A Different Week – The history of football songs, starring Wolves and Sir Edward Elgar

Football songs are a mixed bunch. They can be adulatory or derogatory, comedic or crass, sometimes unforgettable, often unprintable. Some are one-offs that spontaneously spring up courtesy of an on-pitch catalyst. Others are old favourites that have been sung for generations.

But where do the roots of the football song lie? Surprisingly enough, the humble terrace chant can be traced back over 100 years to one of England’s greatest ever classical composers.

Even if you are not familiar with the name Sir Edward Elgar, you’ll almost certainly be familiar with his work. His popular Pomp and Circumstance Marches include the famous tune Land of Hope and Glory, which is performed every year at the last night of the Proms and has itself been adapted as a terrace number by various sets of fans over the years. What is less well known about Elgar, is that he was a passionate Wolverhampton Wanderers fan who has been credited with penning the first ever football chant, He Banged the Leather for Goal, back in 1898.

Elgar (1857 – 1934) was a relative latecomer to the game, attending his first match at the age of 40 when he was in the crowd at Molineux for a game between Wolves and Stoke City. He had first become interested in the game through his friendship with a woman named Dora Penny, who later wrote a book, Edward Elgar: Memories of a Variation about her association with the composer. Recounting her first meeting with Elgar, she writes: “I quickly found out that music was the last thing he wanted to talk about…he wanted to know if I ever saw Wolverhampton Wanderers play and when he heard that our house was a stone’s throw from their ground he was quite excited.

The pair went on to regularly attend matches together, with the composer cycling all the way from his home in Malvern to accompany Penny to Molineux. In her book, she recalls how the composer was hooked on the matchday atmosphere: “The dense crowd flowing down the road like a river, the roar of welcome as the rival teams came on to the ground…and the deafening roar that greeted a goal…it all delighted him.

However it is back to that first match against Stoke which the origins of He Banged the Leather for Goal can be traced. On that first visit to Molineux, Elgar witnessed a goal by a rugged striker by the name of Billy Malpas and upon reading a newspaper report of the game that Penny had sent him, describing how Malpas ‘banged the leather for goal’, Elgar was suitably inspired to set the lyric to a short piano tune in honour of the Wolves legend. It is unknown if the composition ever caught on with the Wolves support, but an editorial in The Times doubted the song would catch on, suggesting, perhaps a little condescendingly “The melody may be complex for the grandstand.

However, the song was later discovered and brought to light by Dr Percy Young, a former Wolves historian and expert on Elgar. Last Saturday it was performed in Wolverhampton as part of a charity concert of Elgar works by the Wolverhampton Symphony Orchestra and featuring a guest solo by opera singer Rita Cullis – the niece of legendary Wolves manager Stan Cullis. The event was partly organised by Rachel Heyhoe-Flint, a former England women’s cricket captain, now a director at the West Midlands club and she was thrilled by the reaction of the audience of around 600. “The whole audience joined in,” she told the press, adding: “It was explosive. Elgar would have been proud. Over the years we have learned more and more about Elgar’s association with the club and we’re very proud to have him as a supporter.

The song that Elgar composed all those years ago may bear little resemblance to the terrace chants of today, but in an ever progressing modern game, it is reassuring to see that, even in the Premier League, clubs are taking the trouble to recognise and celebrate their heritage. The vociferousness of football fans is not always understood or indeed welcomed by the general public, but surely no-one can begrudge the Molineux faithful enjoying the ground-breaking efforts of their first celebrity fan. As Rachel Heyhoe-Flint says: “It’s good to see a little bit of culture at a football club.

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