BY MARK GODFREY – EDITOR
Football, very often, is like a mirror held up to reflect trends within the society of the times; whether that be hooliganism during the 1970s and 80s, a period of civil dissatisfaction and disturbance, or the middle class gentrification of the game in the 21st century; when property prices are valued as cultural currency and the rise of entertainment TV is based around baking scones in a marquee in the Home Counties.
Fashions and hairstyles too are reproduced in football as they are in life – think short shorts, bobby dazzler boots and Chrissy Waddle mullets.
There is one particular modern craze that inspired the writing of this article that one cannot escape these days, either on the pitch or in the stands: beards.
We’ve all tried to grow one at some stage in our lives haven’t we gents? Some with more success and style than others it has to be said. I’m not exactly sure when or where this present fondness for the hirsute look began so I’m going to point an accusatory finger in the obvious direction of the hipsters.
Perhaps that’s a bit unfair on our lumberjack shirt wearing, skinny-jeaned friends. After all, regular shaving is not only harsh on the face, it can be a right pain in the arse too.
As a teenager I was given a nugget of advice by the former Everton, Newcastle United and Sunderland midfielder Paul Bracewell: don’t shave on the day of a game to save irritation to the skin; I can see the logic in that, yet, in one aspect it’s slightly surprising that beards – especially the big old bushy variety sported by the likes of Joe Ledley and Mile Jedinak – have become so popular in a sport where the human body’s response to prolonged physical activity could cause such an uncomfortably hot and sweaty distraction. Vanity, I assume, must be a powerful antidote.
A couple of things must be pointed out though; firstly, hipsters did not invent the beard. Secondly, the widespread sporting of facial fuzz is cyclical. Like most fads, we’ve seen them all before.
If we go right back to association football’s early years in the mid-to-late Victorian era, we only have to look at cricket’s poster boy to see exactly the type of sportsman that motivated men and wowed the women – William Gilbert “W.G.” Grace.
As famous for his prodigious beard as he was for his exploits at the batting crease, Grace himself was hardly unique in his appearance. The Victorians were extremely partial to mutton chops, Darwinesque beards and handlebar moustaches, the like of which come straight out of a scene in Zulu. The gentlemen players and professionals of the newly codified football simply followed the herd in that respect.
You only have to scour through old sepia photographs of the age to see the plethora of facial hair varieties. They were likely less bothersome to the players than the coarse apparel they were subject to wearing during matches, however.
One of the sport’s great early innovators – and stars – was C.W. Alcock. Not only had he helped to form Wanderers, one of the period’s pre-eminent clubs, but he also played in the first ever international match for England against Scotland in 1870. He will probably be most remembered, however, as the man who devised the F.A. Challenge Cup, now the oldest cup competition in world football. His facial adornment was not a beard, but an overgrown soup strainer drooping from his top lip like the foliage of a weeping willow.
It was the moustache in its many forms that was most prevalent amongst the sporting classes right up until the cessation of league football (in England at least) at the outbreak of the First World War, and when the game returned in time for the Roaring Twenties the players were far smoother and considerably more styled than ever before. This new clean cut image persisted through the inter-war years and into the post-WWII 1950s when austerity and rationing seemed to leave people short of most things, with perhaps the exception of razors and Brylcreem.
These were the embryonic days of lucrative endorsements, when the country was just beginning to get back on its feet again and luxury items were once more attainable for the masses. The idols of the day were synonymous with that slicked back, clean-cut, well-dressed look – Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Billy Wright and Nat Lofthouse were football’s most recognisable faces in households around the country and amongst the earliest to begin taking advantage of their burgeoning celebrity status. With the notable exception of the Beatnik-bearded Jimmy Hill – a curio on so many levels – there was scarcely a patch of stubble to be found in the dressing rooms of English football.
The suited-up, well-groomed 50s gave way to the Swinging Sixties, and by the end of the decade we were letting it all hang out; our hair and beards grew as the lines between football and rock n’ roll blurred with the emergence of a magician from Belfast and his rabble-rousing ways – George Best.
Almost from the word go Best caused a stir, earning the nickname ‘The Fifth Beatle’ as his emergence at Manchester United coincided with that of the phenomenal Fab Four from Liverpool – all of whom were fellow wearers of the iconic mop-top hair style. Indeed, Best’s own image ran parallel to that of the Scouse beat combo as the sixties ticked over to the seventies and the buttoned-down image of youth vanished to be replaced by the more psychedelic, hippy influenced period of long hair, beards and flared trousers. Georgie may have looked like a scruffier version of Paul McCartney, but his genius on the field, the tabloid glamour and numerous deflowered Miss Worlds made him the game’s first megastar and someone to mimic for other young footballers.
