Ballack's ordeal pales next to antics of the Crazy Gang

A song is the limit of most initiation rites but in the old days much worse was on offer, says Peter Keeling
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The Independent Online

Michael Ballack has no worries about his Premiership debut for Chelsea; what scared him stiff was the dressing room initiation rite that John Terry makes every newcomer undergo, no matter how big the name or the transfer fee.

Terry's way of breaking the ice and making everyone part of the team is to invite the new recruit to sing his favourite song with appropriate gusto, and Ballack had been dreading it. What he should have been doing was thanking his lucky stars. He could have had his face, or his genitals, covered in boot polish, his clothes thrown on the roof of the stand or his shoes nailed to the floor. That was how they used to do it.

When it came to the crunch, Ballack belted out a German number which his manager, Jose Mourinho, described as "fantastic" even though he could not understand a word. "I've no idea what it was," he said, "but it had a lot of rhythm."

Ballack's fellow summer signing, the £30m striker Andrei Shevchenko, had to perform not in the dressing room but in a restaurant during Chelsea's pre-season tour of the United States. He was met with jeers and bread rolls. Shevchenko chose Queen's "We are the Champions", but according to Arjen Robben the Ukrainian superstar was "absolute rubbish".

It's all pretty tame stuff compared with yesteryear, when perhaps the most high-profile initiation experts were the Wimbledon "Crazy Gang" who reigned at Plough Lane after the club's amazing climb from non-League football to the Premiership, including the 1988 FA Cup final defeat of Liverpool.

The Crazy Gang were certainly on top form when Egil Olsen took over as manager. Olsen was a "hard as nails" ice hockey player who had tried his hand at professional poker. As Norway's manager, he had defeats of England on his CV that suggested nobody, not even the Plough Lane Crazies, could take any liberties. However, Olsen's initiation was spectacular: his clothes were burned, the tyres of his car were let down and his Wellington boots were filled with shaving cream.

Such excesses are now a thing of the past, as Sam Allardyce, the Bolton Wanderers manager, points out: "The old rituals are not a feature of the game anymore. It could be a bit traumatic, especially for young players who used to have to endure first-day ceremonies such as having their faces polished with blacking or finding when they came out of the showers that their clothes were on the roof of the stand. In my experience, it does not happen now."

Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, agrees: "In my days as a young player at Bolton [where he was a team-mate of Allardyce] rituals for new players, especially young players, were a regular thing, and often it was linked with a drinking culture. It involved getting young recruits drunk by various forfeit games, although there were more personal rituals as well.

"But partly through political correctness, occasionally through protests by parents of youngsters and partly through evolution and guidelines from our association, the initiations that do take place are now very low key, and certainly not as scary as they could be in my time. I believe the trend is the same in the forces, and on the shop floor.

"In army life a unit works as a team, relying on one another, and it is no different in professional football, where bonding is an important factor. In the present day it is a bit of fun, whereas in the past it could amount to bullying.

"Ceremonies used to get out of hand, but it is many years since we had that culture, and strong and aware captains, like John Terry, along with the authority of the club, make sure that if there are any rituals for newcomers 'enough is enough' is called in plenty of time."

Steven MacLean, the Scotland Under-21 and former Rangers striker now playing for Sheffield Wednesday, sees no cause to grumble about "having to do a turn" to mark one's arrival at a new club.

"At Wednesday I was never asked to do anything that scared me on initiation day, but it was still embarrassing to have to stand in front of the seniors and sing an Oasis song, while the 'gliding' ritual they had at Rangers, was, I'll admit, a bit uncomfortable to say the least. We had to strip off in the shower room and then be pulled around the room on our backsides as though we were racing in a Grand Prix.

"It was the kind of thing that led to a great feeling of togetherness, and you learned to show respect to your elders and do as you were told. Despite the apprehension, once you had done it you felt as though you'd passed a test and it made you feel more a part of the club."

Martin Buchan, the former Manchester United and Scotland defender, says: "Maybe in the past there used to be a few unsavoury initiation ceremonies, such as shining up a newcomer's genitals with Cherry Blossom boot polish. But I think we are a long way from that Neanderthal kind of thing. These days, I think initiation ceremonies would be a dangerous thing for clubs to encourage."

The former Manchester City player Ian Brightwell, now player-coach at Macclesfield, remembers: "I went through the ritual, as all apprentices did, of having to go in the seniors' dressing room to sing a Christmas carol and, at the tender age of 17, tell a joke, which was even more embarrassing as it was a point of honour with the players that they did not laugh.

"It was all an important part of the bonding of the team, and when Keith Curle and Terry Phelan came to us hot foot from the Crazy Gang capers at Wimbledon the rituals took on a new dimension; even star players started to find their shoes nailed to the floor and the toes cut out of their socks. But all that helped to produce a great togetherness, and really the whole business of these routines and rituals was, I'm sure, worth an extra player for us on the field."

Fred Eyre, the former Manchester City and Wigan Athletic reserve player who became famous through a series of books recounting his disastrous career in professional football, says: "Even years ago senior players were rarely the subject of initiation rituals such as standing on one leg and singing Christmas carols before the full first-team squad. The kids only endured such ceremonies so that their money from the seniors for cleaning their boots would not be withheld. Now the kids don't even have to clean the top players' boots."

Ballack's experience was nothing compared with what used to happen, which just goes to show that in the league of initiation rites at least, Chelsea are stuck in the Second Division.

'The atmosphere was unique and, looking back, perhaps a bit cruel'

Dean Holdsworth experienced the antics of the "Crazy Gang" at Wimbledon and says it is impossible for people outside the club to know how much the bonding that resulted contributed to the Dons' success.

In his second season at Plough Lane, 1993-94, Holdsworth scored 25 goals and was called into the England squad.

"Warren Barton, John Scales and myself were all called together. We were on top of the world until, after handshakes and congratulations, we went to drive home, only to find the tyres on all our cars had been let down.

"The Crazy Gang, instigated by [the owner] Sam Hammam and run by Vinnie Jones, John Fashanu, Dennis Wise and all the usual suspects, produced an incredible team spirit, the like of which had never been seen before or since in British football. The atmosphere was unique and, looking back, perhaps sometimes a bit cruel.

"There were times when young players came to training for the first time, in their best suit. They would often go home with one leg of their trousers two feet shorter than the other, one sleeve missing, one shoe gone. For a final gesture, after we'd made sure they could swim, they were thrown in the canal.

"I was lucky that I never had to suffer an initiation because I was Joe Kinnear's first signing and Vinny arrived the week after me, thinking that I was an established member of the squad.

"Nobody was fire proof though, and one day when we thought Sam Hammam was behind a trick played on one of the Crazy Gang we took his car, drove it several miles away and left it. We went into Sam's office, presented him with his own keys, and told him his car was within 10 square miles of Plough Lane and he could go and find it. Several days later he was still walking into work."

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