Maybe football writers are missing the story. If you want drama, intrigue, crowd-galvanising moves, look no further than the touchline, where the real action belongs to green pear-shaped dinosaurs, pointy-eared space aliens and button-nosed Wombles.
It’s time to celebrate the true heroes we miss most from the matchday: the overacting, unathletic team mascots.
They’re an emblem, an identity, a glimpse inside a club’s tradition. But darting about behind the mask – perhaps behind the dripping layers of sweat – is the ringleader of football tribalism, conducting the holy matchday rituals from team chants to high fives with young fans.
We’ve missed these rituals during the pandemic. But even before the mascots were furloughed, match reports never seemed to cover what they were up to. They’re (sometimes literally) the elephant in the room – if the room were a stadium.
Occasionally, the mascot owns the game’s real action. Michael Bradshaw, who for 15 years was Burnley’s black-striped and single-toothed Bertie Bee, recalls the day in early 2002 when he tackled a naked streaker. It was a match between Preston North End and Burnley, a local derby.
The streaker ran onto the pitch at half-time, when Bradshaw was busy drinking a glass of water.
“When I came out, a Burnley supporter was naked and had made it to the away end. He had the score [2-0] written on his backside and was shaking his bum-cheeks to the Preston fans,” Bradshaw recalls with a grin.
“And when he was running back to the Burnley end, I saw him and thought he was a Preston fan. So I rugby tackled him.” This was followed by the dance move, the worm. Not the only that made an appearance in that episode.
The hysterical acrobatic challenge that sent the streaker somersaulting through mid-air, became an online sensation. And Bradshaw used the attention for good, auctioning the rights to the picture of him tackling the streaker for charity.
It’s not only the rugby tackle on a naked streaker. Bertie Bee has had his fair share of escapades.
“It was Burnley against QPR – a massive game in our 2013 title race. One of our players was fouled and the linesman didn’t give anything,” Bradshaw says. “I asked a supporter if I could borrow their glasses.”
Bradshaw then proceeded to wave these glasses about in the face of the linesman. “It was a bit of banter, the fans lapped it up. But the referee sent me off,” he adds.
Pictured locked up in the Turf Moor mock prison cell after the game, he made the most of his time in the limelight.
Sometimes the reaction can be far rougher.
Richard Cutcher, the man behind the yellow-horned, innocent-looking Derby County mascot Rammie The Ram during the 2009/10 season, learned this the hard way.
“The club wanted me to be very visible. They wanted me to react to what was going on, on the pitch,” he says. “I was quite mischievous, so I used to have a little skit, where I would run along the touchline and fall over and hold my knee if a player was feigning injury.
“The fans really loved that and would be chanting, ‘same old Rammie taking the piss’. It was great, the club said they liked it. And then I misjudged one of these skits quite badly. We were playing Reading, and Brian Howard [Reading’s midfielder] got a smack in the face from the goalkeeper.”
Assuming that Howard was faking it, Cutcher pretended to drag the player off the pitch.
“He was getting treatment on the pitch and I was doing my usual thing. The fans started chanting, ‘Rammie drag him off’,” Cutcher recalls.
It turned out Howard had broken his jaw, but Cutcher had no clue at the time.
“It went way too far,” he says. “At half-time, as I walked across the pitch, Reading’s substitute goalkeeper Ben Hamer rounded me and rugby tackled me from behind. He completely wiped me out. I limped down the tunnel and someone from the club told me I was in trouble and I couldn’t go out for the second half.”
Some mascots have faced even tougher violence when fans weren’t in on the joke.
Glynn Sparks, dressed as a sharp-whiskered and chubby-cheeked bunny as Scunthorpe United’s Scunny Bunny, was hosting a half-time supporter penalty shoutout against Millwall. Little did he know, punches were about to be thrown his way.
“It was dizzy penalties at half-time. You had to spin around 10 times and score from the spot,” he remembers.
“We had a Scunthorpe fan and a Millwall fan playing, and the latter decided to only spin five times.
“He then started dribbling, instead of shooting. I was a bit confused. He dribbled towards me and I became quite competitive, coming out to narrow the angle. He had a shot, I’ve dived and saved it. And it’s gone back to his feet, he’s shot it again and I’ve saved it again.
“And then he ran at me and started throwing punches, laying into my ribs. I grabbed hold of him to try and stop him, and I’ve thrown him onto the floor. But he’s actually taken my costume’s head off. I turned around and the crowd was chanting, ‘you’ll never beat Bunny, you’ll never beat Bunny’.”
Mascots aren’t only for matchdays. They are intertwined with the community. Sparks would become the mascot because of his charity fundraising.
“I do a lot of running,” he says “I usually take part in The Great North Run, but this one time I wanted to do it differently. I was running for a local charity and I wanted to wear some fancy dress. I thought, who’s better than Scunny Bunny? I got in touch with Scunthorpe and they let me borrow it, in exchange for me helping them out every now and then as club mascot.”
The amazing appreciation for mascots stems from the players. In October, Arsenal let go 55 of their staff, one was Jerry Quy – better known as Gunnersaurus, football’s celebrity dinosaur who he’d performed as for 27 years.
The fans’ anger and outrage poured out, but Mesut Ozil, the Gunners’ former midfield gem, understood the love for the mascot.
Writing on Twitter, Ozil said, “I was so sad that Jerry Quy aka our famous & loyal mascot Gunnersaurus and integral part of our club was being made redundant after 27 years. As such, I’m offering to reimburse Arsenal with the full salary of our big green guy as long as I will be an Arsenal player.”
Although Ozil has since left The Emirates, he has inspired the hierarchy to keep Gunnersaurus as the mascot. There’s a deep affection from the players for these furry animals.
Perhaps that affection isn’t matched by opposition mascots. It’s a rare sight that home and away team mascots appear together. But when Wolves’ Wolfie and Bristol City’s Three Little Pigs came together in late 1998 in a mascot vs mascot altercation, things became heated.
It was half-time at Bristol City’s Ashton Gate. The Three Little Pigs were only at the ground for the day to promote a local double-glazing firm. Wolfie roamed the field before being confronted by the pigs, who rounded the Wolves mascot. Feeling threatened, Wolfie threw his paw into the face of one of the pigs. Chaos ensued. Bristol City’s actual mascot at the time – City Cat – was watching on, bemused.
But there have also been friendships between different clubs’ mascots.
“Sixty mascots were invited down to film a 20-second-video for Nickelodeon,” Sparks says. “Filming from nine in the morning till half seven at night, we had to keep ourselves busy. We were given oranges, bananas and apples and we ended up using carrots as a cricket bat, and the ball was an orange. There were about 20 mascots involved, and we were all playing cricket.
“And there were also Lego sets in the room where we were filming. So we created massive Lego hurdles and started racing each other dressed as mascots.” In essence, it was a homemade mascot Olympics.
Cutcher, behind Rammie, says he “applied as a joke”. But he took the job seriously. And despite the risks of being rugby-tackled, he loved almost every minute. “It’s magical to lead the team you support out of the tunnel,” he reminisces.
Because, as we all secretly know, the game’s real story is in the mascot.