Much of Best’s legacy has since been tainted, but while his trademark look may have been copied, it was never matched by his contemporaries, although many tried.
Beards were back: from Lennon to Townshend (John and Pete, not Aaron and Andros) and Bonham to Fleetwood – football once again took its cue from popular music of the times.
There was ‘Big’ Bob Latchford of Birmingham City and Everton; George Berry of Wolves and Stoke City; Aston Villa’s Trevor Hockey; and Charlton’s Derek Hales. All of them thundered around the muddy pitches of 1970s English football with a belly full of vol-au-vents and Watney’s to a soundtrack of Slade and Sweet. And until now, the decade of bad taste remained the halcyon days of the hairy footballer, but with one significant difference: today’s players take an awful lot of pride (and spare no expense) in their unkempt look. Beard length must be carefully calibrated; jaw lines and cheekbones distinct; hair shaved and shaped in just the right direction. Grooming is booming. In the 1970s, if any effort went into the long, lank hair and out-of-control beard look then it was particularly well concealed. Most players of the age looked like they’d spent the night before a game in the back of a Ford Cortina rather than in their mock Tudor mansions with their personal stylist plucking stray eyebrows and applying fake tan.
It was again – perhaps – on Merseyside where trends were set that saw out the 70s and ushered in the 1980s. Liverpool dominated the football landscape at home and abroad from 1975 to the latter part of the following decade thanks to their fabled ‘Boot Room’ of managers and coaches. When star man Kevin Keegan broke new ground with his famous bubble perm around the time of his shock transfer to Hamburg, all at once a new era was born. And while many of his former colleagues at Anfield followed in his wake, they also rediscovered an old footballer’s friend – the moustache.
You only have to close your eyes and recall those great Liverpool teams and it would seem easier to name those with a ‘tache than those without: Tommy Smith, Bruce Grobbelaar, Alan Kennedy, Mark Lawrenson, Terry McDermott, Jimmy Case, John Wark, Graeme Souness, Ian Rush…
Then of course there was Mick Mills, Neville Southall, Phil Parkes, Mick Quinn, Wayne Fereday, Derek Mountfield….I could go on.
The 1980s ‘tache was just edgy enough to say “Yeah, I’m cool like Freddie Mercury and overtly masculine to boot”, but unlike their early 20th and late 19th century predecessors they were neater and carried an air of respectability about them, especially when compared to the now shunned beard. The full face of fur was then almost exclusively the domain of those swarthy, untrustworthy foreign types who were either suspiciously too good with the ball (Socrates, Brazil) or were masters of the dark arts, hell bent on separating the honest Brit from the lower half of their legs (Sergio Batista, Argentina).
Fashions changed again in the 1990s, and by the time Britpop sledgehammered its way to the forefront of the ‘Cool Britannia’ vibe, the moustache yet again became unloved and unwanted. Even the old brigade of loyal tachees such as Rush, Souness and Southall were exposing the gap between their mouths and noses to the world for the first time since adolescence. John Wark remained steadfastly firm though. Always John Wark.
The one notable beardsman of the 1990s was Bulgarian intenational, Trifon Ivanov. The now sadly departed centre back, who excelled at the 1994 World Cup in the USA, was a mean operator. That he looked like a psychopath who would likely kill you, eat you and wear your skin as a raincoat probably helped intimidate any number of strikers before they’d even had the chance to get acquainted on the field.
And that leads us back to the modern day. The beard is king, although a benign one: stubble beard, short beard, long beard, braided beard – you name it, we’ve probably seen it in the last few years; all in the name of image, of course, not religion or any other piffling reason. Now, unlike bygone days, even the baldies have been getting in on the action. Tim Howard, Simone Zaza and James Collins – to name but a few – have rocked the head-on-upside-down look without so much as a titter.
Hell, even the eternally boyish Lionel Messi has grown a big old beard. You know that if Ronaldo – the smoothest and most styled player in history – succumbs then that’s it: the game’s up. Time to get the trimmers out.
And so, while all the beardies are currently playing it cool through the insufferable itchiness and the matted congealing of perspiration and beeswax, the cult of the beard is undeniably doomed just like it (and the moustache) has been before. If you’re around in 100 years or so, search the internet (or whatever succeeds it) with your great grandchildren for Joe Ledley and – as we ourselves have done when examining ghosts of the past – expect more than just a few giggles in response at what we consider en vogue today.