Abide with me at Wembley: the story of “The Singing Final”
Updated: Aug 1
Sacred choral music and competitive sport - two passions of mine that don’t usually overlap. One of the few times they do is at the FA Cup Final, which this year has had to take an unusual early-August place in the fixture list. When the finalists, Arsenal and Chelsea, line up at Wembley on Saturday, the traditional pre-match routine will happen even without the customary crowd of almost 90,000 fans. Two pieces of music will be sung as part of this ritual: the National Anthem and a nineteenth-century hymn: Abide with me. The latter has apparently been pre-recorded from the stadium roof by Scottish singer/songwriter Emeli Sandé, which gives you an idea of its status.
Singing patriotic anthems at national or international sporting events is hardly unusual - think of medal ceremonies at the Olympics, and inter-country matches in many sports. In the USA, where I’ve been living for the last few years, the Star Spangled Banner is actually sung at the vast majority of professional sporting events, including the national basketball, baseball, and ice hockey leagues. And I don’t mean at the finals - I mean at every single game. In fact the frequency with which the anthem is sung in a sense contributed to the “take a knee” protests in the NFL, led by Colin Kaepernick. That is to say - when you’re singing or at least standing for an anthem every single week, you have a lot of opportunities to consider what it means to do this. If you want to learn more about the musical story of that anthem, I’d recommend reading Will Robin’s article here.
In the UK, while some sports fans are known for their singing (i.e. Liverpool FC and You’ll never walk alone), the national anthem is usually reserved for international matches, or of national matches like the FA cup final. And singing hymns, like Abide with me, is even more unusual than that. I’ve been thinking about how this hymn, which I associate with funerals more than anything else, is an unusual choice for a celebratory occasion like a cup final, and so I wanted to find out how this song had become a regular part of the pre-game ritual.
It turns out Abide with me has been sung at every FA Cup Final since 1927 when it was first introduced. This was the year that Cardiff City beat Arsenal 1-0, and in doing so became the first and so far only non-English side to lift the trophy - in fact at the time it was still referred to as “The English Cup”. Cardiff forward Hughie Ferguson claimed the only goal of the game, though most of the match reports single out Arsenal’s goalkeeper Dan Lewis as being at fault.
Over 90,000 fans crammed into London’s Wembley Stadium that day, while 15,000 City fans assembled back in Cardiff’s Cathays Park to listen to a broadcast of the game - this was the first time live commentary of the FA Cup Final had been on the radio. One of several claims made about the final is that it originated the phrase “back to square one”, used by commentators to refer to the grid system published by the Radio Times. The picture above, from an earlier game that year, shows how the system worked.
The Manchester Guardian was scathing about the football that day, labelling it “a poor final”, and describing Cardiff as “lucky winners”. But the paragraph on the pre-game musical entertainment is more effusive. It describes how the crowd were kept entertained before the game by military bands, but also by their own singing:
The solemn grandeur of “Land of my fathers” vied with the broader patriotism of
the “National Anthem,” but it was in the reverent singing of that beautiful
supplicant “Abide with me” that the Stadium soared to emotional heights that
obliterated for a time all thought of the gladiatorial show that had gathered us
The Hull Daily Mail’s match report credits the power of the singing to the “sweet voices of the men and women from the Principality” - that is to say, the Cardiff fans, who moved people to tears with their tuneful renditions of patriotic songs. But again, the highest praise is reserved for the performance of “Abide with me”:
...in which there was obtained a glimpse of the soul of a crowd primarily on
pleasure bent, but susceptible to the charms of music and sensible of the deeper
meaning underlying life.
There is some kind of connection in the communal singing to a nationalist or pro-royalist sentiment, as King George’s attendance and appreciation of the singing is mentioned in several of the accounts of the day. But it really does seem that the singing itself was genuinely moving and memorable.
The opening of the Hull Daily Mail’s report includes some eye-witness comments of the music before the match. One speaks especially to the power of community singing at football games, or anywhere else:
An unforgettable and indescribable experience for us all. This community singing
is something new and strange in our national life. It is still only in its infancy, but
the Stadium revealed its stupendous power to unite and unify us and to ennoble
us with high emotions.
Little wonder, given its impact on that day in 1927, that Abide with me became a regular pre-game fixture at the FA Cup’s annual denouement, and that the newspaper’s match report was headlined “The Singing Final”.