How being a Premier League football mascot went from altruistic treat to cynical money-spinner

Wanted: polite short people adept at holding hands with footballers, with £700 to spare. 

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Personally, I’m no particular advocate for kids on mascot duty at football matches. Partly that’s because I don’t buy into the stereotype that paints modern footballers as hopelessly pampered, bubble-dwelling inadequates. On the contrary, I’d back practically all of them to find their own way from the dressing room to the pitch without guidance from a qualified seven year old in a replica kit. Plus there are just so many mascots these days – 22 of them at some European or international games, one per player. If they ever get organised and unionise, the game’s in trouble.

Still, it must be a thrill for the kids – walking alongside your heroes, leading your team on to the pitch, living the dream, hand-in-hand with James Milner. You can’t put a price on that.

Except, it turns out you can – and at Leicester City that price is £600. That’s if you purchase the “VIP mascot package”, which includes “pre-match tunnel walk, player photos” and the eternal pleasure of hearing your name spoken over the tannoy. And Leicester aren’t the only Premier League club monetising this corner of the match day magic, nor even the most shameless. That’s probably West Ham, whose eye-wateringly steep £700 mascot package somehow doesn’t even stretch to supplying the replica kit the mascot must wear.

You don’t need to be an expert in public relations to work out that charging children premium prices for light ceremonial hand-holding duties sends some callow signals about top-flight football at a time when it least needs them. “Dreadful avarice,” Gary Lineker resoundingly called it, soon after the BBC drew attention to this sharp practice. “So wealthy kids can buy the role, poor kids can’t,” he added. “Nice.” Even in a term when there has been a casual £5m whip-round for the departing Premier League chairman Richard Scudamore, pay-to-play for mascots must be in with a decent shout of winning PR own goal of the season.

Thankfully they’re not all at it. Credit for restraint in this area (thus far) to Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and both the Manchester clubs, who currently demand nothing of their mascots other than that they turn up on time and behave. OK, there was that boy at Chelsea that time who, in the tunnel, solemnly extended a hand to Steven Gerrard of Liverpool, only – in the classic, knockabout gesture – to pull his hand away at the last second, raise the thumb to his nose and waggle his fingers. But it’s not encouraged.

Let’s boo Tottenham, though, for slapping a £405 price tag on the mascot experience, and also Swansea City, for charging £399 plus VAT even after being relegated to the Championship. And let’s reserve a special jeer for Bournemouth, whose fee of £185 looks relatively modest in this company but apparently doesn’t cover a ticket for the match. Imagine that: one minute you’re on the pitch with the players, the next you’re out the back door and heading home before a ball has been kicked. So close and yet so far away. I guess at least you beat the traffic.

Clearly clubs should be paying the mascots. Quite apart from anything else, as with soprano choristers, it’s a brutally short career. Most mascots are lucky to work beyond the age of about 11, or not without it becoming a little awkward. And certainly, as soon as you reach 161cm (the height of Angel Gomes of Manchester United, who is the Premier League’s shortest registered player), you’re as good as cooked, mascot-wise, no player especially wishing to be physically overshadowed by his own escorting minor.

What’s more, in their new numbers, those mascots have brought lasting peace to a historically troubled region, viz the tunnel, pre-match. YouTube amply recalls the night, some 15 years ago now, when Roy Keane of Manchester United set new records for impatience by going after Arsenal’s Patrick Vieira in the painfully tight confines of the old Highbury Stadium corridor. You simply wouldn’t get that kind of ruck now. The roomy, prestige departure lounges through which the players pass in today’s new-build stadiums don’t lend themselves to combustible overcrowding, and are further neutralised of necessity when 22 children are in there, waiting to hold hands.

But our times have seen an explosion of pre-match pageantry, of which mascots are only one aspect. Where I watch football (at Chelsea, who, to repeat, do not charge their mascots), the following things now have to happen before football can take place. Eleven blue flag-bearers must parade on to the pitch, co-ordinated by production staff dressed in black with headsets. A series of flames and fireworks must be made to leap from four portable launchers, controlled by a man crouching near the advertising hoardings with a laptop in a flight case. And the teams must eventually walk out accompanied regularly by up to four mascots who will one day be able to tell their offspring what some of us now tell our own about university education: that they lived at a time when this kind of thing came free. At least in some places.

And the players and the mascots will walk all the way across the pitch to line up in front of a pop-up sponsor’s hoarding, and the Premier League anthem will be played over the PA, before the formal shaking of hands, and we haven’t even got to the coin-toss yet. And just occasionally, I suppose, in the middle of all this, I find myself harking back rather longingly to a time before anthems and mob-handed mascots, when the teams simply ran out, each to their own end of the pitch, and, soon after, kicked off. It had a certain punk energy to it. Also a certain punk brevity.

Then again, it lacked flags and fireworks, and it seems churlish to turn your nose up at those. And, in any case, nobody was going to be able to spin a £700 VIP package out of it, so I guess it was always doomed.

Giles Smith will be writing fortnightly

Giles Smith is a New Statesman columnist and previously wrote for the Times.

This article appears in the 11 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit Showdown