The best, worst and strangest walk-on music in English football
From Adagio for Strings to Z-Cars via Blowing Bubbles, jellied eels and 19th-century horn ensembles… plus Sweet Caroline! The best, worst and downright weird music played before games at English football stadiums
- All manner of music is played as the teams take to the field in English football
- Liverpool, West Ham, Leeds and others have famous and much-loved club songs
- Norwich City lay claim to the oldest football anthem still in regular use
- Crystal Palace, Chelsea and others adopted popular chart hits years ago
- Other clubs opt for a blast of high-tempo dance music to get fans in the mood
- Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, the unofficial England song, is popular again
One song, two very different scenes.
A balmy night in July and Wembley resembles the ultimate sporting arena as 60,000 jubilant England fans rejoice in Euro 2020 semi-final victory over Denmark.
Gareth Southgate and his players are doing a lap of honour when the stadium DJ plays Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, the people’s anthem of the summer.
The whole place immediately comes to life, fans singing and swaying with arms outstretched. ‘Reaching out, touching me, touching you…’
Sweet Caroline became the unofficial anthem of England’s run to the Euro 2020 final this year
Neil Diamond pictured on stage in 1964 – his song Sweet Caroline has never been so popular
Fast forward a couple of months and Sweet Caroline is being played in the moments ahead of kick-off at a Championship fixture between Reading and Bristol City.
The crowd at a half-empty Madejski Stadium couldn’t be less interested. The effort to whip up the atmosphere into a frenzy by putting on the nation’s adopted favourite song falls flat.
From ‘good times never seemed so good, so good’ to ‘no good, no good.’
As well as proving there’s a time and a place for everything, it’s a reminder of how intriguing football club’s choices of pre-match music are.
In the Premier League and EFL alone, you have a tremendously varied selection of songs blared out over a PA system in the interests of getting the fans revved up for 90 minutes of football.
Two things are obvious. First, supporters cannot be relied upon, or at least are very rarely relied upon, to build up an atmosphere themselves through singing or chanting. It seems there must be music piped in.
There’s a terrific variety of walk-out music played at stadiums across the English game
Each club will usually have a song that’s special to the club and plays as the teams emerge
Secondly, there’s no perfect formula to fill all that airtime between the turnstiles opening and the moment the ball rolls.
The only rule is that things must reach some kind of crescendo as the players emerge from the tunnel at 2.55, 7.40 or whenever the start time is nowadays.
For quite a few clubs, it’s made a lot easier by having a recognisable club anthem beloved by fans of all ages who expect to belt it out just before kick-off to get the players pumped up.
Who hasn’t been moved by a rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone on a big European night at Anfield? West Ham are Forever Blowing Bubbles, Manchester City have Blue Moon and Leeds United will always be Marching On Together.
Gerry Marsden performs Liverpool’s club anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone at Anfield in 2010
West Ham walk out through the bubbles for their final game at Upton Park back in 2016
Enjoyed for decades, these songs are entwined with the club’s DNA.
Take ‘On The Ball, City’ at Norwich, dating back to the 1890s and reputedly the oldest football song still in use today.
It certainly reflects an age when football as we know it was barely codified: ‘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.’
Other club anthems are wonderfully evocative. Millwall’s Let ‘Em Come not only reflects a defiant club but features the lines: ‘It’s Saturday on Cold Blow Lane/We’ve all come down to cheer/We’ve had our jellied eels/And our glass of beer’ as though rituals haven’t changed for generations.
Brighton’s ‘Sussex by the Sea’ was adopted by the Royal Sussex Regiment during the First World War. ‘Good old Sussex by the Sea!/You may tell them all that we stand or fall/For Sussex by the Sea!’
Leicester City’s Post Horn Galop is one of the more unusual but had been played as the teams ran out at Filbert Street since the 1930s and made the move to the King Power Stadium with the club.
The tune was originally used to herald the arrival of mail coaches doing the 19th century, warning pedestrians of the approaching horse-drawn vehicle.
