Friday 18 October 2019

The enigma of the very first football chant

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

British composer Edward Elgar (1857 - 1934) seated at his desk at Severn House in Hampstead
British composer Edward Elgar (1857 - 1934) seated at his desk at Severn House in Hampstead

George Hamilton

It was the exhilarating atmosphere at the end of the football match at Anfield on Tuesday night that put Edward Elgar into my head.

Nothing to do with the pomp and circumstance of the truly astonishing comeback that led to Liverpool's breathtaking advance to the final of the Champions League.

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Rather, with that summit reached, I was pondering whether or not the club could make another dream come true by claiming the Premier League title tomorrow.

Their slim hopes of doing so rest on a victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers, and that's where the composer comes in.

Edward Elgar was born in 1857, so he would have been a man of 31 when English soccer first organised itself into a football league.

He was born in a village in the Malvern Hills, not far from the city of Worcester, in what's known now as England's West Midlands.

Though there was a rugby team in town, and cricket in the summer, Elgar's first sporting love was the horses.

Indeed, his association is commemorated at Worcester racecourse. One of the three hospitality suites there is known as the Elgar Box.

But he'd also become fascinated by association football.

A friend of the composer's wife had recently married a widowed clergyman who was a rector in Wolverhampton, where one of the teams was based.

The vicar had a daughter, Dora Penny. Her stepmother introduced her to the Elgars.

Edward was very taken by the young woman, who was 17 years younger than he.

They became close, though quite how close has never been established. Her name is on one of his Enigma Variations.

When Elgar discovered that the rectory was close to the Wolves ground at Molineux, he got her to take him along.

That first game he saw, in February 1898 when Stoke City were the visitors, was certainly the start of something.

In a memoir, Edward Elgar: Memories of a Variation, published in 1937, Dora recalls the day.

"It all delighted him," she wrote. "The dense crowd flowing down the road like a river; the roar of welcome as the rival teams came on to the ground... the deafening roar that greeted a goal." There had have been several of those that Saturday - Wolves won 4-2.

Reading a report of the match, Elgar was so struck by the power of the journalist's description of a shot - "he banged the leather for goal" - that he set it to music. Who'd have thought that the man whose 'Land of Hope and Glory' is belted out with such gusto every year at the last night of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall in London had also come up with the very first football chant?

The song was never performed in his lifetime - indeed it was lost for many years - but it did get an outing almost 10 years ago at a charity concert, appropriately enough in St Peter's, Dora's father's old church.

Equally appropriately, the current rector, the Rev David Wright, is also chaplain to Wolverhampton Wanderers, the club where Irish assistant manager Robbie Keane began his professional career and where current international Matt Doherty is a regular.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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