As long-time followers of my music will know, the football has found its way in here and there. Most obviously there’s The Ballad of Phil Jevons – my tribute to a Grimsby Town sort-of hero of the early 2000s. And there’s Let it Go By, in which the narrator unexpectedly becomes better able to deal with life’s difficulties by enduring experiences that stretch one’s patience – such as missing a train, or watching a game of football that’s so tedious it makes you want to perform an appendectomy on yourself using your season ticket.
But when I started thinking last year about recording a new album, I wasn’t expecting this week’s shock Premier League title win by Leicester City to be a factor. And hey, if David Cameron can use Leicester to try (and fail) to get down with the kids, and companies up and down the land can rush Twitter with a hundred thousand appallingly tenuous links between the surprise champions of England and their ropey products, then I’m sure as hell I can jump on the bandwagon too.
Do people still say “down with the kids”? Anyway. The new album will be out later this year. I’ve just finished recording it – with Ben Siddall again, who is about to start work on the mixing. Most of the songs are new, but when I was deciding what to include I also considered which of my older unrecorded numbers might fit well alongside them.
One of those was a thing I wrote in the late 2000s – again about the football, and called ‘The Title Race is Over’. It looks back at the unpredictable, sometimes anarchic game I loved as a youngster, in which outcomes were so wide open that, say, Grimsby Town could be challenging for promotion to the top division. And it contrasts that joyful openness with the circumscribed, closed-down nature of football today, which has been systematically gerrymandered by free-market ideologues, whose agenda was shaped specifically and deliberately to divert almost all of the game’s income to a tiny elite of mega-clubs, denying hope of success to all but a privileged minority, to the extent that football’s possible outcomes would be so limited as to turn a competitive sport into a tiresome procession.
Without naming them, the song suggested that unexpected outcomes such as Wimbledon’s FA Cup win in 1988 or Nottingham Forest’s European Cups of the late 1970s could never happen again. The bean-counters had stitched up the game so that the underdogs would stay under – forever:
And in the future the kids will ask
about the football
And I will have to say:
The title race is over, honey pie
We sold your inheritance to Sky
We let the bastards in grey suits take your game
The title race is over.
‘The Title Race is Over’ seemed a reasonable candidate for inclusion on the new album. It was a song I’d stopped playing live for no particular reason. Its downbeat feel and sense of loss placed it squarely alongside my newer, sadder post-2010 material. I started to pencil its title in alongside the other tracks that I would soon take into the recording studio.
And then Leicester City happened.
Like every other observer, I assumed Leicester’s early-season position at the top of the Premier League would be a curious memory by the time push came to shove. Like every other observer, I was delighted that it wasn’t. But there was one obvious downside. The title race wasn’t over after all. The song wouldn’t work any more.
To a large extent its points remain valid. Leicester’s win is so remarkable precisely because of the bastards in grey suits shutting off so many of football’s possibilities. Major honours have become the preserve of the few. Leicester are the first first-time winners of the league title since Nottingham Forest in 1978. In those days, while it was nice to see success for an unfashionable, medium-sized club from a likeable but hardly glamorous city in the midlands, it was far less of a big deal. Tellingly, the bookies are offering longer odds on Leicester to win the league again next season than to be relegated.
But what happens next is immaterial. Leicester’s victory means the song is untenable. It can’t go on the album. It can’t go anywhere but into limbo.
Word is that the city of Leicester will receive a huge windfall, as its football club’s unlikely fame will put it on the map as an international tourist destination. I’ll be glad if that turns out to be true. I’ve got good memories of the place. I saw Boyracer at the Princess Charlotte in 1993, and The Hidden Cameras there ten years later. More recently the indiepop all-dayers organised by Simon Tyers (and nicknamed ‘Leicesterval’) have served up pop thrills by the bucketload.
And funnily enough, while the city’s football club has ended up influencing the tracklisting of the album, I’ve ended up recording it in Leicester as well. When I contacted Ben about producing it, he told me he’d moved there from Leeds the other year. On the first day of our sessions I arrived in town early enough for a veggie fry-up at the Wetherspoons on Granby Street. The two other people in the pub were talking about football and rugby in alternate sentences.
There’s a lesson to take away from all of this, anyway. Leicester City were bottom of the league halfway through last season and, as this one began, were priced to win it at 5,000/1. If a club like that can win the title, there’s hope for underdogs everywhere. So I’ll be mightily disappointed now if this album doesn’t go platinum and win at least one Grammy.
Photo: Leicester midfielder Riyad Mahrez is named PFA Players’ Player of the Year 2016. By admin PFA – twitter.com/PFA, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48355917