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Who are ya? United and the history of football chants

Manchester United fans, like fans of football clubs across the UK, and indeed the world, have a proud tradition of chanting. These chants are hugely diverse and can be; supportive, critical, hostile, crude, humorous, and on occasion seemingly pointless. They contain within them words, ideas or themes that could be deemed offensive. Why do we do it and what do our chants tell us about ourselves as individuals and as a society as a whole?

In essence football fans chant in support of their team. Fans of all clubs know that being a football fan is not (all) about winning, it’s about coming together over a common bond; be it geographical, historical or cultural. Chants are the embodiment of this, by singing together, individuals within a crowd become one voice and by extension, one entity.

Not all football chants are a positive expression of identity however, because whilst accentuating similarities within a community can create a collective identity, that identity issustained by an opposition to a different ‘other’.

This doesn’t only happen between supporters of different clubs, but can also happen between supporters of the same club, as it did at Manchester United last season. After over 25 years of unprecedented success under Sir Alex Ferguson, United endured, by their standards, a difficult season in 2013-14 under the newly appointed ‘Chosen One’ David Moyes. Following a 3-0 home defeat to Liverpool, sections of the United fans’ singing increased rather than subsided or, as it had begun to in other areas of the crowd, turn nasty. The increased singing came from fans who remembered that following Manchester United wasn’t always as successful as some ‘new’ or ‘other’ fans had become accustomed to. They wanted to express their new identity, one which grew out ofsupport in difficult times, rather than the previous on-field successes. John Williams, an expert in football fan behaviour told the BBC; “The singing at the end of the Liverpool match wasn’t in support of the manager, it was about celebrating the memory of a great club, celebrating who they are as fans, celebrating their resilience. It was those fans in the ground saying: ‘We are better than those so-called fans spouting all kinds of bile.'”

Sometimes these chants use humour, For example, when Norwich City fans visited Old Trafford during the ‘Green and Gold’ protest against the Glazers they sang “We’ve come for our scarves”.

Sometimes they do not.

Lord Byron once said; “hatred is by far the longest pleasure” and there are rivalries within English football that typify this. The creation and maintenance of a negative “other” has led to Manchester United, along with Liverpool and Leeds United [amongst others] becoming engaged in what journalist Paul Hayward called an “arms race” of deliberately offensive chants about Munich, Hillsbrough, Heysel and the stabbing of two Leeds fans in Istanbul.

The boundaries and interpretations aren’t always clear-cut. Recently United fans have been criticised for continuing to reference Hillsborough with the chant aimed at Liverpool “Always the victims, it’s never your fault”. Neutral observers, myself included, assumed this was endorsing the now discredited version of events blaming Liverpool fans for the loss of 96 lives. Many fans I have spoken to maintain it’s actually in response to Liverpool supporting Luis Suarez after he racially abused Patrice Evra. My own experience adds credence to this; the first, and only time, I have heard Norwich fans sing it, was after Suarez’s conviction.

Regardless of interpretation, football chants are routinely disparaged for their offensive words, themes and divisive nature, but for me this doesn’t tell the full story. While I agree that some chants are always unacceptable – those ridiculing characteristics individuals cannot choose; race, gender or sexual orientation for example – to completely remove chants would irrevocably alter and damage a valuable tradition, which highlights more positive traits of our personalities; camaraderie, loyalty, humour and the ability to face adversity, than it does negative; aggression, prejudice or hatred. That is not to say that football chanting and those who engage in it, should be given carte blanche to sing whatever they want and the continued crackdown of abuse which draws on prejudice should be wholeheartedly applauded, encouraged and supported. It is by no means all bad, however, and any group of people who can lose 2-0 in their own backyard and respond to taunts with “We lose every week, you’re nothing special, we lose every week”, is worth saluting.

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Former sports journalist and current Norwich City and FC St Pauli fan, Andrew Lawn, has a bachelor’s degree in Politics and Media from the University of East Anglia. He has previously published numerous articles on English, German and international football.

His book Who are ya, who are ya, who are we? Is available from the publisher Booktango.

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