There would undoubtedly be a furore from fans if any of these clubs even considered changing the pre-match routine. Such a decision would be as toxic as altering the team colours.
It would likely be the same at other clubs who, for one reason or another, have adopted certain chart hits along the way.
Some are just good fits. Crystal Palace walk out to Glad All Over by The Dave Clark Five, which topped the UK hit parade in January 1964, replacing The Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand which had been No 1 for five weeks.
The Dave Clark Five even performed the song live at Selhurst Park in February 1968 and the 1990 Palace vintage recorded a cover version ahead of their FA Cup final against Manchester United.
The Dave Clark Five pictured in 1964, when they released Crystal Palace song Glad All Over
Not that The Beatles are entirely neglected. Brentford fans still sing Hey Jude, supplanting their team’s name after the ‘na na na naaaa’ chorus.
Chelsea’s use of Liquidator, a 1969 ska hit by the Harry J Allstars, also clearly works well and requires audience participation with the synchronised clapping.
Likewise at Wolves and Sheffield Wednesday, where Jeff Beck’s Hi Ho Silver Lining can easily be paused to allow the fans to belt out ‘Wolverhampton’ or ‘Sheffield Wednesday’ at the relevant point.
Football actually has a remarkable ability to keep pretty obscure songs alive. In the same way Sweet Caroline never got higher than No 8 in the UK charts, Beck’s song peaked at No 14.
Both Everton and Watford persist with the theme from 1960s BBC police series Z-Cars, which is one of the stranger ones.
Initially, it was rooted in superstition. Everton first played it at Goodison Park during their title-winning 1962-63 season, around the time the show first aired.
Watford’s manager of the time Bill McGarry decided he wanted his players to walk out to the admittedly catchy jingle and they duly went 29 matches unbeaten at Vicarage Road.
They made an astonishing 801 episodes of Z-Cars but the theme song has been kept alive by football even longer.
The theme song from 1960s series Z-Cars still greets the teams at Everton and Watford
But it’s in the absence of a long-standing club anthem that others can become stuck.
One solution is to search for local relevance. Manchester United turned to This is the One by the Stone Roses, one of the city’s finest musical exports and an opening guitar riff that grabs your attention.
Newcastle use Going Home, the theme of the 1983 film Local Hero performed by Mark Knopfler, raised in Blyth and fan of the club.
Go to Fratton Park and you’ll hear Mike Oldfield’s Portsmouth, or a speeded up version of it, while London Calling by The Clash is an easy cop-out for capital clubs.
This is the One by the Stone Roses is the walk-out song of choice at Manchester United
London Calling by The Clash is heard regularly at football stadiums around the Capital
The other solution seems to be to just blast out some dance bangers to try and inject some energy into the crowd.
Cafe del Mar, Escape, Palladio, Pigbag, Strings for Yasmin and Sandstorm are perennial favourites around the grounds, normally played at ear-splitting volume to disrupt fan conversation and turn focus to the game at hand.
But it’s very hard to get right. Just witness the brilliant scene in the Sunderland ‘Til I Die Netflix documentary when Charlie Methven wants to ditch the Stadium of Light’s long-established Dance of the Knights song with something a bit more upbeat.
‘This is how I would do it if I was a DJ. You’ve got to build people up and get the atmosphere building through a track. We want it to be rocking in there and a little bit mad,’ Methven, very nearly morphing into David Brent, says as he plays Adagio for Strings from his laptop.
He’s very quickly brought back to reality when someone injects: ‘It doesn’t matter what you play unless you get a new PA system.’
The Ibiza set approach can undoubtedly work well for night games when everyone has had a few.
I’ve seen it done really well at Feyenoord’s De Kuip stadium before a Holland International where a DJ remixed various patriotic anthems and had the place bouncing.
Catering for fans with an age range of eight to 80 with even more diverse music tastes is obviously a challenge and you’ll never please everyone.
Ideally there will be a blend on the playlist of recent chart hits, some classics and old club favourites. Better yet, turn it off and let the fans make all the noise.
But if all else fails, there’s always Neil and his Sweet Caroline…
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