In 1966, in an oft-quoted interview, Alf Ramsey described his England players as having “great harmonium in the dressing room”. This was, naturally, much derided by the newspapers who criticised Ramsey for his merciless mangling of the English language. As usual, the press were only half right, grabbing the wrong end of the stick and beating about the bush with it until the cows came home. It was true that the quote was grammatically incorrect – however what it should have said is “there is a great harmonium in the dressing room”. Alf was inadvertently letting slip the secret of England’s success at the World Cup – the pre-match variety concerts performed by the players in the dressing room.
Prior to the 1950s, England’s belief in their own footballing superiority over other nations was so great that they refused to lower themselves to the frightful inconvenience of actually having to play any games. On the occasions that they did bother to arrange a game, the matches usually ended in disaster. A May 1935 report from The Times describes how an England friendly against France ended in “controversy when the England team walked off the pitch shortly after the kick-off. The English players were mortally offended that the French had the cheek to turn up for the start of the game and, by implication, consider themselves to be a worthy match for them. The correct etiquette would, of course, have been for the French to stand open-mouthed in the stands, admiring our skills and our shorts.”
In 1953, England faced a jolt to their sense of superiority when they were beaten 6-3 by Hungary at Wembley. Even more annoying for the England team was that the first 3 goals had been scored whilst the English players were still finishing their afternoon tea and cakes. A furious Billy Wright was quoted after the match as saying “I offered Ferenc Puskas a cream slice but he just waltzed past me and scored. Bloody cheek!”
After the game, manager Walter Winterbottom quickly diagnosed the root cause of England’s problems. “We were totally disorganised – Stanley Matthews was attempting to serve milk down one end of the table, Nat Lofthouse had the teapot down the other end and in the middle Stan Mortensen was spilling battenburg cake all over the tablecloth. A complete shambles”.
The team lacked a collective spirit, and Winterbottom hit upon the novel idea of organising a pre-match music recital for the return game in Hungary to build a sense of togetherness amongst his players. The recital was a great success, particularly Jimmy Dickinson’s moving performance of ‘Tiptoe Through The Tulips’, and the team went out on to the pitch full of confidence and imbued with a genuine sense of team spirit. They lost the match 7-1.
Still, it was clear the defeat wasn’t the fault of Jimmy Dickinson’s singing and the pre-match music recital became an established part of every international match build up. As the team got more and more used to the acoustics and layout of the Wembley changing rooms, the performances became ever more professional and the confidence this gave the players meant that England were soon unbeatable on home turf.
Away from home it was a different story though and, faced with unfamiliar dressing rooms and surroundings, the pre-match performances had something of a less than galvanising effect. Prior to a 1956 friendly against Finland in Helsinki, faulty central heating led to Johnny Haynes’ lips freezing to the mouthpiece during a trombone rendition of ‘I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts’. Fans were treated to the unedifying sight of Haynes playing the first 70 minutes of the match with the trombone still attached.
Worse was to follow at the 1962 World Cup in Chile. A mishap with air freight led to the England team’s musical instruments being sent to Canada by mistake, and the squad were forced to improvise for their pre-match routines. As a result the team made heavy weather of qualifying from the group stages. The team were clearly living on borrowed time. Prior to their quarter final match against Brazil, Bobby Robson attempted to motivate the team and, armed only with a tambourine, attempted a rendition of Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’ which bordered on the frightening. The horror of this performance left an indelible stain on the team’s conscience and the shell-shocked English players limped out of the competition with a listless 3-1 defeat.
Something needed to change. With home advantage conferred upon them for the 1966 World Cup, new England manager Alf Ramsey decided to ensure that there could be no repeat of the debacle of the 1962 World Cup. At great expense a harmonium was installed in the changing room, along with proper soundproofing. In April 1966 a prototype Moog synthesizer was even brought in. No-one was able to operate it though, apart from Jimmy Greaves who would entertain the other players by making a sound on it that he christened “the devil’s sheep”.
The players were also encouraged to practice their routines, which most of the squad were happy to do. Nobby Stiles proved particularly adept at the keyboard and every Tuesday night at the Altrincham Signalmen’s Club crowds would thrill to the amazing sounds produced by Nobby’s organ. Similarly, whilst Leeds Utd and Manchester United may have been bitter rivals on the pitch, the two clubs were united every Thursday night at the Saddleworth Liberal Club, when the ‘Charlton Brothers’ performed. Jack and Bobby’s voices complemented each other beautifully and the two players soon earned the changing room nicknames of “Phil and Don” in honour of the Everly Brothers.
The preparation paid off and England performed strongly throughout the whole World Cup. In fact, such was the team spirit that the communal singing often carried on during games. In the group stages, the Mexican players were repeatedly non-plussed by the English players launching into an 11-man version of Ken Dodd’s ‘Happiness’ on set pieces.
Inevitably the success of the tactic led to other teams attempting to copy it with mixed results. Pele’s singing was so bad in Brazil’s group game against Portgual that the Portuguese players resorted to a series of vicious tackles on the Brazilian legend just to try and force him to shut up. In Argentina’s quarter-final against England Antonio Rattin’s version of ‘Keep On Running’ by The Spencer Davis Group was so wildly off-key that the referee was faced with no option but to send him off.
England cantered to the final, and the singing exploits of the England team perhaps enjoyed their most celebrated moment in extra time at the end of the 90 minutes in the final. With the clock running down and England leading 3-2, Bobby Moore launched a long ball forward to the unmarked Geoff Hurst on the half way line. Suddenly Hurst was through on goal! In his excitement, Martin Peters couldn’t contain himself and started to sing his favourite Rolling Stones song. Caught up in the moment, some of the crowd ran onto the pitch to join in, leading to Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous commentary of “some….some people are on the pitch. They think it’s ‘It’s All Over Now’”, referring to the Rolling Stones' 1964 hit that Peters had so exuberantly launched into.
England had triumphed and a large part of their success can be attributed to the pre-match music recitals instigated in the shadow of the defeat to Hungary at Wembley in 1953. Sadly, this was to be the peak of their musical performances and England never quite reached the heights they had done in 1966. Some attributed this to newer members of the squad lacking musical ability – Alan Mullery had difficulty holding a tune and Jeff Astle’s role was often limited to tapping a triangle in the pre-match songs. A more likely reason is that after the England 1970 World Cup Squad reached No. 1 in the charts with ‘Back Home’, the increasing commercialisation of the players’ songs meant that what had once been a private activity to bond the team became a matter of pure commerce. As a consequence, a lot of players derived less enjoyment from them and the performances became less frequent.
The final recital occurred before England’s World Cup Qualifier against Poland at Wembley in 1973 but none of the player’s hearts were in it. Norman Hunter could barely bring himself to mumble the words to T. Rex’s ‘Jeepster’, and the lethargy of the performances were reflected in England’s disappointing 1-1 draw on the pitch. The golden age of footballers’ songs was over.