad – there’s sometimes been a constant noise level which you only get occasionally at Watford matches, but never that kind of continual commentary.

Applying Occam’s razor, though, probably the most important explanation is the simplest. Singing is fun. Not ‘FUN’ in the sense of, say, a slightly ominous work family day involving a bouncy castle and face paints, but a genuine source of pleasure and joy. One of football’s roles is as catharsis for the week’s multiple frustrations, and what better way to achieve that than singing a country song about Étienne Capoue (one which, incidentally, had to change six times for new managers, not including caretakers, in his time at Watford)?

You’ll notice I picked a chant about a player who’s no longer at Vicarage Road, and this is a reflection both of the fact that fans spent a long time absent from grounds, and our recent high player turnover. The process of starting chants is mysterious – like a fire, there are many sparks, but only occasionally do they take hold and spread – but it seems they usually evolve, rather than having a single origin. New chants haven’t had the opportunity to establish themselves in that time and consequently we don’t have many go-to player songs, with the lack of an obvious favourite to laud Ismaïla Sarr the most obvious omission. It will be fascinating to see how they develop given a virtually blank canvas, much like the Earth after the asteroid strike that wiped out the dinosaurs.

There’s one other type of song, though. The one that’s not obviously related to the team at all, but that signifies delight in victory, defiance in defeat, and undying loyalty. It’s the one that, at its best, will get everyone involved, even those in the side stands, achieving that miraculous state where 10,000 dreadful singing voices become one glorious one. The Lord’s Prayer of following a club. West Ham have I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, Birmingham have Keep Right On, Bristol Rovers have Goodnight Irene, Sunderland have Wise Men Say, and we… don’t have one, and I’d really love it if we did.

This isn’t an uncommon opinion – the 1881, who have done such a brilliant job in improving the atmosphere at Watford in the Pozzo era, have been trying to instigate such an anthem for a while. But as with the other chants, it seems you can’t just introduce them – they have to emerge from the wild. Evidence from other clubs suggests it can’t be anything too recent, and should be something people will have heard. It also needs to have a fairly simple tune.

So I’m going to make a recommendation, in the full knowledge that it has precisely no chance of being taken up – but I’d kick myself if I didn’t try. Lean on Me by Bill Withers is, to me, the perfect expression of how we unite as fans, how we know that while supporting a team like Watford will always have its ups and downs, that’s part of the deal, how we use football as a crutch in difficult times, and how, conversely, the team takes inspiration from us. One verse, the chorus, then repeat as many times as you like. I can even almost hear someone with a voice much louder and more authoritative than mine shouting ‘SOME’ to start it, and others joining in during ‘times in our lives’. So – altogether now:

Sometimes in our lives

We all have pain

We all have sorrow…

But if we are wise

We know that there’s always tomorrow

Lean on me

When you’re not strong

And I’ll be your friend

I’ll help you carry on…

For it won’t be long

Till I’m gonna need

Somebody to lean on

I’d sing that.