Football and music are two sides of the same coin. Imagining a quiet football stadium might have been difficult earlier in the year but the global pandemic has turned it into a grim reality. Football players and managers have found it alarmingly difficult to be greeted by empty stadiums, the same locations which were usually filled with boisterous fans and their exigent cries. On being asked about the prospect of playing with no fans, the Leyton Orient captain, Jobi McAnuff said, “We thrive off the atmosphere inside the ground, whether that’s the home fans with you or the away fans trying to upset you and put you off your game… you react to it and it can help spur you on.” It’s a sentiment felt the world over.
Songs, in some form or another, have created an indispensable part of the atmosphere in stadiums for years. ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Hey Jude’ are songs which unite Manchester City fans at the Etihad. The Kop on Anfield would not have been the same had it not been ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ echoing at every Liverpool game. Everton, too, has an undeniable history with songs as the theme tune from the 1960s TV show Z-Cars echoes at Goodison Park to spur on the Toffees every matchday. In modern times, every World Cup and European competition have songs to commemorate the commencement of the competition, it is an undeniable and vital aspect of every game day.
Older than the club and the tradition of singing at stadiums, ‘On the Ball, City’ resonates across Carrow Road even today when the Canaries don their customary yellow and green. Its incipience can be traced back to the 1890s, years before Norwich City Football Club was founded. Albert T. Smith had composed the song prior to being appointed as the director of the club. Little did he know that the Norwich fans would embrace it with such fervour for decades. Written originally for Norwich Teachers or Caley’s FC, ‘On the Ball, City’ went on to be used by local fans in supporting Swifians and Norwich CEYMS. In truth, 1902 can be marked as the year the song was adopted by the Norwich City fans, the very year the club was established.
“Kick it off, throw it in, have a little scrimmage,
Keep it low, a splendid rush, bravo, win or die;
On the ball, City, never mind the danger,
Steady on, now’s your chance,
Hurrah! We’ve scored a goal.”
Being the oldest football song in history, ‘OTBC’ has undergone various changes in its lyrics as well as the tempo at which it is sung by the fans. Inclusion of “it” in “kick off” and “throw in” were primarily the alterations the fans improvised over the years. Norwich City fans have often been criticised for singing the song at a pace which renders the lyrics indiscernible. A #slowdownOTBC campaign was initiated to bring back the song to its original pomp and grandeur. Jon Punt and Andrew Lawn, the pioneers of the campaign wrote: “’On The Ball, City’ sounds like no other chant you’re likely to hear on the terraces elsewhere…the song features none of the tub-thumping one-upmanship which characterises many chants and instead focuses fully on the club.”
Football songs began reverberating across stadiums in Europe in the early 1900s and soon became a fan-favourite. “Stiffy the Goalkeeper,” a number composed by Harry Weldon around the end of the 1800s was released in 1914 and is also considered one of the oldest songs in football history. Other corners of Europe too had their fans singing in stadiums during the same time period. “Corrado Corradino, La gioventu di cui portiamo” was the first anthem of Juventus Football Club in 1915. Football Club Zurich were known to have their exclusive choir since 1917.
In spite of countless years of relegation and promotion to the First and Second Divisions of English Football, ‘On the Ball, City’, the oldest football song in history ebbs and flows through every nook and cranny of Carrow Road even today.