Santa sacked as football goes to the gods
Saturday May 22, 2004
Last weekend Leicester City released 13 first-team players. On Monday the Foxes' manager Micky Adams gave details of the clear-out to the press. "Unfortunately," he said, "Father Christmas is no longer at this football club."
That Keith Gillespie, Frank Sinclair and Craig Hignett had been axed from City's squad will have surprised nobody, but the news that Santa Claus has also been given his marching orders is quite a shock.
Not least because many of us had forgotten he was still at Leicester. Since signing for the club during the reign of Peter Taylor the whiskery Laplander has become the Winston Bogarde of the Walkers Stadium. So much so, in fact, that many people had started to think that he didn't actually exist.
"Father really struggled to adapt to the heat," one Foxes fan who had seen Christmas playing in the reserves told me. "He could still turn it on when he was in the mood, but one great performance a year is not enough at this level."
Others connected with Leicester were less kind about the festive legend. One member of the squad who asked not to be named in case he didn't get any presents this year told me: "When Santa arrived he made Mario Jardel look like a praying mantis. He needed to shed about eight stone but if you pointed it out to him he just went 'Ho! Ho! Ho!' like it was all a big joke."
Taylor had hoped that, if nothing else, signing the man from the Arctic Circle would have helped foster team spirit. "We thought he'd give the dressing room a lift with his positive attitude and hearty laughter," the Hull City boss recalled yesterday, "but it just didn't work out. He kept calling the other lads his 'little helpers' which really pissed them off and we were forever tripping over the elves."
Predictably the news that Father Christmas's sponsored sleigh will no longer be a fixture in the car park at the Walkers Stadium has led to further complaints that too many continental legends view the Premiership as nothing more than a chance to top up their pensions.
"There's no doubt that when they were abroad a lot of these guys were feted like gods," said Gordon Taylor of the Professional Footballers' Association, "but too many of them have come to England for one last pay day. Look at Hercules. He had a huge reputation but he hardly pulled up any trees at West Ham, did he?"
Then there was Hermes's unsuccessful spell at Stamford Bridge. The man the press in Greece nicknamed "The Winged Messenger" because of his speed and the accuracy of his delivery had lost much of his pace and, according to John Terry, "did nothing in training but stand around trying to flog the rest of the lads expensive handbags and silk scarves".
The feeling among many English managers is that too many of those who have built up a mythical reputation abroad are arriving in England when their best days are behind them. "We brought Baal over from Carthage for a trial," Portsmouth boss Harry Redknapp commented recently. "He still had the touch and vision but it was obvious to me that he no longer had the fire in his belly. To sign him would have involved this club making a huge sacrifice - literally. His agent was asking for 30 sacks of gold a week plus a yearly bonus of 200 noble-born children. To me he was just trying it on."
The claim that many of the "Galacticos" are greedy is heard a lot around the Premiership. Birmingham City, for example, were stunned during contract negotiations when Jehovah's representatives insisted on a contract clause that banned the other members of the team from making any money from "graven image rights". "He didn't want supporters at St Andrews to adore anyone else but him," Steve Bruce recalls of the aborted deal. "It was totally unbelievable."
Not everybody is so quick to condemn, though. Gérard Houllier points out that while Father Christmas and others may have failed, that is no reason to turn our backs on what the rest of the world has to offer.
"The old days when British fans would worship a big tree stump have long gone," the Liverpool manager said. "The game now is about pace and movement. You just don't get that from huge rocks or caves no matter how many dead rabbits you give them."
Taylor dismissed Houllier's comments. "It's the old inanimate objects stereotype again, isn't it? I'm sick of hearing that about our English idols. If you want pace and movement what about The Green Man? OK, the other players often don't spot him on account of the way he blends in with the grass, but he's second to none when it comes to getting about the field.
"And what about lightning? It's, well, like lightning really. You put those two in the centre of midfield, the big lads Gog and Magog at the back and up front you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone better than the Whicker Man - the lad's on fire at the moment".