Mark Mason

The power of the pre-match playlist

The power of the pre-match playlist
Image: @edsheeran
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If England go on to win Euro 2020, you might just have Ed Sheeran to thank. The pop star played a morale-boosting private gig for the squad last week at their St George’s Park training camp in Staffordshire. ‘A bit of food, a barbecue – he jumped on the guitar and played a few songs,’ reported Jordan Henderson. But Sheeran’s set (some of his own songs, plus acoustic versions of UK garage hits) is part of a long and not-always-harmonious relationship between football and pop music. From David Beckham’s dire pre-game playlist to the reason Johnny Marr of the Smiths failed a trial at Manchester City, here’s the turf where Top 40 meets 4-4-2 …

It’s understandable that world-class sports stars will want to look to music for inspiration. The boxer Joe Calzaghe, for instance, always played Spitfire by the Prodigy before his fights. But footballers are often let down by their questionable taste in music. David Beckham’s teammates at Paris Saint-Germain once took a sneaky peek at his dressing room playlist. ‘We were expecting some cool English rock bands and hip-hop,’ said Zlatan Ibrahimović. Instead ‘there was lots of Justin Bieber, Jonas Brothers and Selena Gomez.’

Cristiano Ronaldo maintains the low score rate by citing Ricky Martin and R Kelly among his favourite artists. And Leeds United’s Patrick Bamford uses Bon Jovi to motivate himself before matches, causing Jon Bon Jovi himself to wear the club’s kit in a photograph.

But there are some players working to improve the average. Wayne Rooney loves the Stereophonics so much that he paid them to perform at his wedding, and also has one of their album titles tattooed on his arm: ‘Just Enough Education to Perform’.

Andrés Iniesta loves Kasabian, and indeed Club Foot was Spain’s unofficial anthem during their victorious 2010 World Cup campaign. After the tournament Iniesta invited the Leicester band to watch him play for Barcelona and have a kickabout on the Nou Camp pitch. Another metalhead is David de Gea, though his Manchester United teammates aren’t too keen on Slipknot and Metallica in the dressing room. ‘Whenever he puts heavy metal on,’ said Ashley Young during his time at the club, ‘a few people are looking around thinking “all right, we need to get out of here”.’

Xabi Alonso is a fan of Dinosaur Jr, My Bloody Valentine and the Velvet Underground. But it isn’t just players – managers also get in on the ‘up to 11’ act. Slaven Bilić's West Ham team credited their 3-0 win at Anfield in 2015 to the Megadeth he played in the dressing room (‘it seemed to lift the mood’ said assistant coach Julian Dicks). Jurgen Klopp has compared his style of football to heavy metal, saying that whereas Arsène Wenger ‘likes having the ball, playing football … it’s like an orchestra but it’s a silent song … I always want it loud’. (His favourite bands include KISS.) And at the 2008 press conference unveiling Terry Butcher as Scotland’s assistant manager, the ex-England player’s mobile phone went off, revealing that his ringtone was Sweet Child of Mine by Guns N Roses.

Some footballers are players in both senses. Petr Čech is a safe pair of hands behind a drum kit as well as between the posts – his YouTube channel shows him playing along with tracks by artists such as Nirvana, Linkin Park and even England inspiration Ed Sheeran. In 2019 Čech released a charity single with Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor, entitled That’s Football. He also played in a video with then-Arsenal teammate Alexis Sanchez to raise money for the club’s foundation – Sanchez is a competent pianist, and indeed announced his move to Old Trafford by releasing a video of himself playing Glory Glory Man United.

Gary Neville has shown off his guitar skills onstage with the Stone Roses. The Man Utd legend also owns a guitar signed by Noel Gallagher, who inevitably only applied his signature after daubing the instrument with Manchester City references.

Some footballers express their musicality in other ways. Chelsea great Pat Nevin (who once asked to be substituted at half-time so he could catch a gig by the Cocteau Twins) has DJed in both his native Glasgow and hipsterish Dalston. Aston Villa’s Dion Dublin is such an accomplished drummer that he invented a cubic percussive box called the Dube (though sadly the old ‘fact’ about his father being the drummer in Showaddywaddy is untrue – the real drummer, Romeo Challenger, is friends with Dublin’s brother). And ex-England star Rio Ferdinand even set up his own record label, White Chalk Music. However Ferdinand’s most memorable connection with music was during his nine-month ban for missing a drugs test – opposition fans chanted ‘his name is Rio, and he watches from the stand’.

When it comes to pop stars who play football, there is some traffic in the other direction. Rod Stewart was good enough in his younger days to play for Middlesex Schoolboys, and even had a trial for Brentford. His love of the game is still legendary, as evidenced by his ‘well-refreshed’ drawing of the balls for the 2017 Scottish FA Cup.

Other musicians with on-pitch credentials include Julio Iglesias (goalkeeper for Real Castilla’s B team, before a car crash ended his career – his interest in music started in hospital, when a nurse handed him a guitar), and Olly Murs, who played semi-professionally for Witham Town. As a teenager the Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr excited the interest of Manchester City. But he admits that ‘I didn’t take football seriously enough to push it to the next level. I’d go for a trial and take to the pitch wearing eyeliner’.