In the summer of 1997, Sunderland AFC had a bright idea. Though football teams had long been running out onto the pitch at the beginning of games to the sound of pop music, why not mark the first season at the club’s new home, the Stadium of Light, with something a little different?
And so, as the Black Cats emerged from the tunnel for the first home match of the season, it was the sound of Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights booming through the PA system that greeted them.
It worked a treat, as that first match saw Manchester City vanquished 3-1. Sunderland would come third that season before finishing top the following year and gaining promotion to the Premier League. The choice of music also made its mark outside the ground – when Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet toured the area in 1998, members of the audience were seen to be wearing red-and-white stripes (and Sunderland manager Peter Reid was even rumoured to have attended too).
In 2018, Sunderland dropped Prokofiev as their run-out tune… and have since spent the last three seasons forlornly trying to escape from the third division of English football. All of which tells you that, if you want a successful team, play classical music. We asked eleven football-loving musicians to tell us which piece they’d choose to gee their teams and fans up…
Jennifer Johnston, mezzo-soprano
It would be wholly predictable for me to choose ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ for Liverpool, but I’m going to strike out and choose something different, a piece that conjures up both the colour red, LFC of course being known as the Mighty Reds, and the mythical symbol of Liverpool, the liver bird: the final moments of Stravinsky’s magnificent The Firebird. The incredible fanfare, those extraordinary brass chords and the huge thumps of the timpani that sound like a warrior’s heartbeat would create an atmosphere heralding future victory, setting the tone perfectly.
Julian Lloyd Webber, cellist
Team: Leyton Orient
As both sides take to the pitch, the host team should have carefully selected music guaranteed to strike terror into the hearts of its opponents. So Leyton Orient’s current choice of Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Taxi could be seen as an inspired one as its innocuous inanity runs counter to any known notion of what a football ‘theme’ should be – the idea was to convince opposing players that they had entered a madhouse. However, recent home form suggests this formula has worn thin and a change in tactics is needed. So, I nominate that insidiously menacing theme from Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony No. 7 – which is enough to drive anyone mad!
Rumon Gamba, conductor
With its origins in a group of workers from the Woolwich Arsenal Armament Factory, Arsenal Football Club (‘The Gunners’) should definitely run out to Bliss’s ‘Attack on the Moon Gun’ from his score to the 1936 film Things to Come. Notwithstanding the fact that Arsenal won their second FA cup in the same year the film was made, the piece has an exhilarating and ferocious energy which is matched with steely determination and unstoppable forward momentum right through to its victorious major key conclusion. One minute and 20 seconds of breathless anticipation, something to get the pulse racing and (in a hopeful sign of things to come) launch Arsenal’s stars to the top of the league once more.
YolanDa Brown, saxophonist
Team: Newcastle United
Being a Newcastle United supporter is an emotional rollercoaster at the best of times! But through thick and thin the fans are always there and the atmosphere at St James’ Park is electric. The piece of music I’d choose is Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1. Coming through the tunnel the players should walk on to the third movement – ‘Juba Dance: Allegro’.
It’s joyful, spirited and reminds me of the ‘Going Home’ theme from Local Hero, our current choice. But also this symphony takes you through different musical textures which tell the story of the heartaches and triumphs that we, the Toon Army, continue to go through.
Vasily Petrenko, conductor
Team: FC Zenit Saint Petersburg
Being born in Leningrad – now St Petersburg – my home team is FC Zenit. And among many classical composers, the one whom I associate in my mind with the city is Shostakovich.
Shostakovich was a huge fan of the team himself, attended many games and famously even compiled a ‘grossbuch’ (‘big book’) about football! Soon after FC Zenit was founded in 1925, he wrote a ballet on the theme of football called The Golden Age. There’s one specific movement called ‘Football Match’ which, starting with the referee’s whistle, depicts the tough game perfectly!
Bob Chilcott, composer
As a former singer and someone who loves to hear people singing, I think I would aim to choose a piece that would ultimately be able to be sung by the fans in some way. Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams might be a challenge, even for Oxford United’s sophisticated fans, but I think parts of the first movement of Janáček’s Sinfonietta might be a good choice. I love those blaring, fanfaring trumpets and their opening phrase might be singable by a big crowd and could be very motivating. Come on you Yellows!
Nicky Spence, tenor
Team: Queen of the South
The perfect piece to reflect the glory of Queen of the South is Hamish MacCunn’s The Land of the Mountain and the Flood. Not only does its title resonate with some of the infamously refreshing weather Dumfries and Galloway attracts, but the ground is located just off Dumfries’s Whitesands, one of Scotland’s beauty spots most susceptible to flooding.
Although MacCunn’s work isn’t hugely well known, much like the team, as soon as you’ve encountered it, your heart is owned in a lifelong love affair filled with crescendos, some tense moments and the odd surprise cadence. All of this is flanked by the musical presence of the mountain or, in this case, the foreboding hulk that is Dumfries’s own Criffel.
Fenella Humphreys, violinist
Team: Brighton & Hove Albion
Brighton & Hove Albion’s song ‘Sussex by the Sea’ is close to being the best football song there is, and I love being at the Amex Stadium surrounded by the chants. But if I had to replace ‘Sussex by the Sea’, I’d be tempted to bring in the Sacrificial Dance from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to try and freak out the opposition with its brutal rhythmic stabs.
Though perhaps Malcolm Arnold’s Sussex Overture is a bit more Brighton – the music is wonderfully quirky, interspersing fantastic brass fanfares with chirruping strings, woodwind and percussion, and lush Hollywood moments for the team to walk out to. A perfect, joyful accompaniment to a pint of Harveys, a pie and a field of Seagulls.
Alban Gerhardt, cellist
Team: Hertha BSC Berlin
As a long-suffering and hardened supporter of Hertha BSC Berlin – who won their last title 90(!) years ago – I would choose for these unsung heroes Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (A hero’s life). As they enter the pitch of the over-sized Olympic Stadium, which Adolf Hitler had built five years after their last championship and definitely lacks the atmosphere of a proper football ground, the players need music to push them to heroic deeds. I would start shortly before the music’s big battle moment, reminding them of what will be necessary to ever win anything again and heal the hurting souls of their hungry fans.
Rowan Pierce soprano
Middlesbrough, the town known for its industry and steel, once championed the Neapolitan hit ‘Funiculì, Funiculà’ as its crowd-stirring anthem. ‘Let’s go, let’s go! To the top we go’, was a fitting sentiment for me in the first decade of my life as I sat in the crowds and chorused along. It’s difficult to top it, but in my third decade, I think I’d choose something that harks back to the town’s beginning.
Middlesbrough is often nicknamed the ‘infant Hercules’ – so, swap Hercules for the hammer-wielding Thor and you might hear the sounds of striking anvils ringing in your ears. Verdi’s Anvil Chorus (from Il trovatore) with its strong vocal lines and incessant repeated grace notes could echo both light-footed footballers and the hearts of the fans, rising together victorious!
Gábor Takács-Nagy violinist, conductor
Team: Manchester United
I have been a Manchester United fan since I was around six or seven years old. My father took me to see them play Ferencváros in Budapest, and George Best was in the team – he was the big star. My choice of music for the Red Devils to run onto the pitch to would be the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Italian Fourth Symphony.
This music is so energetic that, if you played it at Old Trafford, it would give a really positive vibe to the crowd – it’s full of sparkle and sunshine, like opening a bottle of champagne. Even in typically English rainy weather, I still think it would be fantastic.
What piece would you choose to inspire your team (football or otherwise)? Let us know at email@example.com