Feeling spooky? I hope so, because I have some seriously spinechilling supernatural football stories for you this dark and creepy Halloween season… And a few silly ones too, of course. I’m not talking about the daft pranks young players seem to enjoy playing on each other at this time of the year. No, we’re in properly spooky territory here, so grab a cup of tea and settle down for a good scare. Oh, and don’t forget to check behind the sofa first. You never know who (or what) may be lurking…
Superstition ain’t the way…Embed from Getty Images
Footballers and football fans are a superstitious bunch. All those pre-match rituals and lucky socks (or, in the case of the legendarily superstitious Leeds United manager of the 1970s, Don Revie, his lucky match day suit!) are a part of life for many of us.
And, of course, when we somehow fail to do those rituals or find that our favoured pair of wooly hosiery is in the wash…. well, god only knows what awful fate will befall our beloved team!
So, in many ways it would seem somewhat logical to take the next step and blame an extended run of terrible form or bad luck on some kind of curse. Over the years, numerous clubs have done just that, claiming they – or their ground – have been hexed.
The most common tale is that of the slightly amorphous and vague ‘gypsy curse’, usually said to be the result of the club’s owners evicting a Romany encampment from the land the stadium was then built on.
As pointed out above, football is an already superstitious culture, and it is not unusual to hear about clubs who seek out a remedy for such perceived psychic ills for that very reason – often to the extent of calling someone in to restore the equanimity of the place.
Witches, psychics, mediums, druids, ghost hunting teams and even members of the clergy have been known to provide such services for football clubs who might be dealing with something unexplained.
And that’s exactly what happened to Southampton in 2001 when they first moved from the Dell to their current ground, St Mary’s. After a woeful run of form at their new home and some alleged poltergeist activity, it occurred to the club (who, ironically, began as a church team) that they might have disturbed something unearthly when they had removed a pre-Christian gravesite during the construction of their shiny new stadium.
This doesn’t sound good, does it?
In fact, it sounds like the opening sequence of a horror film, right? And we all know what happens next, right? Well, no, not in this case. No running towards bloodcurdling screams here. Instead, Southampton sensibly sought out the services of a modern witch, a chap going by the unlikely name of Cerridwen Dragonoak Connelly, who performed a blessing on the stadium – and it seemed to work, since the Saints soon got that elusive first home win of the season.
Birmingham City were another side who had long claimed a ‘gypsy curse’, in their case on their St Andrews ground. However, their approach to dealing with it was slightly… er… different to that of Southampton. After numerous attempts by previous managers to lift the curse (involving crucifixes on the floodlights and other unlikely remedies), City’s then-boss, the infamous Barry Fry, got fed up and decided to have a go himself.
I’ll let Barry tell the story in his own words (originally from a FourFourTwo interview), because this is, as you might imagine, a rather sweary and gloriously farcical gem of a tale:
Well, we went three months without winning a game, and I was in the office shaking my head at our secretary, Alan Jones, saying I’d got it all wrong. He said “It’s not your fault, Baz, it’s the gypsy’s curse”. Gypsy curse? Fuck off, what rubbish. But he said we’d always had it and that Ron Saunders put crosses on the dressing room floor, on the walls, on the players’ boots to scare it off, but that didn’t work cos he got the sack.
So I said to Alan, “Do you know anyone in the gypsy world?” Turned out he knew the top geezer, so he got him down and he said the only way to lift the curse was to piss in all four corners of the pitch. I thought it was a wind up, but what the ’ell, we were desperate, so I pissed in all four corners, holding it in while I waddled round the pitch. Did it work? Well, we started to win and I thought it had, then they fucking sacked me, so probably not.
Other clubs that have claimed curses over the years include Leeds United, Swansea City (the story behind that one has to be read to be believed!), Derby County, Hibernian, the Colombian team América de Cali, Portugal’s Benfica, Bayer Leverkusen of the Bundesliga, the Mexican club Cruz Azul, and – of course – the Socceroos, famously cursed by a witch doctor after a trip to Mozambique.
It seems that the (un)dead like their football as much as their living counterparts do, since many stadia are believed to be haunted – and I’m not talking about those pesky phantom goals either (for plenty of controversial ghost goals, tricks, treats and more ghastly ghostly goings-on at football games, check out the ASRV-compiled YouTube playlist below).
