Football has had a long and complex relationship with music – whether making (usually unwelcome) assaults on the pop charts, or lifting the melodies of hymns and pop songs alike to turn into (usually obscene) terrace chants.
But there are also plenty of instances where a song, or a piece of classical music, manages to take on an indelible association with the sport courtesy of its use on TV/radio coverage or inside stadia – and without even having first had its lyrics changed by chanting fans. These are pieces that ultimately end up becoming – I’d argue – known for their association with football first and foremost, no matter what their origins or original intent. Here are my picks for the five most notable examples:
5. Out of the Blue
The music that has been the sound of early Saturday evening for countless millions of football fans over the last sixty-odd years only became so as one of those chance, last-minute snap decisions. BBC radio producer Angus Mackay and his assistant Hugh Driver had listened to “countless dozens of tunes” in an attempt to find a theme-tune for their new programme Sports Report, when – with barely an hour to spare before the first edition was due to go on air – they hit upon this 1931 composition by Hubert Bath, and “grabbed the disc from the turntable and careered back up the stairs with it”.
History was made, and bar the odd occasional substitution – which would invariably attract a deluge of complaints – it’s heralded the lead-in to “but first, a check on the classified football results” ever since.
4. You’ll Never Walk Alone
Here’s a confession: I’m a Liverpool fan who doesn’t actually like “You’ll Never Walk Alone” that much. I know. Don’t tell anyone. But it’s difficult to escape the association, and it’s surely undeniable that the majority of people know the song more as a terrace anthem – by way of Gerry and the Pacemakers’ 1963 recording – than as a showtune from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel.
There are other songs that this is true for, of course – we could fill this list twice over with such examples – but I’ve gone with the most famous, particularly as it’s sung by fans of other clubs (most notably Celtic) as well.
3. Zadok the Priest
Okay, I know I said we weren’t counting instances where songs had had their lyrics changed to fit football – otherwise we’d be here all day with Que Sera Seras and Cheer Up Peter Reids. But we’ll make an exception for this one, because of the sheer audacity of UEFA managing to take a two-hundred and fifty year-old coronation anthem, slap on some tremendously banal lyrics in an assortment of languages (sample: “These are the best teams / They are the very best teams / The main event”) and use it to make you think about Continental tyres and Mastercard.
The main amusement I get out of “the UEFA Champions League Anthem” (seriously, that’s the official name of the Tony Britten-penned version) is that in the very last line, it always sounds to me like they’re singing “We’ll probably be… the champions!”
2. The Life of Riley
There are those who will tell you that the “What’s the correct music for Goal of the Month?” question is a generational one. Balls. There is only one correct answer, and that answer is “The Life of Riley”.
It’s so irrevocably associated with early Premier League-era Match of the Day that the Lightning Seeds’ own official Youtube channel hosts the above video rather than the actual original single promo. Although bizarrely, almost all of the footage in it dates from before the single’s 1992 release, so basically none of it is actually footage that the song would have ever underscored on MOTD. Rights, there.
1. Nessun Dorma
“Nessun dorma”, from Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot is possibly the most famous tenor aria of all time, written by perhaps the most important opera composer who ever lived. Luciano Pavarotti, meanwhile, has a serious claim to being the most famous and renowned tenor of the modern era.
Yet try listening to the latter’s 1972 recording of the former without immediately picturing a ball looping over Peter Shilton’s head, Stuart Pearce crouching down with a towel around his neck, and – of course – Paul Gascoigne’s blubbering face. You can’t, can you?