From Roker Park to Radio Tirana
With a pickaxe in one hand, a rifle in the other ... and football commentary on the radio
Sunderland fans and communist Albania shouldn’t have much in common. Even allowing for the north-east’s left-leaning political reputation, the unreconstructed Stalinism of Enver Hoxha was seldom debated on the terraces. Yet, for a generation of fans clutching crackly radio sets, midway matches meant the Red-and-Whites of Roker were accompanied by the Reds of the Marxist-Leninist vanguard.
It was all down to a quirk of the medium wave frequencies. Radio Newcastle, where Sunderland games were broadcast by the soft Scottish accent of John Cairns, broadcast on 1458. Across Europe, Radio Tirana used the same frequency to spread the word about the relentless progress of the people’s utopia. During the day, it barely mattered; at night, as the atmospherics changed and the stalwart proletariat of Albania went to bed, things changed.
Shutdown in Shqiperia, the speakers stilled save for an interval signal. That haunting, plaintive nine-note motif emerged from the crackle and static that buzzed around the English Football League to play a counterpoint to the action. It was an ethereal thing, trumpeted but not brassy, a rousing revolutionary march that seemed to lament a wrong turning. It seemed to be most audible as the second half wore on, forming an indelible impression on a young football fan.
At the time, I didn’t know what the song was. Albania was a hermit nation, having severed its ties with both the USSR and the People’s Republic of China due to doctrinal clashes between Hoxha, Khrushchev and Mao. Being more interested in the very tangible clashes between Gary Bennett and the likes of Bobby Davison, a journeyman striker with an unhappy knack of scoring against us, I was unaware of this. I was also unaware that the melody came from a popular march that rejoiced in the cumbersome title of ‘With a pickaxe in one hand and a rifle in the other’. Clearly, there ain’t no Party like a Party of Labour of the Albanian People’s Republic.
The writers of ‘Ne Njeren Dore Kazmen, Ne Tjetren Pushken’ (even in its native Albanian, the title is not exactly catchy) would heartily endorse that last sentiment. The full version is a rousing, upbeat ditty that hails the wisdom of ‘the Party’ as it seeps through the factories, fields and building sites of Albania, leading the country forever forwards. There’s even something approaching a pun, with the Communist Party of Albania described as our eagle (shqiponje, in Albanian, an obvious linguistic cousin of Shqiperia, the Albanian name for the country itself). Clearly, when the state rules the airwaves, the pathway to serious airtime on the nation’s stations isn’t quite the same as bagging a spot on Top of the Pops.
However, as an interval signal, it’s a very different noise. Emerging through the static, this melody is an austere eagle winging its way over the ether. Soviet schisms notwithstanding, it shares the same soundworld as the ‘Moscow Nights’ vibraphone of Russia’s Radio Mayak, or Radio Peking’s ‘The East is Red’, whose tinny plinkling is at odds with the strident message of the song.
Drifting unexpectedly into a sports commentary, Tirana was frankly unnerving. Sunderland’s form in the 1980s was fragile enough; for a child with a superstitious streak, the faint call of the trumpet was underpinned with foreboding. All too often, it seemed, Tirana had the rifle in its hand, ready to shoot down hopes of a hard-earned point away to Barnsley or Blackburn. All too seldom, the Red-and-White faction seized the metaphorical pickaxe and dug in to defend those glorious victories.
Much has changed. Today’s football fan enjoys more cameras at any one game than were once deployed to record all the action across the country. The rise of digital radio has pushed crackly, congested medium wave to the margins, while the internet means it’s easy to follow your team’s progress without interruption from the outside world. Albania, meanwhile, has emerged from its relative isolation. The ideological bombast of Radio Tirana is no longer the country’s sole export; in the 2009/10 season Albanian international Lorik Cana even played in Sunderland’s midfield. Rifles and pickaxes are no longer the national icons, although the eagle still flies proudly on the flag; instead Radio Tirana’s new interval signal is an elegant piano motif and the pages of broadsheet newspapers debate Tirana as an emerging tourist destination, the newest ‘new Prague’ of travel industry lore.
For a sports fan, though, nostalgia is everything. Football without rifles and pickaxes is still football, Sunderland as frustrating as ever. But, in the same way that football will always, somehow, smell of fried onions and liniment rub, radio commentary will also, somehow, always play to the accompaniment of a patriotic Albanian tune.