‘to go home in an ambulance’: meaning and origin

The colloquial British- and Irish-English phrase to go home in an ambulance, and its variants, mean: to get a severe beating—especially as you’re going home in an ambulance, used to threaten violence against a group or a person.

This phrase was popularised in Britain and Ireland in the second half of the 20th century through its use in chants by supporters at Association-Football matches, chiefly to threaten opposing away supporters—especially as you’re going home in a — ambulance, with interpolated expletive (such as fucking), or with interpolated indication of location (such as London).

This phrase occurs, for example, in No Mercy: Rock’n’roll War Stories, by George Byrne, published in the Evening Herald (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Friday 18th January 2008:

We quickly wrote a Madchester song—me doing the scale of E (but of course), Robbie bellowing football-related phrases (‘How is he Ref?’, ‘Watch your house!’ and ‘You’re going home in a fucking ambulance!’).

An isolated early use of the phrase to go home in an ambulance occurs in Rivals for the Team: A Story of School Life and Football (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1916), by the U.S. novelist Ralph Henry Barbour (1870-1944):

“What did you think of the game?”
“A little bit of all right, Pop! And, I say, you certainly did for Lambert, what?”
“Lambert? No.”
Hugh laughed. “Oh, no; you didn’t wallop the beggar, not half! Served him jolly right, of course; I saw him give you that punch under the chin, you know. I wish, though, you’d tell me what you said to him that time you two had your heads together.”
“Do you? Well, I said, ‘Lambert, if you make me lose my temper you’ll go home in an ambulance. Now quit it!’ He did, too. We didn’t have any trouble after that.”

The following are some of the early British-English occurrences of the phrase to go home in an ambulance and variants that I have found, in chronological order:

1-: From the Evening Mail (Birmingham, West Midlands, England) of Thursday 25th November 1976:

Fore! Golf fan Mick nets two

GOLFING goalkeeper Mick Kearns earned a special bonus in Walsall’s first round F.A. Cup replay at Bradford City.
He bought [sic] home two golf balls, hurled into his goal by frustrated City fans.
At one stage in the second-half Mick told the referee that someone had bounced a small stone off his head. Police were asked to patrol behind the net.
But when the two Penfold ace golf balls arrived on the pitch the big keeper had no intention of sharing them with the ref.
With Bradford heading for a defeat and a section of their crowd chanting “you’re going home in a — ambulance,” he coolly collected the gifts.
Said Mick: “The lads were doing so well I had time to walk round and collect the balls.”
A 16-handicap golfer, he added: “My supply was getting rather low, anyway.”

2-: From the account of a fight between the British boxer Patrick Cowdell (born 1953) and the Ghanaian boxer Azumah Nelson (born 1958), which took place at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, West Midlands, England—account by the Scottish sports journalist Hugh McIlvanney (1934-2019), published in The Observer (London, England) of Sunday 13th October 1985:

It took Azumah Nelson, the 27-year-old from Ghana who holds the World Boxing Council version of the 9-stone title only two minutes and 24 seconds of the first round to produce an unforgettably devastating long left upper-cut that hurled Cowdell onto his back near a neutral corner and left him lying unconscious with his drained face beneath the bottom rope.
In that instant the Midlander’s challenge for the WBC championship (the second of his career) became as totally irrelevant as the count that the Mexican referee, Octavio Meyran, was tolling over him. […]
[…] The fighter rose first to a sitting position and then made it to his feet. Before long he was able to congratulate the man who had so dramatically overwhelmed him.
That was much more than many of his drink-inflamed supporters were prepared to do. Scores of them clamoured around the approaches to the ring while Nelson was still in there being congratulated by his extensive entourage.
‘Nelson, you’re going home in a fucking ambulance’ one fevered group (which included a black threatener) chanted towards the champion. Two particularly ridiculous and offensive youths in denim jackets clamboured [sic] drunkenly in the direction of the ropes, scuffling to shake off stewards and bellowing their determination to fight Azumah Nelson.

