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Tactically Naive: ‘Sunshine on Leith,’ and why football crowds sing

“To sing in a crowd is to dissolve into that crowd, to be bound to it.”

Hibernian v Celtic - Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership Photo by MB Media/Getty Images

Hello, and welcome to another edition of Tactically Naive, SB Nation’s weekly soccer column. This will be the last TN for the moment, and perhaps for good, so thank you for reading, and take care.

Foundational texts: Kilmarnock 1-5 Hibernian, 2007

Somebody, and I’m afraid I have absolutely no idea who, once said they liked football because, while they didn’t believe in God, they quite liked joining a crowd and singing once a week.

On 18 March 2007, Hibernian beat Kilmarnock, 5-1, in the Scottish League Cup final. As the score suggests, it was a lopsided occasion: bar some early energy from Steven Naismith, Kilmarnock never really got going, while Hibs produced a “dazzling display of power, speed and clinical finishing,” according to the BBC. Good going, considering the rain moved between “unpleasant” and “absolutely rodding it down,” according to Tactically Naive.

Decent though a couple were, the goals aren’t why the game sticks in the mind of non-Hibs fans. It’s what came afterwards that made this occasion memorable. The singing.

The song is ‘Sunshine on Leith’ by the Proclaimers, and while this probably isn’t the moment to give Why The Proclaimers Are Actually Good the full treatment, the song does that rather neatly anyway. It wasn’t written for a football terrace, but it was written by two Hibs fans, and doesn’t it just slide across nicely? A broken heart, healed; a thank you to a higher power. Football, that.

While I’m worth my room on this Earth
I will be with you
And while the Chief puts sunshine on Leith
I’ll thank Him for his work
And your birth, and my birth
Yeah yeah yeah yeah

And then a nice “dooby dooby doo” bit for everybody to sway to. It’s perfect.

There are longer videos of this particular moment that show more of the singing and less of the BBC trying to get on with its post-game business. But there is something fascinating about watching that conflict play out, about seeing and hearing the fans compete with, then overwhelm, the broadcasting schedule. A momentary realignment of priorities; a course correction. Not yours. Ours.

Not that anybody in the stadium knew what they were doing to the TV people: they were singing their song and celebrating their cup win. But they won the argument all the same.

A football crowd is a singing creature. Individuals shout and swear; crowds sing. Or boo, or cheer, or sit in obstinate or disappointed silence. Sometimes even walk out. But other times, because they are bored or moved or desperate or drunk as hell, they sing. And sometimes that singing is nonsensical, or vindictive, or grossly offensive, and other times it is transporting and transcendentally beautiful.

To sing in a crowd is to dissolve into that crowd, to be bound to it. And for that crowd to sing a love song such as this — a song of renewal and devotion that squares up to the misery of life and does not dismiss it but moves through it, that steps from shade into the light — is to see the bond between fans and club exposed as a false dichotomy. The fans are the club.

The Hibs fans are singing to their triumphant players in the moment, but they are also singing to the club, as it is dreamed and as it is lived. To the idea of Hibs, and to the practice of being Hibs. To this thing that only matters, and will continue to matter, only because there are people silly enough to care about it. To each other and to themselves.

And as with all truly great football songs, it asserts its own purpose. As long as there are fans to stand next to each other and sing, there will be this thing called Your Club Here.

The song is a sentimental expression of a sentimental belief, of course; perhaps so appallingly sentimental it could not hope to survive for long outside these very strange conditions, this bell jar of triumph, togetherness, and alcohol. But you don’t need the sun to shine every day, nor will it. Certainly not in Scotland. You just need to have faith that it’s still there, behind the clouds, and that some day it will come out again.