Mascot men, mascot cats and dogs

The lore of the jungle is rapidly taking over football's fantasy land.
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The Independent Online
WORLD CUP Willie is surely turning in his grave - or being a lion maybe his pride has just been hurt - after the way in which the good name of football mascots was brought into disrepute at Ashton Gate last Saturday when Bristol City met Wolves. The final score was a 6-1 mauling in favour of the Wolves but it was a bashing of a different kind that brought new meaning to another of football's great traditions - half-time entertainment.

On-pitch brawls are nothing new this season, but the events in Bristol were half-time fun as dreamed up by Quentin Tarantino. In what was possibly a footballing first, the Wolves' mascot Wolfie and two rival mascots, dressed as pigs for one of City's sponsors, ended up having a fight. Pigs may not fly but they do fight back when they're being huffed, puffed and provoked by Wolfie. In the end punches were being thrown and, in a surreal finale, the fight was broken up by the home club's own mascot - a cat.

This was not what was envisaged when Willie became the first World Cup mascot in 1966, a custom continued ever since and one carried out in France this summer by Footix the cockerel. As one of the pigs, whose employers did not want named, said: "Maybe Wolfie was taking his role a bit too seriously."

Wolves have taken the whole affair extremely seriously, also refusing to name Wolfie - possibly for fear of retaliation by angry pigs up and down the country - revealing only that he has been doing the job for two years. Yet in that time he has picked up a fearsome reputation in the mascot world for supposedly taking his predatorial role too far at some other grounds.

Wolfie, however, is not alone in setting a bad example. Aston Villa's Hercules the Lion was sacked after reportedly groping the club's beauty queen on the pitch last season.

Before disillusionment sets in at yet another cherished part of our national game being brought into disrepute, salvation is at hand in the winged shape of Crystal Palace's mascot, Pete the Eagle, who is actually Keith Blackwell, the headmaster at a school in Kent. Such is his enthusiasm for his part-time job that he starred in a Coca-Cola advert, which highlighted how much embarrassment he caused his teenaged son by dressing up on match days as an eagle.

What is the motivation for a grown man to parade in full costume in front of thousands of people? Blackwell, who has been doing the job for three years, explained: "It's every football fan's ambition to be with the team on the pitch. It means you can meet your heroes, which I have done." And if you think you can just walk into the job, think again. Blackwell fought off stiff competition after replying to an advert in a club programme.

But despite Blackwell's friendly nature, and his innocent role of entertaining the crowd, it seems if the opposition mascot doesn't get you then the fans might. At last week's Palace game against Portsmouth, the rivalry between the two sides, owing to Terry Venables and Terry Fenwick's defection from Pompey to the London club, meant Blackwell had to stay a safe distance from the visiting fans. How long can it be before mascots get security escorts?

Someone who takes in his stride any grief that comes his way is Bradford City's City Gent mascot, one of four at the club (in honour of the Bradford nickname the Bantams, the other three are chickens). The Gent was inspired by Sixties chairman Stafford Higginbotham, a portly local businessman and now lifelong fan. Lenny Berry gets to play him, walking around pre- match in a bowler hat, with a briefcase and umbrella - with full stomach and football kit, of course. Berry takes the sting out of fans' chants of "who ate all the pies?" by duly producing one out of his briefcase and eating it. Interaction between mascots is a normal thing, he said, even if it is not usually taken to the extremes of Ashton Gate. Only eight days ago at Norwich, Berry, a perfectly sane textile worker, was to be seen chasing a cat, which in turn was chasing a canary.

Yet in stark contrast to Bradford and the proliferation of mascots that has occurred around the country in the past few years, you won't get such scenes at Hull. A spokesperson at the club, who are bottom of the Third Division, said last week: "We haven't got one. We have had our minds on other things recently. I don't think we've ever had one." No joy there for big bad Wolfie then.