The most wonderful football songs of the year

This piece was published in the matchday programme for the game against Cardiff City on 19 December 2020. The Norwich City programme is really great and it is worth subscribing imho. You can do that here.

We got three points last weekend at Blackburn, but one vital thing was missing. In any other year, a solid away win in December would prompt something special: a rousing rendition of “jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way, oh what fun it is to see Norwich win away”. Its absence is yet another mark against 2020.

Football songs are — by some distance — the best thing about being a football fan. In the same way that smell is the sense that prompts memories more than any other, chants at the football can put you in a specific place, a moment, a feeling. And of all the football songs, Christmas songs can do that best.

Why are these songs so wonderful? I asked an expert: Andrew Lawn, who literally wrote the book on football songs (which you should ask Santa for, if you’ve been a good Norwich fan this year.) “The best football chants are those that perfectly fit their context, be it location, timing, match situation, and festive chanting uses all those things to great effect.”

Lawn’s favourite is the Jingle bells song so depressingly absent from last week’s win at Ewood Park. “In my experience of following Norwich away a lot from 1997–2012 it was incredibly rare to get the chance to sing it, which only made it more special.” It’s so rare, I don’t recall ever being able to sing it (and I’ve seen Norwich play away from home dozens of times.)

For me, it’s not Christmas until we’ve sung ‘The Twelve Days of Darren Huckerby’. A masterpiece of a song which takes a long, long time to work through, with every verse building and bringing in more fans until the final belting, full run through.

The Hucks song is especially meaningful to me. I used it to sing my daughter to sleep when she was a baby. But that’s not why anyone else loves it (obviously.) Lawn highlighted the structure of the song: “It also has a repeating, elongated, crescendo of the “FIVE Huckerbys” that seems to get louder with each repetition. It can make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up. Imagine yourself, arms outstretched, belting out “FIIIVE HUCKERBYYYYYSSSS” and you’re guaranteed to smile. I’m smiling now.” Me too — and thinking about it places me in the last time I remember singing it — Forest away, many years ago now but feeling like# yesterday as I type this.

There’s a wide range of these songs. Every club has their own versions. “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus looked up and he said ‘we hate Ipswich, oh we hate Ipswich!” is a favourite for many, and every club has made it relevant to their own local rivals. “Football fans are like musical magpies”, Lawn told me, “so when a new chant appears, it’s likely going to be picked up by other clubs and adapted for them.

For some fans, it isn’t just singing during the game. There’s a tradition of holding Christmas carols concerts at Union Berlin in Germany. Thousands of fans — many in Santa outfits, gather in their usual spots for some communal singing of the usual favourites. It started to spread to other clubs — Tranmere Rovers held a concert at their ground last year — but Covid has put a stop to it, for now.

The players can get in on the festive act too. Chris Kamara has his own album of traditional Christmas songs out (and it’s really good, Jeff). Teams often have Christmas outings, with karaoke in the mix. In his footballing memoir, Ben Smith recounts that in his time as a trainee at Arsenal, the youngsters were made to sing a Christmas carol to the first team players. A young Ray Parlour took his life into his hands by singing “Little Donkey” to Tony Adams. Brave.

My last question for Lawn was a controversial one: when can Christmas start on the terraces? The town centre lights go up earlier every year but does that mean it’s okay for the songs to start early too? “It’s a personal preference but to me November is too soon and January 2nd marks the start of that miserable post-Christmas, grey days period that is too bleak to deserve the joy of festive chanting (and twinkling lights).”

We are bang in the middle of the window. If you are reading this before the match you know what you need to do. Today is the day. There’s enough of you in the South Stand to be heard on the radio. Don’t let us down…. All together now: “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me….”

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“We Lose Every Week: The History of Football Chanting” by Andrew Lawn is published by Ockley Books. He’s one of our own, he’s one of our own, Andrew Lawn — he’s one of our own. His book is available everywhere but buy it from your local independent book shop if you can.