The mixture of inspired madness and dedicated research that makes football folklore so so compelling was on display last night at a meeting of the South East London Folklore Society. Speaker Chris Roberts gave a talk on ‘Sacred turf and holy place: Football stadia and worship’, sharing some fascinating and amusing facts from his Football Voodoo project.
Tradition, superstition and folklore are embedded in football culture, and Chris provided some wide-ranging examples and put forward some interesting theories that sparked lively debate. One strand that provoked much discussion looked at football hooliganism and the establishment of ‘ends’. It’s easy to tip into pseud’s corner when attempting to put an academic framework on people kicking lumps out of each other, but there’s something in Chris’s point about the establishment of ‘sacred areas’, be it a part of the ground or a part of a locality, having a deeper significance. And it threw up an amusing story about a visit to Wrexham in the 1970s by Tranmere’s junior crew in which the visitors invaded the hotdog stand and proceeded to pepper the home section with frankfurters.
There was much about the establishment of territory, and some thought-provoking points about how the hard-headed big business of modern football thinks nothing of employing the services of exorcists, witches and the like if it believes this will bring success or change a run of bad luck. The story of Barry Fry pissing on each corner flag at Birmingham City’s ground to try and lift an old gypsy curse provides an image that is disturbingly difficult to shake.
Chris also touched on the significance of colour – red is seen as lucky by many schools of thought, although Chris didn’t mention referees at Old Trafford in his list; and numerology – positing the theory that the Chinese belief that 4 was unlucky almost certainly ruled out the possibility of the national side utilising a 4-4-2 formation.
A very entertaining evening, and the discussion afterwards was also very stimulating, although that closing time scotch was probably a mistake! I hope Chris manages to get a publishing deal for Football Voodoo, any publishers reading take note.
I should also, in closing, give a plug to the excellent publication Chris edits, One Eye Grey, a fine addition to a canon of material celebrating the traditions and folk history of the great city of London.