Football love letters: The incredible science behind iconic stadium songs

Enrique Seemann

It’s that hair-raising feeling of hearing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” if you’re a Liverpool supporter, or listening to chants of “Glory, glory Man Uniiiiiiii-ted” if you identify as a Red Devil.

It’s the goosebumps you feel on your skin when Manchester City fans sing “Blue Moon”, or the immediate need to join in with Tottenham fans singing “Oh when the Spurs…”

Football chants are so powerful in that, within a matter of seconds, they are able to unite hundreds of thousands of people all over the world in a shared, passionate experience.

Matchday anthems are quite literally love letters sung by supporters to their team, the devotion they hold for their club proven by the vigorous decibel levels of each song.

It only takes one voice, and then one another. Suddenly, the whole stadium has transformed into a gargantuan choir, serenading their beloveds on the pitch and motivating them.

“Chants offer the fans the opportunity to step up from the usual role of passive audience to being a member of the chorus line,” says Frank Monaghan, senior lecturer at the Department of Applied Linguistics at the Open University.

“Hymns and prayers in a church or songs and chants on the terraces perform the same function. They bring people together in acts of worship and transcendence. ‘Football is our religion, Anfield is our church’ as one [Liverpool] banner says.”

Liverpool fans 2018

Liverpool, the birthplace of The Beatles, is a city that has an identity deeply linked with music.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone”, penned by Rodgers & Hammerstein for the musical Carousel but made famous by Merseybeat band Gerry & the Pacemakers, is Liverpool’s signature anthem and is the emotional core of the club. It has been played prior to kick-off at Anfield since 1963 and holds a reputation for being of the most memorable anthems in sport.

Liverpool fans not only sing it themselves as a means to motivate each other, and the team, but “YNWA” also acts as a mantra and a psalm for identifying Reds.

The title of the song implies reassurance that you are not alone in the fight. The lyrics offer reassurance and comfort in times of struggle and need, the meaning fortified by hundreds and thousands of fans singing it at once.

“It is the perfect Liverpool anthem because it chimes so well with the city and its people. It’s an emotional heart-wringer of a tune that builds up to a rousing release of a climax matched only, perhaps, by a goal in the Kop end,” explains Monaghan.

“Liverpool is essentially a Celtic city with particularly strong connections to Ireland and Wales, and these are people who famously like to sing, and so do Scousers. It’s important to remember that the is initially sung by someone comforting a woman whose husband has just died and it gives her the strength to go on.

“Heavy stuff, but in the context of football it fits very well with the fans acting as a chorus to the leads on the pitch battling through adversity, and equally to their own battling through the many trials and tribulations they have faced individually in their own lives and together as a city, from the dockers’ strike to Hillsborough and its aftermath.

“Significantly, it promises you sunshine after the storm and that you won’t go through it alone. Great songs have always played this role in our culture and this just happens to be one of the best.”

These anthems also act as connective tissue for football fans to identify with each other away from the game - no matter where you’re from, no matter what language you speak, no matter where you live.

“What’s happening here is elective affinity,” explains Monaghan. “It’s the recognition and assertion of an identity you choose over one that is assumed as given.

“By singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone,’ fans are aligning themselves with a Scouse identity. Just as converts make the most fundamental followers of a religion, so can adopting a football club you were not born into by virtue of geographical accident. Sometimes in life, you can choose your family.”

There’s also the idea of chanting having a positive influence on the players - contributing to the thinking that a team has an advantage playing at their home stadium.

Liverpool fans Frank Monaghan

“Certainly lots of players have said the lift they receive from hearing the songs,” Monaghan says.

“When you see Jurgen Klopp urging the fans to get behind the team and make noise, you have to believe he knows what he’s doing.

“But it is reciprocal. When the team are not playing well, Anfield can fall nervously silent and when they are playing brilliantly it erupts. These are synergies, the one impelling the other, lifting and being held as the match ebbs and flows, rising and falling like the melody of a song.”

However, just as chants possess a spiritual, metaphysical, and sacred power, they also have the capacity for supporters to band together and spout rhetoric that is dangerous and harmful. Language is so powerful in that at its best, it will unify - but this sort of unity can also have a negative impact on wider society.

Not all football chants are constructive. Some chants are harmful and reflect the darker side of football. Some contain derogatory lyrics and hurtful language - with verses that are homophobic, racist or xenophobic.

Club anthems encapsulate the mood and mindset of the fanbase. And so when portions of clubs sing discriminatory anthems, their bigoted thinking is unfairly undertaken by the rest of the fanbase.

