It was the thought of standing on the Wembley pitch that made me want to be part of the Fans Choir for the FA Cup Final. And it was an amazing experience to stand on that turf but not the best part. For me, the most enjoyable and memorable experience was meeting the other fans and the way so many strangers quickly became friends.
I met the first stranger on the train on Friday. I’d seen her claret and blue football top further down the carriage and wondered what club it was from. So as we got off the train at Euston, I asked her if she was going to Wembley and found out that she was and would be representing Scunthorpe in the Fans Choir. She became my first friend in the choir; you may have seen her on the news describing her claret and blue downstairs loo.
The competition to be in the choir was open to supporters of the 64 clubs in Round 3 of the FA Cup this year. Thankfully we weren’t judged on our singing; we just had to write something about what the FA Cup meant to us. I wrote about the joy of going to watch Birmingham City’s 1956 semi-final at Hillsborough and the misery of watching the final on TV.
I sent in my competition entry before we played West Bromwich Albion and was hoping to see Blues at Wembley. But I ended up watching Arsenal and Aston Villa. A lot of people assumed I’d be backing Arsenal but I actually felt fairly neutral. Of course I want Blues to win when Blues play Villa but, when Blues are not involved, I also tend to support the underdogs. After we’d sang on the pitch, we went back to the Press Room, our base for rehearsals on Friday and Saturday, changed out of our club colours, grabbed our bags and went to watch the game. One of the Songs of Praise staff had a bunch of tickets and handed them to us as we left the room. I ended up in the Villa end and I must admit I felt a great deal of sympathy for them as the gloom settled in the second half. This was despite the fact that a couple of Villa fans had booed me as the choir left the pitch. All clubs have a few idiot fans. One Villa fan, who had recognised me from the interview on Midlands Today, provided some balance by exchanging a few friendly words with me at half time.
I think that the Fans Choir was a brilliant idea and on the whole well organised. My one quibble would be with the person who thought the fans should be arranged by colour of shirt so that it would look good from above. I would imagine that the short man in the back row who couldn’t see the conductor didn’t think much of that idea either. But the Songs of Praise staff worked very hard to get us to Wembley and look after us. Steve Thompson, our conductor, was lovely and made us want to sing well.
It was fun to have a few moments of fame. On Friday morning, Radio WM sent a taxi to take me to the Sacred Heart club in Aston for a short interview with Daz Hale. In the evening I was interviewed by Nick Owen on Midlands Today, together with Dan Beasley, who represented Aston Villa in the choir. It was also interesting to get a glimpse behind the scenes of Wembley and TV productions. Midlands Today was filmed in the Match of the Day studio. The TV crew sometimes shot an introduction to someone after that person had left. For example, the bit showing us clapping Roy Hodgson was filmed after he’d left the room and his place had been taken by a woman telling us to applaud her.
Roy told us that in his pre game team talks he would tell players to believe in themselves and their preparation. And in the one and a half days we spent at Wembley we certainly had lots of preparation. We did vocal exercises and sang Abide with me innumerable times. We practiced walking on and off the pitch on Friday afternoon, Saturday morning and again on Saturday afternoon. When we walked on I followed Susan, the Fulham fan, and when we walked off I was behind Kevin of Blyth Spartans. We were so well drilled that when it came to the performance we got on and off the pitch on time. It went by in a flash and was over in no time at all.
But some of us did sing the hymn one more time. As we gathered in the bar of our hotel after the game, our picture appeared on the TV and someone started to sing. The rest of us joined in and we belted out Abide with me as we stood in a group with drinks in our hands, not in a formation decreed by someone else. We were just a bunch of good friends, singing together in a bar. And that, for me, was our best rendition of the hymn and my favourite memory.
At a time when the corruption in FIFA was in the headlines, our choir showed the good side of football — that it can be about making friends and having fun.