Football: Spaghetti, baths, boots and Waddle's underpants

ON the wacky ways Footballers try to be lucky stars
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The Independent Online
Excuse the cliche, but someone told me they thought West Ham's name was on the FA Cup this year. Not because the Hammers are playing particularly well (though they are, at least at home) but simply because the omens look good: John Hartson's late winner against Emley in the third round; Uwe Rosler's penalty miss for Manchester City in the fourth round. Cup success is founded on good fortune such as this.

Still, the Hammers are long overdue some silverware; their last triumphs came courtesy of Trevor Brooking's head in the 1980 FA Cup final, and Alan Taylor's boot (twice) in 1975. But in true footballing fashion, the club decided that credit for that second success was due in no small part to the spaghetti bolognese they had eaten the day before the game; so much so that you'll still find it on Friday's menu at their Chadwell Heath training ground.

There's no logic to this; in fact, since bolognese is made from beef it's probably the worst thing they could eat so close to a game. But they're probably convinced it gives them that "little extra something", which is essentially what footballing superstitions are all about.

Just as we lesser mortals read our stars and glean from them what we will, so footballers engage in weird and wacky rituals to try to give themselves an extra edge in what is fundamentally a game of chance. As Alan Ball said: "I don't believe in luck, but I do believe you need it."

Frank Worthington not only believed in it, he prayed for it. "You have to be physically and mentally strong to be a footballer," he claims, "which is why players are so superstitious; they focus on anything they think will help them."

Worthington, a natural left-footer, always put his left boot on first before saying his prayers, which is nothing compared to what David Fairclough got up to. Liverpool's 1970s red-haired "Super Sub" used to wash his hands four times before every game, and also put his shorts on last. He can't remember how the habit started, but he does remember being mortified when spotted sporting his shorts back to front during a Cup tie against Southend.

Mind you, Liverpool were a clean team in those days. Ian Callaghan showered before every game, while David Johnson preferred a bath. And every player had their own way of acknowledging the sign that declares "This is Anfield" as they went on to the pitch. Fairclough says Liverpool's opponents started to touch it too. "It was as if they thought that would counteract the good luck we were convinced it was giving us."

Kevin Keegan would put his shirt on last, which is a common superstition among footballers. Others include being last out of the dressing-room (Jack Charlton), last on to the pitch (Stan Bowles), kicking a ball on to the field from the tunnel (Clive Allen) and wearing a lucky suit (Don Revie).

In reality, many "superstitions" are nothing more than elaborate routines that focus players' minds on the game, while others are purely practical. At Arsenal, for instance, they wash every new goalkeeper's top before it is used, and have been doing so ever since 1927 when Dan Lewis blamed his slippery new top for his failure to save the goal which cost the Gunners the FA Cup. The words bad, workman and tools spring to mind.

It was an Arsenal keeper, Bob Wilson, who declared that football omens "were there to be broken", and they often are. But that does not mean a player will stop a habit of a lifetime, although some do see reason.

Mark McGhee dissuaded one of his players from sitting in a lukewarm bath for two hours before every game, since warm water softens the muscles.

Of course, going without the bath made no difference whatsoever to that player's performances, which doesn't surprise Chris Waddle, who used to have more superstitions than he's had bad haircuts. He wore the same underpants throughout Newcastle's 1983 promotion-winning season (washed each time, thank goodness) and during the 1986-87 season didn't shave until Spurs lost (which in those days was quite a long time) and ended up with a mass of hard stubble which took two days to shave off.

He also got injured while his hair was short and injured while his hair was long, so he decided to wear it short on top and long at the back, which explains that awful late 1980s haircut. But he still got injured, which explains his current scepticism. "If you win," he says, "it's not going to be because you put the left boot on before the right one."

I don't suppose we'll ever get involved in putting garlic in the goalmouth or soaking shirts in sheep's blood like the South Americans, but superstitions will always persist, because it's easier to attribute success and failure on what psychologists would call "an external locus of control" - in other words, on something else - than assume responsibility yourself.

However, in Chris Marples' case, the superstition simply ran out of steam. The Emley keeper had eaten a pizza the night before every game during Emley's Cup run, and did so again before his side faced West Ham. Obviously, a pizza doesn't have the same psychic qualities as a plate of good old spag bol.