Keegan sold Barry Venison, the only man capable of wearing three haircuts simultaneously while still playing football
Saturday 25 May 1996
This is a shame, as the competition was hotting up nicely. Last year's winners Newcastle faded early, leaving the field open. In a metaphor for their fortunes in the League, it was Kevin Keegan's activities in the transfer market that scuppered his team's chances. Over the year he bought Ferdinand, Hislop, Batty, Barton, Asprilla and Ginola; not a decent hair gag among them. Worse, at the same time, he sold his tonsorial linchpin, Barry Venison, the only man capable of wearing three haircuts simultaneously while still playing football. Peter "just like me Mam used to do it, please Mr Barber" Beardsley and Pavel Srnicek with his Help-era Beatles mop could not carry the Geordie torch alone.
Several of the new imports burst on to the scene with the potential to take the prize from the Magpies. Ruud Gullit brought his Cleopatra thatch to Stamford Bridge, but was so elegant, commanding and majestic, few noticed his hair. Regi Blinker brought his Ruud-alike dreads to Hillsborough and was so ineffective, pointless and forgettable, his hair was all anyone noticed.
But it transpired that these boys were never serious threats to the local talent. And the competition was particularly sharp in the early weeks of the season. Robbie Fowler returned from holiday looking like someone had dropped a pot of Dulux on his head; as, bizarrely, did Steve Stone, who reappeared from the beaches with what little hair he had toned a virulent shade of daffodil. Meanwhile David James had gone purple and Roy Keane wore a number one crop that made him look more like Damien from The Omen than ever.
All eyes, however, turned to the City Ground. With Stan Collymore transferred, the opportunity opened up for Jason Lee, with his Carmen Miranda memorial fruit bowl on the head, to make his mark. Uncharacteristically, he took his chance. Within weeks he had become a national figure thanks to David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, who saw in Lee an unquenchable source of gags on Fantasy Football League. But it wasn't just the hair that they noticed about the lad, it was his all-round play: the fact he couldn't trap, couldn't pass, couldn't score. All season they couldn't stop sniggering.
And that's where things turned serious. This week Frank Clark, Lee's manager, put the player on the transfer list and blamed the two comedians: their gags, was his contention, had wrecked Lee's confidence. Everywhere he went the crowd laughed at his hair, and the poor mite couldn't hack it. "Not clever, not funny, not grown-up," was Clark's summary of their jibes.
It was a disingenuous performance by Clark. Last summer he sold Collymore, the local hero, and failed to replace him adequately. Easier to blame someone else. Moreover, Clark had previously branded Baddiel and Skinner as "middle class" and as not being interested in football, merely using it to make a name for themselves. This is clearly untrue: the pair are as obsessed with football as he is. But while he loves tactics, systems and pondering whether to play with a sweeper in the hole just behind the Christmas tree, they love, well, the hair. Clark's failure to spot that they were all batting for the same side did Lee no favours; a more sophisticated adviser would have got the player on the show the week after the gag was made and shown he could laugh at it himself. The sneering would have stopped immediately. But he didn't and the joke was battered and bruised into the ground.
The person to feel sorry for in all this is Jason Lee, a man promoted above his own level of competence. It probably was no fun to be pilloried for professional incompetence by Skinner and Baddiel, men who have the approach of the two comedy bullies at the back of the class; Jason Lee is the equivalent of the school fat boy, eyes stinging at their relentless smirking.
And then worse than merely suffering in silence, his manager, the person who should be protecting him, goes and tells everyone that it hurts. You don't get the feeling too many new employers will be queueing up for Lee's services now: can't score the goals, can't take the pressure. In deference to him, then, his award from this column will be held over. And in the meantime, I'm off to the barber's.
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