Football Voodoo: Magic, superstition and religion in the beautiful game
Written by Chris Roberts author of Heavy words lightly thrown (Granta 2004) on the history of nursery rhymes, Cross River Traffic (Granta 2005) about London's Bridges and Lost English (Michael O'Mara 2009) which concerned everyday phrases that have recently left the language. He also edits 21st century penny dreadful One Eye Grey which resets old London folktales in the present day.
Football Voodoo covers those areas where soccer collides with sorcery from players' superstitions and rituals, use of colour, symbols and invocation right the way up to hiring mediums, witches and shamans to invoke curses in a bid to change the course of a team's fortunes. This is a world of hexed grounds, unlucky shirts, magic horses and burying cattle under goalposts. A place where managers urinate on corner flags, goalkeepers in the six yard box and dog mascots on defenders. It's a light hearted and easy to read volume by Chris Roberts who was previously responsible for books on the history of nursery rhymes (Heavy Words Lightly Thrown) London's bridges (Cross River Traffic) and redundant English words (Lost English).
It may come as no surprise to learn the idea for Chris Roberts’ new football book occurred to him in a pub.
More specifically, and intriguingly, it came from inspiration sparked in a room above a pub in London’s Holborn while listening to a witch explain how she prepared for a ritual.
“I listened to her describe how she focused her mind, donned a sacred kit and kissed a symbol before entering a special marked off space,” recalls Chris.
“For some reason the image of Wayne Rooney kissing the club crest at Goodison Park popped into my mind.”
It’s an image that demonstrates that while the beautiful game may have humble beginnings, even today’s millionaire players follow their own rituals.
The subject is explored in detail in Wrexham-born Chris’s book, Football Voodoo, subtitled Magic, Superstition and Religion in the Beautiful Game.
Wrexham-born Chris said: “It wasn’t written for the World Cup. I had hoped it would have been out for last Christmas, but when that was missed, it seemed ridiculous to let an occasion like the World Cup pass by. I love football and folklore, in particular the tribal aspects of the sport.”
Former Southampton and Sunderland manager Lawrie McMenemy described the perfect football team psychologically as seven road sweepers and four concert violinists.
This is pretty astute, says Chris, when one considers how much comment in football is devoted to confidence and how often winning is really a question of faith or commitment, along with touches of magic.
The book reveals some fascinating superstitions followed by players. Did you know, for example, that the great Ian Rush always soaked new boots, having done so before a match for Liverpool against Luton Town when he went on to score five goals?
The late Bobby Moore always insisted on being the last player to put his shorts on before the team left the dressing room, while Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand pours water down his face seconds before leading his side on to the pitch.
Some players and fans have even more bizarre rituals, with many starting on a Friday night and continuing until the final whistle the following day.
If a player breaks a boot lace, it could mean bad luck and a certain procedure must be gone through before he plays. Many players call this mental preparation; wearing certain clothes, shoes and socks on match days adds to the list.
The tribal actions of supporters also feature in Chris’s book. He mentions an incident at Wrexham’s Racecourse ground in 1970, with Preston North End taking over the food shed and bombarding the home fans with ketchup and hot dogs.
Along with chanting, wearing colours and the rest, it is football’s equivalent of planting a flag and moving on.
Sacred turf and ‘cursed’ grounds get a mention, with Leeds United, Derby County, Gillingham, Manchester City and Birmingham City among clubs who in some cases held religious services in an effort to end a run of bad results.
“This is Anfield”, declares the large sign Liverpool players touch as they leave the tunnel before a game. Legendary manager Bill Shankly recognised that it reminded the team of the club’s place in history and its sense of tradition.
There is plenty in the book about crests and mascots. Wrexham changed from the Robins to the Dragons, while Reading – now known as the Royals – were once the Biscuitmen (which, Chris jokingly points out, had nothing to do with the side going to pieces outside the box).
Players kissing the club badge is often misplaced – when the player moves to another club. But nothing could vex fans more, relates Chris, than when 120,000 Scotland fans at Hampden Park took exception to England’s Alan Ball using a corner flag (bearing the Cross of St Andrew) to blow his nose.
Of course, no football book would be complete without a Shanklyism or Cloughism, and Football Voodoo has both. Shankly told assembled journalists at Anfield: “Take a stroll around my new centre half”, in reference to the massive Ron Yeats. And the ever-modest Cloughie? “I might not say I was the best manager in the business – but I was in the top one!”.