Mascots – those big things that come in a variety of shapes and sizes that no major sporting events would today be without. Us English can lay claim to this worldwide phenomenon when in 1966 World Cup Willie became the first “human” mascot.
But did you know the word mascot comes from the French word “mascoto” which means a piece of witchcraft ? And based on the conduct of some of the most famous characters, such as Cyril the Swan who famously drop kicked the head of Millwall’s Zampa the Lion into the crowd, or Deepdale Duck at Preston who has a habit of annoying linesmen they do more than just amuse the crowd – they are an icon.
These guys and girls are real unsung heroes. As we will hear first hand below they have to put their (character) lives on the line every time they step out onto the pitch. But first let me humour you with two mascot related stories.
First let me take you back to the late 1990’s. West Ham travelled through the Blackwall Tunnel to take on neighbours Charlton Athletic on a foul day of wind and rain. West Ham, with Julian Dicks ripped apart by a rampant Danny Mills lost 4-2 but it was the half time entertainment that was most memorable. Charlton have two mascots – Harvey the Dog and Floyd the Cat. Both are “manned” by two young youth team players. However, their half time special guest was Heavyweight Champion of the World Lennox Lewis….all 6ft 5inches. The club therefore thought having two 5ft mascots either side of him would look a bit “silly” so (in)Active Matt with his 6ft frame stepped in in exchange for three Pukka Pies.
Just after 9/11 everyone one started taking security very very seriously. And quite right too. Any event where more than a few people were likely to gather saw an increased risk. So what does that have to do with mascots? Well in September 2002 I was helping out at the Guinness Premiership London double header (Rugby Union) at Twickenham. One of my jobs was to transport the London Irish Mascot outfit – Digger from its home in Sunbury to Twickenham. As I pulled into the ground some areas before kick off the car had to be searched. I completely forgot that the huge fake Irish wolfhound head was sitting in the middle of the boot, and so when the security guard lifted the tailgate he screamed, dropping his radio and fell to the floor. Immediately I am surrounded by security guards, who when they see what had caused the panic also collapsed but in laughter at their fallen mascot.
But apart from a five minute “test”, I have never worn a costume but just from that short period I cannot begin to understand the heat and stuffiness of wearing the uniform. Just imagine if you were dressed as a 6 foot giant Womble or a huge Lion? Well let’s find out what it is really like…Over to Dean Parsons aka Haydon the Womble from AFC Wimbledon, and Nicki aka Leo the Lion from FC Copenhagen.
Did you volunteer or were you asked?
H: I volunteered
L: I knew someone at FCK and they sort of asked and I sort of volunteered.
What was the interview process like?
H: The Womble Underground Press fanzine, who raised the money held a mascot idol audition, where I was chosen.
L: There wasn’t one at FCK – I was simply chosen.
What advice would you give any readers who aspire to be a mascot?
H: Just put your own personality to the mascot, do not try too hard, just be cheeky, and get away with things you wouldn’t normally get away with.
L: Simply jump into it and don’t be nervous.
Most embarrassing moment?
H: Well I have a wooden nose and before I knew the length of my own nose I used to bash people with it! But it would have to be having my head ripped off by a Luton fan, and upsetting the children, taking away a part of their innocence, in their belief Wombles are real, which of course they are!
L: My first time was nerve racking as I kept thinking I was going to fall flat on my face, especially walking down the steps in the stands.
Do you study other mascots for new moves or techniques?
H: Of course like a goalkeeper watches over goalies, a striker watches other strikers, mascots are always watching to see what they can add to their locker.
L: No – I have my own style – people copy me!
How important is the role of the mascot on a matchday?
H: It is very important for encouraging families to come along & carry on bringing generations of fans to continue getting behind the team. I also feel their are vital times during a game especially when losing to lift the crowd which in turn lifts the players.
L: I think it is important for the club to have an identity for the children.
How do you cope with trying to do autographs with your big hands?
H: I practised to start with oven gloves, now I seem to have to down to a fine art but if the sun is shining in that direction, I have to literally write blindly.
L: as I only have to write “LEO” it is not to difficult.
Ever been “tapped up” by another club?
H: No not yet, most mascots at each club never seem to want to give up their role, I have helped the children’s Trust in Tadworth though with their mascots.
L: Not yet but lots of other clubs fans yell at me – especially when we play Brondby!
Any rivalry between mascots?
H: There is friendly rivalry between other teams mascots at mascot races etc, the only serious rivalry is with the cows from Milton Keynes, they tries to cuddle me but I just stuck say no to Franchising stickers on their backs!
L: Not that I have ever heard but everyone knows FCK’s Lion is the best!
Is the ultimate aim to win the Mascot grand national?
H: Sadly Wombles aren’t renowned for their aerodynamics and whilst Huntingdon allow ringers in like the Rugby winger last year wearing tights and running trainers, the genuine football mascot doesn’t stand a chance. I finished 2nd at the London athletics at Crystal Palace athletics track, and third at Plumpton I think that’s the closest I will get. But I beat almost 5,000 finishers at the London marathon dressed as Haydon!
Is this something you can pass down to your kids to do one day?
H: I have one daughter with another on the way so more than likely my daughter is very much part of the mascot scene, often seen holding a charity bucket events to raise money for charity. The Southend mascots are a fine example their dad was the mascot until cancer sadly got the better of him and they have now taken on the role, they are doing him proud.
L: It is a great experience being out on the pitch in front of the crowd so I would say yes.
So there we have it – two more unsung heroes for our gallery. And next time, when I mascot waves at you, don’t be rude – wave back and remember that they are doing it for the love of the club – just like you and me.