After national side qualifies for World Cup finals in Brazil, followers want respite from group's limited repertoire
For almost 20 years the sound of their brass instruments blaring out has been a constant feature of England football internationals. The England Band's renditions of staples such as Rule Britannia and the theme from the film The Dam Busters has in turn entertained and infuriated fans at every match the national side have played since their debut at Wembley in 1996.
Now they are embroiled in controversy as they face a cacophony of ccalls for them to lay their instruments aside at next year's World Cup finals in Brazil, with comedian David Baddiel commenting on Twitter: "I tire of endless Rule Britannias and Great Escapes."
The leader of the band has now hit back, rounding on "armchair football fans" who constantly criticise his group's efforts on the terraces to improve the atmosphere at both home and away matches. John Hemmingham, who has travelled the world to watch England on more than 150 occasions and confirmed that his troupe will be in Rio for next year's finals, following the team's qualification last week, urged supporters to get off their sofas and come to games instant of whining about the brass band on social media.
"It really does distort the picture," he told the Observer. "The reality is that fans migrate towards us during the game. After the Poland match we had people coming up and shaking our hands, thanking us. After our last away game [when England drew 0-0 in Ukraine] people stayed for half an hour after the game with us to join in the songs."
Hemmingham also rebuts the allegation that the band only plays two songs, saying that they have added Roy Hodgson's Barmy Army and the White Stripes' hit Seven Nation Army to their repertoire. "We're not beyond criticism and listen to what fans say, but we do play quite a variety of songs. Anyone who doubts that should go back and look at Tuesday night's match again. The people who complain on Twitter might want to come to a game and listen for themselves."
The supporters' band emerged from the terraces at Hillsborough, Sheffield Wednesday's ground, when – following Hemmingham's decision to smuggle a bugle into the ground in 1993, which met with a favourable response – then manager Trevor Francis asked him to form a club band. Word spread and a call from the England manager, Glenn Hoddle, in 1996 led to the formation of the band. They made their debut in a 2-1 win against Poland at Wembley that year.
The band currently has 22 members, including comedian Bernie Clifton on trombone, although drums and trumpets dominate. Together, they have travelled to more than 60 countries, spending tens of thousands of pounds. Yet not everyone has been supportive.
The euphoria that engulfed England fans after the 2-0 victory at Wembley against Poland on Tuesday night was tempered for some by the inevitable consequence of qualification that the band will again be out in full musical force. Many fans are imploring members to hang up their instruments for good and have taken to Twitter to vent their frustration. Fergus Craig likened it to "the Go Compare advert of international football fans". Dermot Kelly said: "The England Supporters Band is right up there with the vuvuzela for wanting to stab myself in the head with a fork."
Huddersfield sports commentator John Dobson gave a typical reaction to the raucous atmosphere at last week's match: "If 18,000 Polish supporters drown out the England band, they should be invited to every game at Wembley."
The band's website largely fails to list testimonials in their support, apart from messages of goodwill from the Labour MP David Blunkett and a former minister for sport, Richard Caborn. "The band does a lot to foster goodwill on an international level," says Caborn. The same cannot always be said on the domestic side.
Dobson told the Observer: " I don't know anyone who likes the band. I've never seen anyone comment on them in a positive way. The problem is that it's inescapable, if you're in a ground or watching on television.
"I've been to Wembley enough times for club games – without bands – and had a great time, like when 8,000 York fans matched 30,000-plus Luton fans for noise at the play-off final a couple of seasons back. We didn't need to be told by self-appointed fun-merchants when we were supposed to try and give the players a lift.
"If your first reaction to something happening is to parp out a version of The Great Escape theme, then I suggest you need help."