“Whenever fans sing in unison, they are constructing a group identity, both for themselves but also for those listening,” says Dr Kieran File, associate professor at the Department of Applied Linguistics at University of Warwick.

“Part of the power of group song and chanting is that it implies that the words, beliefs and values signalled in the lyrics have been accepted by the group as representative characteristics of their identity.

“Sadly, in some situations, the group may indicate an acceptanbe of a discriminatory attitude or belief.”

Racist and bigoted chants have long diseased football. Inter striker Romelu Lukaku has been targeted by racist abuse in Serie A, while England players were subjected to racist chanting by Bulgaria fans during the Euro 2020 qualification stages. These are not isolated incidents either.

Is there a danger that, through chanting harmful rhetoric - and perhaps with the fans not realising its true connotations - discriminatory thoughts can be normalised into culture through fan chants?

“I feel societal issues of racism and homophobia are far more deeply rooted than simply football fan chants,” counters Thomas Worlledge, a linguistics graduate of the University of Warwick.

“Stopping fans from performing certain chants would probably reduce overt discrimination, but certainly would not solve the issue at a societal level.”

But while discriminatory football chants and bigoted mindsets in society might not be mutually exclusive, it’s quite possible that certain supporters, without truly understanding the true meaning of what they are singing, unintentionally spread hate with the anthems.

The nature of being in an emotionally charged atmosphere of a football ground might tempt fans to use harmful language with the intention of taunting the opposition.

“Football fan behaviour could arguably be seen as ritualistic and often unacceptable in any other sector of life,” adds Worlledge.

“I don’t think football fan chants impact societal views, but the environment of a football match arguably provides the avenues to magnify and directly communicate these underlying societal perspectives on issues such as racism, homophobia, and sexism which would perhaps be more covert in daily life.”

Even when chanting is well-intentioned, it can end up just being hurtful.

Tottenham supporters are unofficially known as the “Yid Army”, owing to the club stadium being located next to Stamford Hill in London, home to a large Haredi Jewish community.

Following World War I, it was an area frequently targeted by Mosley’s Blackshirts - a former British fascist political party - who would march through the neighbourhood chanting: “The Yids, the Yids, we gotta get rid of the Yids”.

Tottenham supporters

“Yid” is a derogatory term describing a Jewish person and is considered a slur. But the Tottenham fans in the stadium would confront the anti-Semitism by reclaiming the word, proudly chanting “We are the Yid Army”.

“When certain teams would do the gas chamber noises on the terraces and make hooked nose gestures and call us Yids, the supporters took it from there,” says Flav Bateman, a Spurs fan who produces the Tottenham podcast Fighting Cock.

“They re-appropriated it. They took the name and branded themselves with pride as the Yid Army. But now, over time, it’s become controversial because there are issues with us reclaiming a word that never truly belonged to us in the first place.”

Tottenham’s relationship with the “Y-word” has long been strained.

While some supporters still feel that it is important to sing it to counter the anti-Semitism, portions of the fanbase agree that it is a hate word and should not be sung at the ground, or even referred to anymore.

Over time, the chant was misconstrued as Tottenham fans being anti-Semitic to the Jewish community. In 2014, three Tottenham fans were arrested for chanting the Y-word, with the charges later dropped.

“Spurs fans often tweet me, forcefully, to say that historically the chant was a response to antisemitic abuse levelled at them. That's as may be; but truly, it doesn't matter who started it,” British comedian David Baddiel wrote in 2013.

“The fact is that whatever its origins, their continuing use of the Y-word legitimises and sustains the racist abuse aimed at Spurs by other fans.”

“Obviously, how you use the word is so important,” says Bateman. “There are some who feel uncomfortable about it. You have to be respectful of people’s views and I would never dismiss the impact that this word might have.

“If we stopped singing it, and if it means less people would be hurt, I wouldn’t mind.”

With the discourse around whether or not it is okay for Tottenham fans singing the Y-word still continuing, it is the main issue that is often forgotten: the reason why they were even chanting it in the first place.

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“The proudest I’ve been is when we stood up for a segment of our society that was being targeted, but maybe now is the time to leave it,” admits Bateman.

Tottenham fans’ willingness to give up a popular club anthem initially sung to support a marginalised section of their fan base is emblematic of the unifying magic of football chants.

The songs sung on matchday don't just serve the purpose of making each individual football fan feel closer to their adopted spiritual home. It can also bring them closer to one another.