Until relatively recent times the FA Cup final provided the real climax to the English football season. From the early 1890s onwards (and probably from before this time) the magic of The Cup meant that FA Cup ties, particularly in the latter stages of the competition, were often played in a carnival atmosphere. Fans wore fancy dress, teams had lucky mascots (often live animals in the pre-World War One era) and huge crowds attended the matches. Fans created their own songs, often adaptations of popular music hall songs of the day.
Back in the 1920s, for example, Swansea Town fans had a wide repertoire of popular tunes which supplemented the Welsh hymns and airs which they also sang. These included Fow-Fow-Fow- Fowler, an ode to goalscoring centre forward Jack Fowler (an adaptation of Chick-chick-chick -chicken) and I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles (which was accompanied by the waving of white handkerchiefs).
While modern fans might sing of going to Wembley Stadium, the home of the Cup Final since 1923, apart from a brief exile in Cardiff, pre-World War One fans sang of going to Crystal Palace, which was where the final was played from 1895 to 1914.
It’s a Long Way to Tipperary is rightly remembered as one of the most popular songs of World War One, but its popularity dates from earlier than this. The song was written in 1912, almost certainly an adaptation of an earlier song, It’s a Long Way to Connemara, and seems to have gained popularity almost immediately, particularly in Lancashire (the song was said to have been written in Stalybridge). The Preston Herald (18 December 1912) described Tipperary as having “the type of chorus, rhythmical and rollicking, that a music-hall audience loves.”
Burnley enjoyed a great run in the FA Cup that season, beating local rivals Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park in the quarter-finals before going out to Sunderland in the replayed semi-final.
After the win at Ewood Park the Burnley Express printed the words of a song (attributed to ‘A Supporter’) which adapted the words of It’s a Long Way to Tipperary:
It’s a long way to Crystal Palace,
It’s a long way to go,
It’s a long way to Crystal Palace,
Leeds City told us so;
And poor old Rovers, too,
It’s a long, long way to Crystal Palace,
But we’re going there, that’s true
Burnley defeated Leeds City, Middlesbrough and Blackburn Rovers en route to the semi-final; they had also beaten Gainsborough Trinity, but Trinity were by now non-league and this probably explains why Gainsborough does not appear in the lyrics.
Burnley fans were in good voice at the semi-final with Sunderland which took place at Bramall Lane on 29 March, the Burnley Express (2 April 1913) noting that “some of the parties had seen to it that they lacked not the means of passing the time without dry throats”, or in other words, they had consumed a few drinks before the game. The most popular song of the day for Clarets’ fans was It’s a Long Way to Crystal Palace which ‘Brunbank’ in the Burnley Express called the “Burnley Anthem”.
While Burnley lost the replayed semi-final to the Wearsiders, they went a step further in 1913-14, winning the trophy for the only time in the club’s history. The match, which was the first Cup Final attended by a reigning monarch, King George V, was the last final ever played at Crystal Palace as the ground was requisitioned by the military soon after war broke out. Clarets’ fans continued to sing their anthem during the Cup campaign: “For the past few years the more demonstrative of Burnley enthusiasts have, on the occasions of their favourites’ appearances in the English Cup ties, sung with much lustiness It’s a long, long way to Crystal Palace.” (Burnley Express, 29 April 1914) Presumably the names of the teams defeated by the Clarets were changed for 1913-14 and it is possible the final line was also changed slightly; a later report records this as ‘But Burnley’s sure to go’ rather than the original ‘But we’re going there, that’s true’. (Burnley Express, 2 April 1924)
During World War One It’s a Long Way to Tipperary became one of the great marching tunes adopted by British soldiers, and, of course, this is why it is still remembered today, over 100 years later. Coincidentally the song became a staple of the community singing repertoire sung at Cup Finals through to the early 1970s. The ‘Burnley Anthem’ that accompanied the 1912-13 and 1913-14 FA Cup campaigns deserves a place in the history of football songs as an early example of how fans adapted popular contemporary songs to encourage their team to victory. It also shows that Tipperary enjoyed widespread popularity amongst contemporaries before war broke out in the summer of 1914.