You might think a football ground wouldn’t be the kind of place where you’d find the local spirits hanging out – but considering the number of clubs that claim a ghost, it does seem they quite like it there. And you’d be surprised by who likes to take a ghostly stroll around the terraces of an evening…
Indeed, it might even be someone you know (or knew). It’s fairly common for deceased life-long fans to have their ashes interred or scattered somewhere within their club’s stadium. The idea of an eternity-long season ticket (and maybe haunting the ref for a laugh during home matches) is a nice one, I must say, but I am sure this practice only exacerbates the spread of spooky stories!
Sometimes, too, particularly legendary managers have found their last resting places beneath the pitches they knew so well. Bill Nicholson, the greatest Spurs manager of them all, is one such.
His ashes were originally interred at his beloved White Hart Lane after his death in 2004, but have since been moved and reburied in a similar spot in the new stadium. I haven’t heard of any reported sightings of the great man (yet), but I’d like to think he’s still there and still watching over us…
Elsewhere in spooky soccer, Sunderland hit the headlines in 2005 after backroom staff at the Stadium of Light reported a dark and shadowy figure flitting round. Players and staff alike soon began to suspect the place was haunted, especially after the then-Black Cats and Republic of Ireland striker Stephen Elliot also claimed to have seen the phantom too.
Apparently, this shadowy spook was an 18th century wrecker known as Old Spottee in life, although it’s a little unclear where that info comes from. He had possibly once been a French soldier, but had seemingly ended up on the North East coast instead, luring ships on to the rocks to rob them of their cargoes. One wonders if an (after)life at the Stadium of Light was a quieter one than that….
Then there’s Highbury, Arsenal’s stately old home in North London. Despite now having been converted into flats, it is said still to be the haunt of their legendary manager Herbert Chapman, who paces the corridors of this once great football ground – and, slightly more unexpectedly, the spirit of a horse, accidentally killed during the ground’s construction in 1913.
Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge is supposed to be haunted by a much more cheerful entity, however. This happy ghost is said to bring luck to anyone who has the good fortune of spotting him. Known as ‘The Smiling Man’, he seems to be associated with tales of unexpected windfalls and positive transformations for those who see him. Not unlike Chelsea, I guess, just before Roman Abramovich opened his wallet…
Other clubs and stadia are said to have such incorporeal house guests too. Creepy tales have been told about Gillingham, Bradford, Lincoln and more, plus there is also this wonderfully matter of fact story of the Ipswich Town fans who encountered a rather distinctive ghost in a motorway service station loo on their way home from an away match!
The Ballad of Billy CallenderEmbed from Getty Images
However, the most intriguing of all the football ghost stories I found involves the double whammy of a haunting and a curse! This sad tale from South London is one that features the restless spirit of a former player, seemingly doomed to wander the stands of his club for all eternity…
The story begins in 1932, with the tragic death of Crystal Palace goalkeeper Billy Callender. Billy was a well-known and popular player at Selhurst Park: he played 202 games in Palace colours from 1923 and was a regular in the first team right up until his death.
Playing frequently for Palace and happily engaged to be married by the early 1930s, all seemed to be picture perfect for Callender – until his adored fiancée Ella fell ill and died of polio in 1932. Poor Billy was naturally devastated by this heartbreaking turn of events, and his grief was so great that he took his own life at the Palace ground in July 1932.
So far, so factual. But then, it is said, things started to get a little strange at Selhurst Park. It seemed that although Billy Callender might indeed be dead, he hadn’t stopped hanging around his late place of work. His ghostly figure was said to linger in the Old Stand, and there were reports of a presence that moved chairs about and frightened staff working in various parts of the ground.
In 1977, it was decided that enough was enough. The club’s then current run of bad luck needed to change, and many staff and fans believed that the ghost of poor grieving Billy needed to move on once and for all. So a celebrity psychic of the time by the name of Romark was called in by the flamboyant then-manager, Malcolm Allison.
This psychic promised to sort the situation out, but (as is always the case with these things), it didn’t go quite according to plan. An argument over money led to Romark storming off, but not before he’d (allegedly) put a curse on the club, which some fans believe is still in place to this very day.
And poor Billy? Well, he’s said to still walk the terraces of the Old Stand and stories still circulate of his continuing presence in the ground. If I were you, I’d watch out if I were heading for a match at Selhurst Park, especially any time around Halloween…
Many thanks to Sid for ideas, pics, research, and some excellent contributions to the ASRV Ghostly Goings-On Playlist!