The fan - Hunter Davies hums a good old tune

Hum, hum, hummin' along, I trace the songs that ring on the terraces

Watching Birmingham City against Chelsea last weekend on TV, I could hear from the first few minutes the strains of "Keep Right On To the End of the Road" being sung by the Birmingham faithful. I felt a sliver of pleasure. Not because I'm a City fan, or wanted Chelsea to get stuffed, which I did, but I was thinking, ah, isn't that nice - some traditions do linger on in this nasty, mercenary football world.

How long have City supporters sung that song? Dunno. But I know it dates back to 1918, and was written and sung by Sir Harry Lauder after his son was killed in the First World War.

Then there's "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles", which is almost as old - 1919 - but is American in origin and was performed in a musical called The Passing Show. West Ham fans took it over as their theme tune some time in the 1930s because, supposedly, one of their players had very curly hair and looked like the boy in the Millais painting Bubbles.

Even older in origin is the shout of "Come on you Irons" by West Ham fans, which must mean little to most non-West Ham fans today.

It refers to Thames Ironworks, the club's original name when it was begun in 1895 by the owner of the Ironworks. In 1900, the club was reborn as West Ham United.

Charlton always step out on to their pitch to "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin' Along". I don't know its origins, but it sounds 1930s and American, and was probably adopted because Charlton play in red.

Everton's Z Cars theme tune, which accompanies them on to the pitch, is easier to explain if you are over 40. Otherwise, you have probably forgotten that excellent TV police series that was set on Merseyside.

Liverpool's anthem, "You'll Never Walk Alone", is a Rodgers and Hammerstein song from 1945 first made famous by Frank Sinatra. Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Liverpool group, got it to Number One in 1963, and then the Kop adopted it.

Spurs play "McNamara's Band" to greet the team, have done so for decades. I've always presumed it was a reference to Danny Blanchflower and his Irishness. I could be wrong.

The point of these songs, which fans on the terraces have passed on through the generations, is that every true-born Red/Blue/Little White/Claret'n'Blue knows it is their song, which they will sing on the way to and from the game, in the pub, all the way to the end of their road.

Foreign players, however much they learn to kiss the badge, must have no idea of the significance of these fairly soppy, maudlin songs when they are being belted out so lustily by 30,000 swaying, waving fans.

They probably do actually recognise the badges, if by chance they have fetched up at one of our more famous clubs, and will also know the traditional colours. They will have grown up watching them on TV, reading boys' footie mags and the back pages in their countries' newspapers. But they're unlikely to know about the club's musical history.

Arsenal haven't got an old song that gets played or sung by their fans, but in the past they did have live music, performed by the police band that paraded up and down. Many clubs did something similar, usually with the local brass band. The leader would twirl his big baton and then throw it up in the air, and we all waited in anticipation for him to drop it.

Arsenal's police band was the most impressive of them all. I have a match programme in front of me from 1954 which lists the items to be played, all of them light-opera or musical numbers.

At the end of the announcement it states: "All engagements are by permission of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, Sir John Nott-Bower, KCVO, and subject to the exigencies of the service." I treasure the programme for the beauty of the wording, not just the footer content.

Incidentally, it worked at Birmingham. They kept singing "Keep Right On To the End of the Road" till the last kick - and City got an excellent draw against a lumpen, boring Chelsea.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Religion: who needs it?