408 Harry

A return to normality will come as a relief to squad pranksters, who for more than a year have had limited opportunities for tomfoolery

March 25 ~ Back in the 1930s Middlesbrough’s captain was the central defender Bobby Baxter. A Scottish international, Baxter liked to play the ball out from the back. He had style and a certain nonchalance. Imagine a boiler-chested Alan Hansen with a matinee idol centre-parting and shin-pads like tin-loaves and you more or less have him. Boro’s Aberdonian goalkeeper David Cumming didn’t approve of his compatriot’s considered approach to defending and would often be heard at Ayresome Park bawling: “Baxter! Baxter! Get that fucking ball away!”

Baxter was the senior figure in the Middlesbrough dressing room when a teenage Wilf Mannion joined the first team. The pair didn’t get along. Aggravated by the fact that the youngster addressed him as “Bobby” instead of “Mr Baxter”, the skipper gave the Golden Boy a tough time.

In a mightily entertaining interview in WSC photographer Paul Thompson’s book Talking Middlesbrough – George to Juninho, George Hardwick recalls: “One time Baxter was lying on the massage table naked, and he told Wilf to get [talcum] powder. There was a big container of it in the dressing room. Wilf took it over to the table, Baxter raised his legs and said: ‘My arse is kinda fiery, powder my arse.’ So Wilf powders and powders. Suddenly Baxter farted and Wilf disappeared in a cloud of powder.” As Hardwick tells Thompson: “I used to come away from that place with a bellyache; not from the exertion, from the laughter.”

If nothing else, this tale goes to show that quality japery has been a key part of professional football in Britain for a long time. Obviously at the higher levels of the game things have moved on since the days of the WM formation and Baxter’s explosive flatulence. This is largely as a consequence of the arrival of foreign coaches who take a more tactical approach to badinage and tomfoolery. Students of the game will be well aware that it was Hugo Meisl, coach of the Austrian Wunderteam, who tasked elegant forward Mathias Sindelar with cutting off the toes of his team-mates’ socks then sewing them back on again before they noticed, thus creating the role we know today as “the false clown prince”. Later, Dutch coach Rinus Michels would introduce the world to the concept of “Total Horseplay” in which every player in the side was expected to be able to slot into the role of joker-in-the-pack at a moment’s notice. The world may remember it as the “Cruyff Turnip”, but the truth is that Ruud Krol, Wim Suurbier and the rest were just as capable of filling a colleague’s boots with mashed root vegetables as the Ajax maestro.

Whatever form the joking takes, when players retire you can guarantee that if asked what they miss most about the game they will almost always say “the dressing room banter”. (One exception to this was Bobby Charlton, who said the thing he missed most was lying in bed on Saturday morning contemplating the coming game while smoking a cigarette.) As a result, banter withdrawal has long been an issue among ex-footballers and the fact that thousands of players across Britain have been forced to go craic cold turkey due to Covid-19 is naturally a cause for concern. Zoom tomfoolery has been a blessing for some, others have been forced to fall back on watching Norman Wisdom films on YouTube and pretending the central character is actually Peter Taylor doing an impression, while the more lively have taken to getting up at three in the morning to fire off volleys of squirty cream as if it were a fire extinguisher and the new cockapoo puppy was a member of hotel security staff.

Even where football is being played, the top, top high jinks of the likes of Harry Maguire and Danny Drinkwater is constrained by the pandemic. Social distancing has meant that the locker room prankster can now only deploy his classic wind-ups on himself. There are few sights sadder than that of a veteran reserve team goalkeeper trying to look surprised at discovering he has filled his own underpants with chilli powder. Yet that is what professional footballers have been reduced to by this infernal virus.

Sadly our prime minister said nothing in his February 22 briefing about a return to shenanigans normalcy, but the consensus seems to be that towards the end of this month a Maserati will be filled with rotten fish for the first time in close to a year, and players will have to stop pretending to their families that the gruesome thing in the toilet was deposited there by Robbie Savage. Harry Pearson

Illustration by Tim Bradford

This article first appeared in WSC 408, April 2021. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here

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