How Hibernian’s Sunshine On Leith became an anthem for all of football

Words By Stephen Tudor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
March 23, 2018

Stripping all heady emotion out of the equation it was perhaps inevitable that Sunshine On Leith would become a terrace anthem for Hibernian supporters. The song – a paean to the restorative powers of home – was written by two lifelong Hibees and furthermore lovingly celebrates the district of Edinburgh where Easter Road is located. In these regards then it was, is, and will always be a perfect fit.

Yet tying together the song and a fan-base so neatly doesn’t solely overlook the sentiment behind the choral singing of it, that when accompanied by a sea of raised scarves, elevates each occasion to dimpling goose-bumps onto the soul: it also ignores the overcoming of logistics too.

It is fairly commonplace for songs from popular culture to transfer over to football. Think Crystal Palace fans bellowing out Glad All Over or the Stoke masses crooning Delilah. In almost every example however the song has a nursery rhyme melody that is catchy on first hearing and lyrics that contain the bare minimum of lingual acrobatics. Staying with Glad All Over its most complicated wordplay are the three times that it stretches to two syllables and those three words are ‘baby’, ‘feeling’ and ‘always’. This is by no means intended as criticism of South London’s Saturday afternoon psalm incidentally. It is punchy and immediate, relating to the universal excitement felt by reciprocated love which transplants perfectly to devotion felt for a team. Its very simplicity ensures that a multitude can sing it as one regardless of their state of inebriation or familiarity to match-day conventions.

Compare and contrast though to The Proclaimers’ minor hit from the late eighties that is complex in its structure, a ballad that makes you believe it’s going one way before succumbing to bathos, then tricking you all over again before soaring into an unusual two-tiered chorus. More so there are the weighty themes that are explored throughout: a broken heart and salvation along with the realisation of self-worth and the rejoicing of existence and all courtesy of God (referred to as ‘the chief’) and nature’s party piece shining down on a city that looks out on the Firth of Forth.

In this context it’s a wonder it took off at all and not only in the Easter Road stands but beyond, becoming an anthem for a people. As acclaimed author – and son of Leith – Irvine Welsh wrote recently: ‘If you’re from the green half of Edinburgh, you’ve belted this out at football games and weddings and cried as it plays at funerals’.

This week Welsh’s twelfth novel Dead Man’s Trousers comes out, a tome that is said to have been directly inspired by the song which would make it a clean sweep for Sunshine On Leith having already generated a cracking musical and slightly saccharine film.

But back to football and back to Hibs or, more accurately, back to all of us because also this week in researching for this article I indulged in a thoroughly enjoyable YouTube session, re-watching some of the most memorable and rousing renditions of the song in the afterglow of promotions and derby wins. Then there’s my particular favourite of Hib’s League Cup success in 2007 with newbie boss John Collin furiously blinking back stunned tears as he takes it all in, this mad panorama of green and deafening feels.

Halfway through my girlfriend broke the reverie with a query that stumped me two ways over.

“Why are you crying again?”

Though I was entirely perplexed I initially concentrated on the adverb.


“Yeah, you listened to that song a couple of years ago and it set you off then too”

This was true. I’d forgotten. In 2016 Hibs won the Scottish Cup for the first time in 114 years having finished runner-up on ten separate occasions in between. The manner of their victory was dramatic in the extreme with an enthralling 2-2 draw against Rangers heading for extra-time until Hibs’ captain David Gray headed home a 92nd minute winner. Cue utter carnage that unfortunately turned literal moments after the final whistle, when thousands of Hibees swarmed onto the pitch, breaking one of the goals in a frenetic revelry that prompted Rangers fans to come down and join them. As the situation threatened to turn nasty police horses arrived – their first venture onto a Scottish pitch since 1980 – and so tumultuous were the scenes that Rangers players were forced to receive their loser’s medals in the dressing room.

About an hour later perusing social media I spied a video on my timeline. It showed the Hibs fans now having returned to their seats with the surreal sight of Hampden Park exactly half deserted because the Rangers fans were long gone. With a battalion of fluorescent-jacketed police watching on along the touchline the Hibs’ faithful roared into the most ferocious and passionate rendition of their anthem imaginable and yes it choked me up seeing it all unfold. I’m not ashamed to admit that.

Now though? Now I was bamboozled. Seeing my confusion my girlfriend gestured towards my face and I instinctively placed a hand to my cheek. There I felt the dampness of a tear. It had ‘got’ me all over again only this time I wasn’t even aware of it.

It should be noted at this point that I have no allegiance to Hibernian football club. I’ve never seen them in the flesh or come close to. I’ve never supported nor rooted for them beyond quite liking their green kit as a kid. Yet without any emotional bond whatsoever a song and a trainered choir repeatedly floors me. Let’s face it, those Reid twins are pretty good at what they do.

I can’t help thinking about that 2016 final. Half an hour earlier those policemen and policewomen were having all of their old prejudices confirmed in the midst of collective affray. Now they were being serenaded by a wall of heartfelt poetry.

I can’t help thinking that Hibs fans on that day were all of us and not only that but all of football from its dark days to now. Yes we err from time to time: and when our team scores a last gasp winner to end a century of disappointment you better believe we’re going up against that acceptable line. But we’re also this. At heart we’re this; a unified outpouring of love and art and fervour and heart-on-sleeve sentiment.

We are the pride of life football supporters. We are the sunshine on Leith.

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