Everyone knows that Arsenal fans have been singing “One-Nil to the Arsenal” since George Graham made the scoreline popular when he tried to bore us to death in the latter part of his tenure as Arsenal boss. And we’ve sung it ever since, mostly ironically for quite a few years, but more recently sometimes actually in celebration of being ahead against Sunderland or someone similar.
But where did we get the ditty from? I contend that we ‘borrowed’ it from West Brom. Before we get to that, students of Arsenal history may be aware that the 1939 film The Arsenal Stadium Mystery features a game between Arsenal and the fictional Trojans amateur team where Arsenal are leading at half time. The commentator, EVH Emmett (playing himself), says, “The score at half time is Arsenal 1, Trojans 0,” to which then-manager George Allison, sitting next to him as co-commentator, replies: “And that’s just how we like it!” (You can watch the whole film on YouTube, and the comment comes about 13 minutes in.) Some have cited this as evidence that “One-nil to the Arsenal” has been in common use that long, but that’s not really feasible. No doubt it was occasionally used in conversation, commentary and newspaper headlines, but crowds at football didn’t do a lot of synchronised chanting in those days, and by the time the film came out World War 2 had started, which cancelled competitive football until 1946. And although any game with goals is going to be 1-0 at some point, as a final result 1-0 was not particularly common in the 1930s and 1940s, when matches were often higher scoring and more one-sided due to dodgy pitches and the lack of substitutes. Besides all that, there’s the tune itself, which although based on an original arrangement from 1680, was not well-known until the 1970s.
So back to more modern times. The tune of the chant is of course Go West, originally a single by the Village People in 1979 and sandwiched between their bigger hits, YMCA and In The Navy. It was revived in 1992 for some sort of charity gig by the Pet Shop Boys, who released it as a single in 1993. The Pet Shop Boys’ use of Soviet-style imagery in the video coupled with the message of the title caught the imagination of many across Europe in those times of Perestroika and the Berlin Wall falling, and it became a huge hit.
The common view amongst Arsenal fans is that it was first sung as ‘One-nil to the Arsenal’ at the European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes on March 29, 1994. Ian Wright had put Arsenal 1-0 up after 35 minutes, and we went into the break with this slender lead. By all accounts the Pet Shop Boys’ version of Go West was played at half time in the stadium, causing a spontaneous thought from some Arsenal fan to use the tune. The PSG fans were already singing ‘Allez, Paris Saint-Germain’ to the same tune, and no doubt the stadium DJ often played it precisely because the PSG fans sang it anyway, and not just because Europeans lap up cheesy disco pop. As it happened, the beautiful David Ginola, with his flowing locks and absence of dandruff, scored an equaliser only five minutes into the second half, cutting short the Village People revival in the Arsenal section of the crowd.
Wikipedia contends that it was first sung by Arsenal fans at the final in Copenhagen; Wikipedia also contends that it is an original Arsenal chant. I don’t believe either of those is true.
There is enough evidence in the collective consciousness of Arsenal fans to be certain that we did sing it at that Paris semi-final. However, that doesn’t mean we invented it or that that was necessarily the first time Arsenal fans used it. Don’t forget the song had been around for 15 years by then, and football fans are always looking for new things to sing – particularly in those days of terraces, when believe it or not you had to turn up early to get a good place and thus often spent an hour singing before the match had even started.And there’s one club that Go West is perfect for: West Bromwich Albion. You can make a chant of ‘Go West (pause) Bromwich Albion’ and it fits perfectly with the tune and rhythm. I believe West Brom fans were doing this long before the Pet Shop Boys decided to do their cover version. West Brom fans of course refer to their club as ‘The Albion’, and it’s only a short step from the original chant to ‘One-nil to the Albion’, or even, if they were lucky, two-nil, three-nil or four-nil. In fact any score below seven scans perfectly well. Brighton fans – another club known to its supporters as ‘the Albion’ – also use it, and may also have adopted it long before 1994.
So I contend that some Arsenal fans had heard the West Brom version, possibly the Brighton version too (or instead), probably long before 1994, but definitely at some point before that Paris semi-final. Hearing the song on the tannoy and/or the chants from the PSG fans, coupled with the apposite scoreline meant that someone in the Arsenal end put two and two together – or one and nil in this case – and the Arsenal version was sung loud and proud.
I should also say that since writing this piece two commenters have expressed the view that ‘One-nil to the Arsenal’ was sung at the CWC Quarter Final home leg against Torino a few weeks earlier- see the comments below. Actual proof is obviously hard to come by. Either way, I’d be amazed if in the 15 years after the song was first released West Brom hadn’t tried several variations before we got near it. Now I don’t have hard proof that West Brom fans were singing this before 1994, so if you know any West Brom fans ask them what they think.
It’s quite possible that if the semi-final second leg and the final had not finished one-nil to the Arsenal, that we’d all have forgotten about this particular song and moved on. But they did, and the scoreline seemed to become ever more common as George Graham began fielding almost a full team of centre-backs plus Ian Wright, so we got a fairly steady stream of reminders.
For the 340-year history (yes, 340 years!) of the tune itself rather than just Arsenal’s use of it, there’s an article here.
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