Euro 2012: Banned England band fails to find support among the fans
The repeated renditions of tunes that have soundtracked England's soporific tournament displays can be oppressive
On the face of it, the news that England's brass supporters' band had been refused entry to the Donbass Arena in Donetsk by security officials shortly before kick-off in the team's opening Group D fixture sounded like another example of the heavy-handed corporate nannying that has provided its own muted background music to the opening week of Euro 2012.
The Sheffield-based band has parped its way through a familiar roster of tunes you know and perhaps vaguely dislike by now at every England game for the past 16 years. What greater emblem could there be of the sponsor-driven restrictions on supporters and locals that have already generated their own current of slight unease? Perhaps this might even provide the spur for an unlikely nexus between the popular uprising of the Polish f*** Euros movement – the blue collar Ultras who have dogged prime minister Donald Tusk – and Sheffield's own crew of mild-mannered oompa-merchants.
Except, initial reaction among England supporters has been a little more fractured. The suspicion is still live among the career cynics of social media that this is in fact a marketing conflict rather than a case of the little man squashed by the fist of big sporting administration as the band's – ahem – official sponsors have suggested. "Pukka Pies will be making an official representation to Uefa following the exclusion of the Pukka Pies England Band for the England versus France …" begins a band statement that mentions Pukka Pies four times in its opening 35 words.
It is sponsorship by the British pie firm that has facilitated the band's travel to the coal-planes of far-eastern Ukraine, there to provide what its members see as a genuine service, a musical balm to these England fans in need of a draught of reassuring brass music and – in theory – a spur also to the team. Uefa, though, is nothing if not aggressively protective of its branding rights. Ambush marketing is a very real neurosis among the organisers of such sporting beanos – corporate gatecrashers within Fifa's controlled zone at the World Cup in South Africa were arrested – and it has been tempting for some to see in the band's exclusion an extension of this phenomenon.
Not so according to the band's mild-mannered and very likeable leader, John Hemmingham, who was still present in the baking heat outside the Donbass Arena on Tuesday morning. "The FA had an agreement in place with Uefa for us to go inside the stadium, but it looks like security at the stadium overturned it," Hemmingham said. "The Uefa people had even helped us to get inside with our instruments. Then a security guard turned up and told us to leave."
It was an apparently unilateral decision by the Donbass head of security not to let the band in, entirely unrelated, Hemmingham says, to sponsorship: "We cover up our branding when we go in to the stadium and that's what we'd done on Monday night. We understand concerns about ambush marketing and our sponsors don't want any bad publicity either."
These are admirable sentiments, even if Pukka has hardly tried to dampen the fires of mid-tournament publicity. Nonetheless Uefa had previously consented to the band's presence and it appears that barring further developments they will be back in Kiev's Olympic Stadium on Friday providing a familiar soundtrack of The Great Escape, the national anthem and other well-worn refrains. Albeit the prospect of a return to Donetsk on the 19th for England's final group game already has the makings of a parpingly soundtracked Western-style standoff with local security.
For many England fans, both in the stadium and on TV, this is a prospect that will be regarded with divided loyalties. It is only fair to note that if the expected outpouring of public sympathy for the band has failed to materialise it is because, sponsorship aside, there are plenty of supporters who find their playing a novelty that has outstayed its welcome, and on television an unwanted soundtrack provided without a mute button.
The band may have 151 songs in their repertoire, including a well-known Ukrainian number with which they have successfully serenaded locals ("It's like the Ukrainian equivalent of playing Ilkla Moor Baht 'at to a Yorkshireman"), but for some the repeated renditions of tunes that have soundtracked England's recent soporific tournament displays can be oppressive, a mnemonic of past failures.
Reaction on Twitter – where reaction is always scathing – has of course been scathing. And of 117 comments on the Band's Pukka Pies Facebook page, not a single one as of Tuesday lunchtime was even vaguely supportive. Deb Leadsford provided perhaps the most balanced response: "The only people it's a shame for is the band. I'm sure they're nice guys but they're a constant source of irritation when England are playing."
At which point it is only fair to place England's rather beleaguered band in the wider context of stadium fan-tertainment at these championships. The devil, they say, has all the best tunes, but this is apparently not the case in Ukraine where, if Uefa's own astonishingly infantile pre-match entertainment is anything to go by, quite the opposite is true. In fact the devil, embodied here in the guise of homogenising corporate stadium-schmaltz, clearly has the worst tunes. Not to mention tunes that are terrifyingly loud and filled in at the edges by the barked imprecations of the most annoyingly insistent breed of stadium PA announcer yet concocted.
It is tempting to conclude that a new low was witnessed half an hour before kick-off in the Donbass Arena on Monday night, around about the time the band were being ejected. As English and French fans attempted to settle into their seats, taking in the panoramic plastic beauty of a stadium most had travelled thousands of miles to visit, Uefa's approved pre-match MC could be heard assailing in deafening amplified tones the tiny band of French present. "Come on Frances! Frances!! Come on!!!" bellowed an insufferable, capering man in jeans stationed at the side of the pitch.
"Yeah!! Let me hear you!!! Yeah Frances!!! Frances!!!"
And so it went on, for ages, without response. This is a heavy-handed large-scale event and these things are often simply amusing oddities. But as already noted by others, there is a broader sense of basic misjudgment in Uefa's presentation, symptom of a wider urge to market the game as sponsor-funnelled broad-brush entertainment, with energies concerted away from the inelastic consumer demand of the genuine fan – who's coming anyway – and aimed instead at some vague notion of the floating consumer, for whom the rough edges of existing terrace-style culture must be sanded down. And who must apparently be constantly stimulated via approved corporate bellowing set to a soundtrack of cranium splitting Euro fun-music.
Football should not require such inane bombast. It is an atmosphere all of itself. Albeit, there may well be a seed of anxiety in Uefa's boisterous stadium management, a lack of confidence in the ability of its guests to enjoy themselves sufficiently boisterously, or at least to provide a sufficiently winning televisual backdrop. Empty seats were visible in the Donbass Arena during England's opening match, despite supporters having been told the match was a sell-out. In fact stewards were witnessed letting in at least a thousand local youngsters for free 15 minutes into the match, presumably in an attempt to fill some of the holes. This is unsurprising.
Donetsk has been largely unmoved by England's presence here. This is a town for whom host duties and a vast, market-leading stadium have been provided from above, driven by the influence – and deep pockets – of local oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.
Many present remarked on the fact that this was the first England game at which they had ever been able to hear the individual shouts of the players (at one point in the second half Scott Parker shouted "I'm all right Gal! I'm all right Gal!" at Gary Lewin at least 10 times – Gal: if you're reading this, he's all right) despite the stadium holding close to 50,000 spectators. The band, present without instruments, may have their own views on this. With the next two group games also struggling to sell out their England allocation, we may have to wait a while to be reminded what a genuine England football crowd sounds like without its accompaniment of the last 16 years.
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