3-: From Terror back on the streets, the account of a derby between Millwall Football Club and West Ham United Football Club, by Joe Lovejoy, published in The Independent (London, England) of Monday 12th November 1990—The Den is the home of Millwall Football Club:

Before Saturday’s 1-1 draw at The Den, at least 400 rival fans from Millwall and West Ham did battle with police and each other […].
The provision of a family enclosure and a crèche at The Den is all very laudable, but the effect on young minds of the fighting and thousands of adults bellowing at each other, “You’re going home in a fucking ambulance”, is the stuff of which psychiatrists’ nightmares are made.

4-: From Fever Pitch: A Fan’s Life (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1992), an autobiographical essay by the British author Nick Hornby (born 1957):

The Whole Package

The only trouble with the North Bank was that I bought the whole package. In the second half of my third game there […], Coventry City’s Tommy Hutchison scored a stunning solo goal. […] On the North Bank there was a split second of silence as we watched the Coventry fans cavorting around on the Clock End like dolphins, and then came the fierce, unanimous and heartfelt chant, ‘You’re going to get your fucking heads kicked in.’
I had heard it before, obviously. For a good fifteen years it was the formal response to any goal scored by any away team at any football ground in the country (variations at Highbury were ‘You’re going home in a London ambulance.’ ‘We’ll see you all outside.’ and ‘Clock End, do your job.’ (the Arsenal supporters at the Clock End being nearer to the opposing fans, and thus charged with the responsibility of vengeance).

5-: From Putting the BA, by the British comedian David Baddiel (born 1964), published in the Evening Standard (London, England) of Thursday 7th April 1994:

There was a time, remember, when you could be ashamed to be a football fan; football was so ugly in the late Seventies and early Eighties. […]
Now, with the odd exception, all that’s vanishing and it’ll disappear still further with all-seater stadiums.
Not that machismo has completely gone out of being a football fan; it has just shifted into an arena with which intellectuals are more comfortable.
When they come to write the global history of manhood, a footnote should be added that sometime between 500 BC and the late 20th century, killing mammoths was replaced as the real test of masculinity by football trivia tests.
“What was the name of Port Vale’s only capped player?”
“Which six England captains played in the same Southampton team?”
These, and many other questions, all actually mean: “Do you have a penis?”
I am not much happier with this type of machismo than I was with crossbows and going home in a London ambulance.
It’s terrible when the football trivia bully corners you in a bar and says: “Right then, FA Cup winners since the war,” and you’re meant to name them and the losing teams and the scores and, if he’s a real psycho, the attendance figures, and if you get one wrong, you are poof of the month.

6-: From the review, by Stuart Jeffries, of When The Fighting Starts, a documentary broadcast on Channel 4, published in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Wednesday 27th September 1995:

The documentary, shown in the Battered Britain season, was rather dubious. Each of the three case studies presented here was based on a violent crime that was captured on closed-circuit television cameras which local councils increasingly install in our towns and cities (Darlington has 34). There are, no doubt, important civil liberties issues about the use of security cameras in public places. But another troubling aspect is the fact that film from them is increasingly used to feed a culture of voyeurism—think of the popularity of the Police Stop! videos parts one and two that caused such a stink earlier this year. What next? Shopping Centre Brawl 3? You’re Going Home In A London Ambulance 4? In one attack, we saw a man on the ground being kicked three times in the face so hard that his head and upper torso lifted off the ground. But what was the virtue in showing this sequence repeatedly at slow speed?

7-: From Nathan Rous’s Musicbox, published in the Tamworth Herald (Tamworth, Staffordshire, England) of Friday 7th June 1996:

“You’re going home in a (something) ambulance” and “You’re gonna get your (something) head kicked in” are just a couple of the timeless terrace tunes that will echo cheerfully across the country for the next month as Euro ’96 gets underway tomorrow (Sat).

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