Thursday 16, February 2012
Playing for England
IT’S the ultimate pub quiz question. Who has played for England more times than Peter Shilton?
The answer is probably not what you would expect. It’s not Beckham, nor Charlton, not even Emile Heskey, but the England Supporters Band. (Cue The Great Escape)
The band has been at every international, home and away, since their first appearance in 1996. But what do we know about the men behind the trumpets?
Three years before their first ‘cap’, Sheffield Wednesday fan John Hemmingham snuck a bugle he’d bought ‘for a laugh’ into Everton’s Goodison Park ground.
With just ten minutes to play and The Owls two goals to the good, John plucked up the (Dutch) courage and started to play.
“The lads knew I’d got it up my jumper”, says John, “and they said ‘go on play a tune’, so I did the fanfare for aida and everyone went mad”.
The madness alerted Trevor Francis, Wednesday manager at the time, who somehow got hold of John’s number and urged him to form a band.
“He said they’d buy us some drums,” John reveals, “so I rang the lads. I spoke to Murray our drummer and said ‘do you fancy banging a drum?’ He’s never banged a drum in his life before now but said ‘yeah, I’ll do it.’
It was a similar story for other members.
“We’re not musicians,” stresses John, “we’re football fans.” It’s a point John is keen to drum home (if you’ll excuse the pun).
“The guy on the terrace isn’t Pavarotti, he doesn’t practice. And we haven’t practiced in 18 years,” he adds.
So how do a group of lads with limited musical experience get picked to represent their country?
“We were 1-0 up away at Arsenal. We’d beaten them at home loads of times but never away, not in my lifetime, so we were going berserk and the fans were too,” John explained.
“Glenn Hoddle was in the crowd, along with David Davies and they thought, ‘they’re making a difference, we could do with them for England.”
“He rang me up the next day and said, ‘will you play for England?’ I said of course we’ll play for England!”
Not long after and John and his band of musical men were making their debuts against Poland at Wembley.
Ahead of the game the back page of The Sun had been dedicated to the band, alongside the headline, ‘Glenn’s Band of Hope And Glory’.
The media attention was doing them no favours, though.
“The worst thing could’ve been, after all that publicity, going down and then losing ‘cos they’d have blamed us,” recalls John.
“But luckily for us, Shearer saved the day and we won.”
They haven’t missed a game since.
Fifteen years on, has the novelty worn off? Type their name into Facebook and you’ll find a number of anti-band pages.
These include the colourfully titled, ‘England “supporters” band SHUT THE F**K UP’, the similarly unpleasant ‘The England supporters band are f**king annoying!’ and the cleaner alternative, ‘Ban the England supporters band’.
But John is unconcerned by the opposition groups. “It’s up to them,” he says.
“Often they don’t have the full knowledge of what we’re about. We accept we’re not everyone’s cup of tea and we’ve said on occasion if we weren’t doing it and we ended up sat next to a drum, we wouldn’t be that happy either.
“But if you end up sat next to a drum that’s your fault, you should know where we are by now,” he jokes.
At club level though, they seem to have the majority of fans onside.
After a row with former Wednesday chairman Dave Allen in 2004, the band found themselves forced out of Hillsborough. But following Allen’s resignation five years later, Wednesdayite’s voted in favour of bringing them back to their spiritual home on the Kop.
“Every time there’s been a vote, the fans have agreed to have us back. That says it all really,” says John proudly.
“When Dave Allen did the vote originally, they voted 86% in favour.”
Former player John Pearson spent five years at Hillsborough during the eighties and has also commentated on The Owls for BBC Radio Sheffield. He agrees with that decision.
“I’ve always enjoyed the band, I think it brings a bit of brightness,” says Pearson.
Speaking on the impact they can have on fans, he adds: “One game which sticks in the mind was at Norwich, it wasn’t a great game and I found myself watching the band and the fans. They were unbelievable.
“I think Norwich beat us that day, but when the (Wednesday) fans parted out of the ground their fans stood up and clapped them”.
Pearson believes the impact on the supporters can also transcend on to the pitch: “I think the whole momentum of the supporters getting behind them (the players) can help, and if the band helps the supporters even more I think it does have an impact on the side”.
This confidence in the band persuaded John to give up a comfortable life running his own truck business.
“I was given the choice of a normal everyday job or the band and I chose the band,” he tells us.
Exposure on a national level has led to books, albums and sponsorship deals. But the band isn’t exactly raking in the money.
“It washes its face, shall we say,” he says.
But the opportunities appear to outweigh any possible financial gain.
“We went to Beijing for the Olympics; we’ve been to Vegas five times with Ricky Hatton.” And that’s before we get to all the World Cup’s.
They don’t do it all for nothing though.
“Everything other than football we charge for,” John points out.
This allows him to pay for travel and tickets etc. It also means he can support his wife of five years and John insists the band doesn’t always restrict family life.
“When there’s a tournament she often comes with us, and some of the other lads will take their wives as well. We do the tournament and then stay for a holiday afterwards.”
His job has also given him the chance to mingle with the stars.
“We’ve done four or five singles, one with Madness, one with Ant and Dec, one with Chris Kamara last year.
“We’ve been on Soccer AM 29 times. Helen Chamberlain is a personal friend of mine.”
Despite all of this, he keeps himself grounded.
“Nob’dy likes a big ‘ead,” he says in his broad South Yorkshire accent.
“I am a normal bloke and that’s the good thing about us. We’re no different to anyone else on the Kop at Hillsborough.”
But what happens when the band has to choose between club and country? Does one take priority over another?
“We split,” he says abruptly.
“We’re not one or the other, like a normal fan. Are you Wednesday or are you England? Why can’t you be both?”
With no intention of hanging up their… brass, any time soon, The Supporters Band will be hopefully be playing for club and country for a long time to come.
By Aiden Cusick
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