Surrealistic sacrifices made to high priests of mockery

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The Independent Online
"EXCUSE ME, LOVE. Could you wear trousers in future?" This was my professional introduction to football humour. Not long after I had started working for Metro FM in Newcastle, I was conducting a few touchline interviews when Kevin Keegan came up to me and made his request. It was only when I heard the players falling about that I realised I was being taken for a ride.

It wasn't just a case of mickey-taking, though. I knew from that point that I'd been accepted. Tested on the rack of football humour, I was one of the gang.

Football clubs are temples of banter where the high priests of mockery worship on a daily basis. I received an early glimpse of this when John Beck, then a team-mate of my father Terry at Coventry City, turned up to one of my birthday parties in referee's kit with toilet paper hanging out of his trousers.

Those jokers at Wimbledon have cornered the market in allegedly humorous initiation ceremonies - witness John Hartson's experience last season when his new buddies burnt his tracksuit in front of the waiting press, or the welly-burning welcome accorded to their manager, Egil Olsen, on his first day in charge.

Sometimes such rituals are only unintentionally humorous - and sometimes downright surreal. When Les Ferdinand joined Turkish side Besiktas early in his career, his rite of passage involved the slaughter of a lamb in the centre circle. He was then asked to release a pigeon. He thrust the bird skywards. It came crashing back to earth. He tried again. Same result. It was only on the third attempt, after some bright spark suggested unclipping its wings, that the bird managed to fly away.

My ITV colleague Barry Venison suffered a similar culture shock in Turkey, when he signed for Galatasaray. After his first training session he stripped off to get in the showers, only to realise he was alone in his nakedness except for another Englishman in the shape of Mike Marsh. The Turkish players kept their shorts on, even putting towels round themselves to change into their underwear. "When in Rome?" Not Venison. He stuck to washing in the nude.

When my father moved from Leeds United to Coventry in 1976, Tommy Hutchison, the team's resident joker, asked him in front of the assembled team, "Why on earth would Leeds United want to sell you?" My old man got the message: he wasn't all that good, and in any case there were no superstars at Highfield Road, thank you.

It might be argued that a manager's first day is an even more daunting prospect than it is for the players. Everyone remembers Christian Gross turning up at his first press conference at White Hart Lane brandishing his tube ticket. We all had our own interpretations of that gesture but the consensus was that Mr Gross was different. Different indeed, as it turned out. It wasn't long before most Spurs fans were offering to supply the return ticket.

These inaugural occasions can make a career or break a sensitive soul. One young footballer, who shall remain nameless, was subject to a small press assembly on his first day at Newcastle a few seasons ago. A reporter stood up, introduced himself as representing the local radio station and thrust a tape recorder under the boy's nose. He asked him whether it was an exciting prospect to play for the Premiership's leading side after coming from the lower reaches of the Third Division. What do you say to that? Of course it was exciting, so the lad restricted his reply to nodding vigorously. The reporter pointed out that as this was radio he really needed an audible answer - a shake of the head wouldn't do. So right from the off the youngster was labelled an idiot.

A first appearance in front of a new audience is a daunting one, even for the humble columnist. But at least I have finished my own debut with my trousers on, my clothes unsinged and happy to report that no animals were harmed in the writing of this article.