How a football fan with his ear to the ground found chants to be a fine thing

Sports books for Christmas

Scratching your head for a Christmas gift idea? Let The Sports Bookshelf guide you through the maze of possibilities to make the right choice. Here are a few of the more amusing sports books published this year:

Who Are Ya? The talkSport Book of Football's Best Ever Chants, by Gershon Portnoi (Simon & Schuster)

The excited buzz of a packed stadium is every bit as important as the competitors in making a sports event a genuinely big occasion and nowhere is that more true than football, where the crowd are participants as well as spectators.

Indeed, football is unique in that not only do supporters cheer or boo in approval or otherwise, they turn their feelings, thoughts and observations into words and then set them to music, so that the action on the field comes with its own soundtrack, too.

Over the years, British football fans in particular have developed a huge repertoire of songs and chants, from club anthems down to ditties aimed at individual players, so many that sports writer Gershon Portnoi has turned them into a book.

Portnoi, former sports editor of Nuts magazine and until recently deputy editor of TalkSport’s online magazine, says it was a journey on a tube train that inspired him to start noting down words and researching origins.

“A bunch of lads were looking in my direction when they burst into singing a song about Christian Dailly, the former West Ham player,” Portnoi said.  “They were aiming the song at me because my hair apparently made me look like him.

“It started me thinking about the whole culture of football songs and how they are often not only funny but in many cases very clever and I wondered if I could make them into a book.”

Having enjoyed success with a previous book of cricket sledges -- entitled Why Are You So Fat? -- Portnoi set about researching.

Combining those chants he had heard himself with others found on supporters’ websites and in YouTube videos, he found enough eventually to fill 176 pages.

“The most difficult part was verifying who had claim to be the originator of a chant and there were quite a few grey areas and disputes, particularly where a club has adopted a song as an anthem where there is no obvious connection with their team,” he said.

These range from Stoke’s regular singing of the Tom Jones classic Delilah, Birmingham City’s Keep Right On to the End of the Road and Liverpool’s You’ll Never Walk Alone to the bizarre and unfathomable Wheelbarrow Song beloved of Notts County fans.  Sung repeatedly to the tune of On Top of Old Smokey, it consists of just eight words: “I had a wheelbarrow, the wheels fell off.”

“That was one of the stranger ones,” Portnoi said. “It started at a game against Shrewsbury at Gay Meadow in 1990.  One version of the story is that some County fans saw someone pushing a wheelbarrow and were inspired to make fun of a Shrewsbury song by putting their own words to it.

“Whatever the origin, it acquired a mystical significance because after being 2-0 down with 10 minutes left, County came back to draw 2-2 and went on a run that saw them promoted.  So the song stuck.

“The research took me about six months.  Of the chants, some like the Notts County one are bizarre, others just a bit silly, but some are really fantastic pieces of poetry.”

One word of warning to anyone lucky enough to find Who Are Ya? in his Christmas stocking: the author's accuracy with the wording of the chants does not make allowance for sensitive ears -- some would consist almost entirely of asterisks if he did.  Not one to be read out to the relatives, perhaps.

Also recommended for a football-themed sporting laugh are Daniel Taylor’s Squeaky Bum Time: The Wit and Wisdom of Sir Alex Ferguson (Aurum) and David Moor’s The Worst Football Kits of All Time (The History Press).

Cricket fans meanwhile will enjoy CrickiLeaks: The Secret Ashes Diaries (John Wisden & Co Ltd), written by Alan Tyers and illustrated by Beach.

From the team responsible previously for W.G. Grace Ate My Pedalo, Crickileaks is an hilarious collection of 40 imagined cricketing diaries, along with the illustrated book covers they might have inspired.

Featuring spoof journal entries drawn from throughout Ashes history, CrickiLeaks ‘reveals’ the innermost thoughts of the greatest cricketers of the last 129 years -- Shane Warne, Freddie Flintoff, Sir Ian Botham, Geoffrey Boycott, Donald Bradman and the great W.G. among them -- as well as those of some less obvious personalities.

Readers will discover, among other things, what was going through Mike Gatting's mind as he faced the ball of the century, why Ricky Ponting lost his rag with Ronald McDonald and what really went on between Douglas Jardine and Daphne the Koala in Adelaide Zoo!

More books by Gershon Portnoi
More books by Daniel Taylor
More books by Alan Tyers

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