Our ‘Great Escape’ from drab music

No expression should be outlawed in football stadiums. Except the music of the England’s Supporters’ Band.

Duleep Allirajah

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Did you notice anything missing from England’s 1-1 draw with France in Donetsk on Monday? And no, I’m not talking about James Milner and open goals here. Or the racist abuse we were promised by the BBC’s Panorama. Conspicuous by its absence was the England’s supporters’ band and their interminable renditions of the Great Escape.

The band had been given official clearance to play at Euro 2012, but security officials at the Donbass Arena decided to confiscate their instruments. ‘We did have assurances from the FA and UEFA, but as with all football grounds, the stadium controller is in overall charge and he decides what happens’, explained band spokesman John Hemmingham.

Another example of the killjoy culture that is making the matchday experience so sterile? Hmm. I am not up in arms about ‘Trumpetgate’. Regular readers of this column will know that I’m usually against banning stuff at football matches. Sick chanting, Nazi salutes, necrophilia – if it happens inside a football stadium, then you’ll find me staunchly standing up for freedom of expression. (I’m caricaturing my standpoint here.) But I draw the line at the official supporters’ band. If the Ukrainian stewards hadn’t confiscated their instruments, I’d have hoped that ordinary England fans would have taken direct action. Monotonous, tuneless and humourless. Football is a far better place without them.

The band was originally set up by Sheffield Wednesday fans. It’s become an institution, providing the soundtrack to England games since 1996. They are as much part of the fabric of modern football as Richard Keys, WAGs, Mexican waves and piped goal-celebration music. In other words, the kind of fabric I would gladly see unravel. Why am I brassed off with the band? For a start, having an official FA-approved band is just embarrassing. The band’s website says they ‘are extremely proud to help generate the atmosphere at England games all over the world’. In other words, England fans can’t create an atmosphere without them; we need a brass band to orchestrate the chanting.

Secondly, blasting out the same few dismal dirges is the very antithesis of creative terrace culture. Although the band claims to have over 100 tunes in its repertoire, you tend only to hear the same tired old numbers during England games – the theme to The Great Escape, ‘Rule Britannia’, ‘Ring of Fire’ and ‘God Save the Queen’. England fans singing the ‘Great Escape’ during the heroic backs-to-the-wall defeat against Argentina when down to 10 men was mildly amusing at the time. But that time was the last century and, to quote The Smiths, that joke isn’t funny anymore.

As an England fan, it’s dispiriting enough watching the players’ futile attempts to pass the ball to each other without listening to the ‘Great Escape’ or ‘God Save the Queen’ blaring out. The thing about having a band orchestrate your terrace singalongs is that it suffocates the wit and invention that ought to be the lifeblood of football chants. It becomes tedious, formulaic and, ultimately, just annoying rather than inspiring. It’s time to change the record.

****

Every major football tournament provides the English with an opportunity to self-examine our national sporting character. Are we lions or plucky losers? A nation of champs or chokers? Unusually, we’ve cast ourselves in the underdog role this year – a sure sign that our expectations are much more in sync with the team’s limited abilities.

So what to make of Roy Hodgson’s first competitive match? The mood amongst travelling England fans interviewed after the match was stoic. The players put in a shift, sat in two banks of four and restricted a technically superior French team to long-range potshots. It wasn’t pretty, but we’re gradually coming to terms with the notion that watching England will never be like watching Brazil. Motivational speakers will never deliver rousing talks on the art of winning ugly – or in England’s case, drawing ugly – but some of us can see the method in Roy Hodgson’s mundaneness.

There have murmurings of discontent, however. Alan Green, presenting 6-0-6 on BBC 5Live, felt that England’s 4-4-2 system was too rigid. There have been calls for Hodgson to ‘release the shackles’ on creative players like Steven Gerrard and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. I blame tactics gurus like Jonathan Wilson and Michael Cox for broadening our horizons. It is they who have made us all more tactically literate. Thanks to them, you’ll find the ordinary man on the Clapham omnibus feverishly debating the merits of false nines, inside-out wingers, fluid forward lines, high pressing and three-at-the-back. Everyone fancies themselves as Marcelo Bielsa or Pep Guardiola these days. There’s no place on the modern tactics board for an old-school 4-4-2 man like Hodgson.

Naturally, we’d all like England to play stylish attacking football, but you’ve got to start somewhere. First, make yourself hard to beat, then learn to keep the ball better. After that, you can think about being more expansive. Changing the culture of a team doesn’t happen overnight. You won’t find teenagers drooling over YouTube videos of England’s midfield quartet shuttling up and down in a line to frustrate France. But this is the immediate future for England. Forget ‘mad skills’ and ‘unbelievable tekkers’; we should embrace the Hodgsonian virtues of shape, discipline and work rate. As the old Chinese proverb goes, if you don’t concede goals, you don’t lose football matches. Mine eyes have seen the glory of two banks of four.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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