Football’s Lucky Mascot

October 26, 2013 in Features, Funny Stuff by Emma Lucy Whitney

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Those of you who satiate your podcast fix by listening to This American Life whilst waiting for the next Ballsy Banter pod to be recorded (I’m sure you do this, our one listener) may have found the recent episode about secret identities, which included a piece about sports mascots, rather interesting. The story of a teenage American girl’s obsession with becoming a high school football team mascot (and yep, we’re talking the wrong sort of football here) reminded me of the shocking news that Bobby the Badger, Stafford Rangers’ esteemed mascot, might be for the chop. Stuart Maun, the commercial manager for the Evo-stik Northern Premier League outfit, admits that Bobby is well-loved, but wonders whether it’s �time for a change’. Such talk and stories about mascots got me thinking; where did they come from? Did the beautiful game have them first, or did football nick �em from another sport?

Hangus

Is it just H’Angus the Monkey who’s embarked upon a political career, standing for election as Hartlepool’s mayor in 2005, and obviously winning? And although we probably all loved our own team’s version of Bobby the Badger as a kid, are these lovable, old-school, cheeky-chappie-in-a-suit-type-rouges still relevant to the all-tweeting, all-skypeing football fans of the twenty-first century?

The word �mascot’ itself derives from the French word mascotte, meaning anything lucky. American baseball club the Chicago Cubs can lay claim to being one of the first sports teams ever to have an official club mascot, with this nameless stuffed bear in1908; if Bobby Badger allegedly scares kids, surely the guy below must have?

CubsBear

The honour of being the first full-time mascot in English football is often attributed to Derby County’s Rammie, a well-loved ram (surprising, I know) now hiring himself out for birthday parties, village fetes and weddings near you. If you live in Derbyshire, of course. The mascot to properly start the craze, however, was none other than our very own World Cup Willie, the friendly, Union Jack-emblazoned lion of the 1966 tournament. As well as hopefully bringing good luck to the teams they �represent’, mascots also bring in the love of young fans together with the cash of their parents, and the onslaught of such mascot-based merchandise is directly attributable to young Willie.

The patriotic lion was actually designed not by committee or competition-winners, but by Reg Hoye, a former illustrator for Enid Blyton. Interestingly, Willie was very popular internationally, despite being plastered in the red white and blue. Hoye’s son, Leo, whom Willie was actually based on, told the BBC last year that �[T]here was a lot of interest from West Germany and the Soviet Union which was quite extraordinary, everyone entered into the spirit of celebrating sport without the nationalism you see today.’ The reason behind this in Hoye junior’s mind is the fact that �[T]here was nothing threatening about [Willie].’ The same can’t quite be said of some of football’s more unsavoury giant furry characters, which we’ll come to later.

WCWillie

At many clubs, actual animals often preceded the fancy-dress mascots we know and love today, and live on at places like Selhurst Park or the EstĂ dio da Luz; Kayla the Bald American Eagle is paraded in front of fans before most Crystal Palace home games, whereas Vitoria appears before every home match to bring good luck to Benfica, (whom Palace magpied their nickname from). Animal rights groups are unsurprisingly not always in favour of â€?live’ mascots at football stadiums, with PETA spokesperson Sandra Smiley telling CNN two years ago, in response to Serie A side Lazio buying their eagle Olimpia off Benfica, that â€?…live animals don’t belong at noisy athletic events. Most professional sports teams use human mascots, who, unlike scared, spooked and vulnerable animals, can safely interact with fans.’

Eagle

One of the more bizarre mascot-related rituals, in the English game at least, involves a deceased animal as opposed to a live one; in deepest, darkest Cumbria, the tradition of a stuffed fox being brought onto the pitch at Brunton Park was successfully reinstated a few years ago.

Said to represent John Peel – the Cumbrian hunter of folklore, rather than the late Radio 1 DJ - Olga, an anagram of goal (they’re canny, these Cumbrians) used to be brought onto Carlisle United’s pitch back in the day by a man in a blue suit who went by the name of Twinkletoes. These days, a fox in a blue strip who goes by the name of Olga does the deed. Obviously variation in vulpine names was a bit thin on the ground.

OlgaFox

Going from the bizarre to the just plain bad, not all mascots set a good example for their younger admirers, despite being designed with the little ones primarily in mind; indeed, some have a reputation almost as damning as Roy Keane’s and Luis Suarez’s put together. Preston North End’s Deepdale Duck, the first mascot ever to be sent off (for allegedly distracting goalie Stephen Bywater against Derby three seasons ago), has gained a certain notoriety, but even he can’t come close to the infamy of Swansea City bad boy, Cyril the Swan.

Cyril’s been in his fair share of fracases, most memorably pulling the head off Millwall’s Zampa the Lion and drop-kicking it into the crowd. If all these tales of mascot-related violence sound slightly daft, rather than horrific, sometimes the line really can be over-stepped by these giant critters, as Aston Villa’s Hercules the Lion knows only too well. Back in the late 90s, Hercules harassed a beauty queen on the pitch at Villa Park, for which he was promptly and rightly dismissed by his club.

Ultimately, though, football mascots have not just endured, but entranced, enamoured and entertained us because football in Britain in particular has always had a fine vein of humour running through it. The ability to laugh at ourselves and our club whilst simultaneously bigging-up our side, promoting it to all and sundry and flogging a few imitation cuddly toys in the club superstore while we’re at it has proved the perfect formula for the football mascot, and long may it continue. After all, not every mascot has a dark side; I still remember my Footix from France ’98 with real warmth – I loved him as a kid – and obviously think Moonchester and Moonbeam are the best. Whatever happens to Bobby the Badger, I’m sure Stafford Rangers’ next or newly updated mascot will be a part of the club for years to come.

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