Through Gritted Teeth #27: “Come On You Reds”

by John McGee

I’m sure many of you reading this will have chosen your favoured clubs as a result of childhood doctrine. My own brother, based in West Cumbria, is an ardent and undying Aston Villa fan as the result of a dogged and determined campaign by his godmother’s then boyfriend (now husband) which saw our shared bedroom littered with claret and blue relics and us using the combined wit of our 12 years in the world to puzzle over what exactly a ‘Mita Copier’ was. For his part my Dad was always fairly sanguine about our footballing allegiances and whilst he looked fairly on my decision to follow his beloved Leeds he hardly batted an eyelid when it became obvious (to him long before me) that Carlisle United had really stolen the portion of my heart reserved for that special type of heartbreak.

He did, however, have one ground rule: no one supported Man United under any circumstances. In an early, fumbling episode I remember chopping a picture of Jim Leighton out of a copy of Shoot whilst sat in the back of Dad’s car — a place we spent most of our school holidays as he travelled round peddling engineering equipment at such glamorous oases as Sellafield and Haverigg Prison — only for him to react with utter disdain. “Why have you cut that pudding out? He plays for the scum”. I was 7.

Unfortunately, marking oneself out as anything other than a Manchester United fan at St Gregory’s Primary School, Workington was a form of self-ghettoisation. I still view Lee Jackson pulling the pom-pom off my Leeds hat as one of the formative episodes of my childhood — when anyone ventures that I have singularly individual tastes, in music, art or books I point them back to the stream of tears on my cheeks at the loss of that ball of white wool.

Rather than fall in with the crowd I allowed my difference to perpetuate and positively revelled in Leeds’ 1991/92 title triumph; wearing my ‘Top Man’ shirt with pride during PE lessons. Eric Cantona’s cross-pennine transfer hit me hard and led to a swift realisation that my Dad was right — Alex Ferguson was in league with the antichrist and no matter what Sir Matt Busby had gone through in Munich he was still United and, ergo, a shit.

This borderline pathetic state of affairs has only calcified over time as United’s success continued to perpetuate and both Carlisle and Leeds plumbed to new depths of the footballing abyss. I’m one of those childish prudes who was cheering on Barcelona in the Champions League final. I’d love to say I was supporting the beautiful game, but it’d be a lie; I was supporting the team, any team, playing United. I always do.

And yet, and yet … there is one aspect of Manchester United’s recent cultural history which I can’t help but smile at. An utterly ridiculous, hackneyed slap of glorified terrace dad-rock: ‘Come On You Reds’ by Status Quo and the Manchester United squad. The song was released to accompany United’s jaunt to the 1994 FA Cup final where Fergie’s first great team stuffed Chelsea 4-0 and for a short time in the middle of that year I was absolutely obsessed with it. I can’t quite remember the first time I heard it but am willing to venture it was on Longwave Radio Atlantic 252, a station which hooked in vulnerable listeners like myself with the promise of free cash and a playlist which included Whigfield and Alex Party on rotation. I was 10.

Of course, at 46 Ashfield Road the song had to be my dirty little secret. I could only listen to it on my Walkman and had to be careful not to find myself belting out the famous player listing middle eight over egg and chips for fear of being struck by a sauce bottle in the middle of trying to pronounce ‘Kanchelskis’ correctly. I also distinctly remember toying with buying a tape of the single but figuring that it would be easier to cover my tracks by taping it from the radio — I was a devious and scheming child.

At the time liking ‘Come on You Reds’ was a portal into the mind of my peers, a little element of their footballing world that I felt I was allowed to like because it had a catchy tune and a funny bit where they sing all the names and make it fit the rhythm. I could even join in singing in the playground without any fear — there was no Dad, and no other Leeds fans to stop me — provided of course I steered clear of my snitching brother.

Listening to it back when writing this piece I’m struck by how much I still like the song — in fact I’m almost appalled, this seems to be a lifelong love affair. This song, which is so representative of red shirted Essex Boys ‘avin a tear up in Lineker’s Bar in Magaluf, that immediately calls to mind Olly Murs, Alex Ferguson’s Wrigley’s Extra bill and Brian McClair’s fucking face — I still like it, and I hate myself for it. I even find myself thinking how nice it is that they give Bryan Robson a nod despite the fact he was a crock by 1994. Why? WHY?!

Part of it is obviously nostalgia. ‘Come On You Reds’ is Alan ‘Hattrick’ Murray scoring his 18th tap in of breaktime, it’s playing kerby on Elterwater Avenue, and it’s reducing Brendan Brew in the middle of one of his notorious kung-fu kick challenges. It’s also, objectively, an infinitely better song than the one which replaced it at No 1 in the charts — Wet Wet Wet’s ‘Love Is All Around’. [Ed — it did, however, itself displace a stone-cold classic, Stiltskin’s magnificent slice of jean-peddling nonsense “Inside”] But part of it also touches another personal raw nerve …

My own record collection is populated by math rock geniuses like Hella, post-rock pioneers Do Make Say Think and intellectual troubadours such as Bill Callahan. I am a huge music snob, but I have always, always had time for the song’s creators Status Quo — they are my ultimate guilty pleasure. Until I looked the song up I’d totally forgotten their involvement but I’ll be brutally honest, this song is probably the Quo’s best since ‘Down Down’. Not only is it a song with 45 choruses, but importantly it doesn’t go in for the smug “Red Flag flying high” line which always winds me up more than any other in ‘Glory Glory Man United’. It’s so good, a cast-iron Man United loather absolutely loves it. Francis Rossi, Rick Parfitt — stick that in your liner notes.

So there you have it, through gritted teeth, I admit it: my favourite ever football song and terrace chant is about a team I loathe and written by a band so laughably awful they’re the favourites of Coronation Street’s Les Battersby. I’d love to say that I’ve gone through pain for this art but the fact that the coda will be lodged in my head for the next week only cracks another smile. Nevertheless, I’m off to wash my mouth out with soap and sing ‘Marching On Together’ at the bandstand in Regent’s Park all afternoon. I feel I owe it to my Dad. “Maintaining the Status Quo” they call it. Now where did I hear that line … ?

John writes his own blog at Bring Me the Head of Keith Mincher and is a regular contributor at The Two Unfortunates. Call him a giant snob on Twitter here: @epouvantail.

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