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Oddball's Coming Home: 10 leftfield songs about sport

Updated: May 5, 2020

Phil Shaw

Dogs: The Who

A 1968 single by Townshend, Daltrey, Entwhistle and Moon, and a relative flop which peaked at No25, the song is about greyhound racing, beer-drinking, betting and a working-class love story. It even names two dogs that ran in that year’s Greyhound Derby. Daltrey and Entwhistle later suggested it would have been better to give the song to the Small Faces, but it remains a gem of the ’Oo canon. Worth checking out for the spoken fade-out… which finishes with the words ‘lovely buttocks’.

Long Shot Kick De Bucket: The Pioneers

One of the many irresistible reggae singles which got the bovver boots on the dancefloor in the late Sixties – and it was about a racehorse meeting its maker. Written and produced by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, it starts with ‘weepin’ and wailin’ at Caymanas Park’ (Jamaica’s only racetrack). ‘Long Shot fell,’ lament The Pioneers, and ‘All we money gone a hell’. The trio’s version, which inspired a fine live cover by The Specials, finally reached the UK charts in 1980 and they remain occasionally active today.

Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song): Warren Zevon

From the 2002 album My Ride’s Here comes the story of Buddy, who is recruited by a major team as a ‘goon’, i.e. to fight opponents, yet longs to score. The chance comes in the dying moments of his final match – ‘20 years of waiting went into that shot’ – only for a Finn to ‘coldcock’ Buddy (look it up) as he despatches the puck. ‘What’s a Canadian farm boy to do?’ asks the singer. ‘Hit somebody!’ comes the reply, supplied by Zevon uber fan and talk-show éminence grise David Letterman.

Take the Skinheads Bowling: Camper Van Beethoven

The Californian band’s David Lowery described this 1985 track, which he wrote for the album Telephone Free Landslide Victory, as ‘weird, nonsensical and purposely structured so it would be devoid of meaning’. ‘Some people say that bowling alleys got big lanes’ is as profound as it gets. But its title line was a real earworm. Not only did it reach No8 in the UK indie charts, it was covered by Teenage Fanclub (for Michael Moore’s film Bowling For Columbine) and the Manic Street Preachers.

The Swimming Song: Loudon Wainwright III

Quality-wise there’s only a cigarette paper between this, performed by its writer, and the gorgeous harmonies in the treatment by Kate & Anna McGarrigle (the former was married to LW3 when they covered it). The original gets the nod from me. In 1973, when many singer-songwriters were becoming bogged down in introspection and self-pity, the man once branded the new Dylan delivered a banjo-driven homage to the ‘old Australian crawl’, the ‘cannonball’, ‘swan dives’ and other watery pursuits.

No Mercy: Nils Lofgren

Bruce Springsteen introduces Lofgren as the greatest guitarist in the world. He’s a fine lyricist and singer too, as this cut about the brutality and conflicting emotions prompted by the supposedly noble art of boxing demonstrated on the 1979 album Nils. The future E-Streeter writes from the perspective of a young fighter up against a veteran: ‘Back in my corner they scream “no mercy! / Put him him away, don’t let him recover” / Someone’s eyes drill holes in my head / It is his proud, determined mother’.

Speedway: The Kursaal Flyers

Co-written by drummer Will Birch, who went on to produce superb biographies of Ian Dury and Nick Lowe, this 1975 single by Southend’s finest is a country-tinged pub-rock pastiche of death songs such as Tell Laura I Love Her… with a twist. ‘I hit the fence/ A wheel came loose…’ but then the hero saw his Sally’s face and knew that he’d pull through. You can almost see the droning, one-gear-no-brakes bikes sending the shale flying in one of those speedway towns like Rayleigh or Romford.

Victory Test Match: Lord Beginner

Penned by Trinidadian Egbert Moore, aka Beginner, this is cricket calypso at its best. It celebrates the West Indies’ maiden Test victory in the mother country, at Lord’s in 1950, starting with the refrain of ‘Cricket, lovely cricket’ and detailing the dramatis personae, from the vanquished England captain Yardley to the Windies’ 20-year-old spin twins, ‘those little pals of mine, Ramadhin and Valentine’. Lovely to think of the Windrush generation revelling in their compatriots' breakthrough triumph as they settled into London.

Hamish the Goalie: Michael Marra

Marra was Dundee’s own Randy Newman, a clever, witty wordsmith who in another track had Frida Kahlo visiting the city’s Tay Bridge Bar, though she never did. The hero of this piano ballad is Hamish McAlpine, Dundee United goalkeeper for 20 years who was renowned for booming kicks (‘Out runs Hamish and the ball’s in Invergowrie Bay’), taking penalties and swinging on the crossbar. The song features Grace Kelly in the Tannadice stand watching Monaco in the Uefa Cup, which really did happen in 1981.

Third Down, 110 To Go: Jesse Winchester

This is an album title, not a particular track, a play on how territorial gains are described in American Football. A regulation gridiron field is 100 yards long, so the title is an impossibility; a metaphor for hopelessness. Since Winchester was exiled from the south of the US to Montreal after fleeing the draft during the Vietnam war, one assumes that the title was his way of representing a feeling of loss and dislocation. Whatever the truth, like all his records, it’s brimming with his own beautifully crafted songs.


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