Forget the ape drape and hail the crop-top

'Beckham and Sidebottom deserve praise, the latter especially given the conservative arena in which he operates, for daring to be different'
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The Independent Football

This is a tale of Mohicans, mullets and ponytails; of Afros, luxuriant locks and close shaves. Not since the moral panics of the 1960s over mods, rockers, hippies and skins, when my old form master measured my hair with a ruler and mocked my attempts to sprout sideburns by tugging sadistically on the bum-fluff, has there been a summer like it for hairy moments.

The media have been follically fixated, with the hairstyle choices of sportsmen attracting the scrutiny usually reserved for pop and soap stars. Take this barber-shop quartet for starters: David Beckham's take on Robert De Niro's self-mutilation in Taxi Driver; Ryan Sidebottom's impersonation of Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen in the England Test team; Don Goodman's Jimi Hendrix-style "frizz"; and Leeds United baldies going for crop-top solidarity in Valencia.

The contagion spread from the sports pages to the election. The female student in a Union Jack T-shirt who was pictured hugging Tony Blair reportedly said she preferred "men with more hair". A Labour poster stuck a Thatcher wig on Wee Willie Hague, on whom the stubbly skull which connotes machismo in football was deemed a vote loser. And reports of John Prescott's fracas with a "country sports" supporter highlighted the so-called mullet look worn by his assailant (an associate of the Flint & Denbigh Hunt; rhyming-slang inference optional).

Witnessing the initial consternation over Beckham's latest barnet was like going back to the time when this correspondent, having escaped the tyranny of rugger and religion at grammar school and sworn never to be subjected to scissors again, found that a foot of black hair got you treated in many quarters as if you were Charlie Manson. However, my rebellion was merely an alternative uniformity. Beckham and Sidebottom may not be railing against anything but they deserve praise, the latter especially given the conservative arena in which he operates, for daring to be different.

Funnily enough, Derek Dougan had an identical cut to Beckham's 40 years ago, during his Blackburn days. "The Doog" was then known as "Cheyenne" after a TV character, an epithet that confuses further the issue of whether the short-Becks-and-sides is actually a Mohawk or a Huron. In The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable the Rev E Cobham Brewer records that "the scalp-lock of the North American Indians... is for a conquering enemy to seize when he tears off the scalp". Ouch. Jonah Lomu, in fact, has an eminently seizable, Tintin-esque tuft at the front of a shaven pate. Opponents are curiously reluctant to chance their arm.

Walsall's scalping of Reading in the play-offs owed much to the aforementioned Goodman. Yet hardly had he picked up his man of the match award than his headmaster ­ sorry, manager ­ insisted his corkscrew curls came off. The steadily receding Ray Graydon was a well-groomed winger alongside Brian Little with Aston Villa when the latter's leonine mane was more redolent of Deep Purple than claret and blue. Which may account for his views on hair, beards, earrings and mobile phones, all of which he muddles up with an laudable intolerance of dissent to referees. We can take it that the blazing Saddlers will not be signing Gabriel Batistuta or Owen Hargreaves this summer.

Their fans forked out for "Don Goodman wigs" bearing a suspicious resemblance to those sported by Harry Enfield's Scousers (sold by Walsall's club shop; a case, methinks, for the Double Standards Authority). They now await Goodman's return from holiday to see how seriously he has taken Graydon's strictures. At 35, you'd have thought he would be allowed to choose his own hairstyle, especially after providing an excuse we survivors of the Great Hair Wars would never have dared to venture in school: "I have to wear it long to cover surgical scars that look like the M25, and all the minor roads too. Honest, sir!" Don King, who sports a similar profusion in grey, does so to hide his horns according to Larry Holmes. The look is closely related to Carlos Valderrama's legendary festoon-fest. But while Goodman's hair colour is natural, Valderrama's is only marginally less artificial than the bottle jobs modelled by Abel Xavier at Euro 2000 and Romania's squad in France 98. Once, after an international in Chile, the Colombian media stormed a dressing-room to establish the truth. The great playmaker cowered behind colleagues, a jockstrap covering the evidence. Which reminds me of the West Ham striker renowned both for his flapping blond locks and a love of the high life. Those who had showered with him knew him as "Ginger Pubes".

The same player dabbled with the mullet, that 1980s "style" (short on top, tapering off above the ears, with long strands like rats' tails trailing behind) which came somewhere between the poodle perm and today's nightclub-bouncer trim as the footballers' favourite. Unlike the ponytail, which Manu Petit invests with Gallic mystique but on David Seaman evokes nothing so much as a Status Quo roadie, it is impossible to look cool with this fish-inspired construction. Even Frank Worthington, who fused it with a Teddy Boy quiff, couldn't manage it.

Also called the "ape drape" and the "10-90" (the proportion of hair on top to that at the back), it lives on among isolated sporting tribes such as New Zealand rugby league players, Czech speedway riders and the pantomime grizzlies of the Worldwide Wrestling Federation. Not to mention the blood sports set in north Wales. As subtle, all of them, as a flying mullet.