Back in the USSR: The Beatles and Football
14th June, 2018
The greatest band in the world came from Liverpool, a city with both a strong musical and sporting history, it is not only the birthplace of the Fab Four but also home to two world-class football clubs. So, the question has often been raised by fans whether any of the Beatles were interested in football, and in particular were they Liverpool ‘red’ or Everton ‘blue’ – it’s famously difficult to answer and has never really been resolved.
It would be unusual for four lads from Liverpool not to be football fanatics, as most of Merseyside is mad about the sport, but the usual story that emerges is that none of the Beatles were particularly bothered about football. There are however several clues throughout the band’s history which may suggest that the Fab Four had more of an interest in the sport after all.
Most Beatles fans will know about Albert Stubbins’ inclusion on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, which was supposedly John Lennon’s idea. Stubbins was signed by Liverpool FC for a club record fee in 1946, he went on to become joint top scorer for the season and helped Liverpool to win the League Championship for the first time in 24 years. He was the only footballer to be honoured with a wax figure on the famous cover, positioned between Marlene Dietrich and Lewis Carroll.
Another ex-Liverpool footballer, Sir Matt Busby, who spent five years at Anfield before becoming Manchester United manager, is name-checked by Lennon on the Beatles’ song ‘Dig It’. John’s dad was a Liverpool fan which suggests the singer would have leaned towards ‘the reds’ as a boy.
Despite this, John’s cover art for his 1974 album Walls and Bridges depicts an image of a football match between Arsenal and Newcastle, painted by himself aged 11. Looking at the date on the cover the painting is most likely of the 1952 FA Cup final, which Newcastle won 1-0. Note the inclusion of the number 9 shirt, worn on the day by winning goal scorer Jackie Milburn, a number which becomes a recurrent theme throughout Lennon’s life and work.
Paul on the other hand has mentioned on record that most of his family are Evertonians, he attended a 1966 game with Lennon, seeing Everton beat Sheffield Wednesday 3-2, as well as the Toffees’ loss to West Bromwich Albion two years later. In an interview with the Observer Sports Monthly magazine, Paul said:
"Here’s the deal: my father was born in Everton, my family are officially Evertonians, so if it comes down to a derby match or an FA Cup final between the two, I would have to support Everton.
"But after a concert at Wembley Arena I got a bit of a friendship with Kenny Dalglish, who had been to the gig and I thought ‘You know what? I am just going to support them both because it’s all Liverpool and I don’t have that Catholic-Protestant thing.
"They are both great teams. But if it comes to the crunch, I’m Evertonian."
To further confuse matters it was Paul rather than John who sent the telegram to Liverpool’s Albert Stubbins along with a copy of the Sgt. Pepper’s album which read: “Well done Albert for all those glorious years of football. Long may you bob and weave.” In 1968 Paul was also photographed during the ‘Mad Day Out’ wearing a red and white rosette, supposedly belonging to a Liverpool fan that they encountered during their travels and there are anecdotes about him listening to the 1977 FA Cup final between Liverpool and Manchester United whilst drifting on his yacht in the Caribbean.
It is thought that Brian Epstein insisted the Beatles kept their favourite football teams secret, knowing full well it could alienate massive sections of their audience. Perhaps the Beatles’ manager should have advised the band to wear different colour scarves during the Help! film, as football fans have since claimed that the red and white scarves were a reference to LFC.
Another film-based reference can be found during the ‘Blue Jay Way’ sequence in Magical Mystery Tour as Paul, George and Ringo are captured fooling around with a football, albeit using their hands. The sequence was filmed on 3rd November 1967, the final day of filming for Magical Mystery Tour, in the spacious grounds of Ringo’s Weybridge country home.
The ‘Eleanor Rigby’ scene during The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film also references the sport, as it depicts two football teams, one in blue and the other in red, perhaps representing the band’s hometown teams of Liverpool and Everton.
George Harrison was probably least interested in the sport, or was at least the most careful to dismiss any allegiances to red or blue teams by stating: “There are three teams in Liverpool and I prefer the other one.” Ringo, on the other hand, whose favourite colour is red, would attend Arsenal away games at both Anfield and Goodison Park with his stepfather, Harry Graves, who was from London.
Regarding international football it is unknown whether The Beatles watched or listened to the 1966 World Cup Final, or where they were during one of the biggest sporting events of their lives, which saw England take home the trophy for the only time in their history. The alternative version of ‘Glass Onion’ found on Anthology 3 does however sample Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary from the final as his phrase “it’s a goal” is repeated during the fade out. This, as well as various other sound effects were interestingly replaced by strings for the original White Album release in 1968.
With all this being said perhaps the most significant artefact which connects The Beatles to football is the telegram sent by the band to Liverpool manager Bill Shankly in 1965, wishing him and the team luck in their upcoming FA Cup final.
In 1965, Liverpool were still without an FA Cup win on their honours list and were facing old rivals Leeds United in the final. Liverpool won the game 2-1, with Ian St John scoring the winning goal, securing ‘the reds’ their first ever FA Cup trophy.
That very telegram is now on display at the Shankly Hotel in Liverpool, and was found within Bill’s personal effects by family members. It reads: “Best of luck lads, we’ll be watching on the tele. John, Paul, George and Ringo.”
Whether you think the Beatles were interested in football of not, there’s no denying that they were an incredible band, and today are one of the many reasons, along with football, that people from around the world visit the city of Liverpool. Do you think the Beatles were football fans? Let us know your thoughts by sharing this article on social media using the hashtag #beatlesstory.