SUPERSTITIOUS MINDS

by John Charlton

Why is sport, professional and amateur, riddled with superstition?

What prompts one of sport's legendary hard men to skulk and scream at the edge of a football pitch accompanied by one of his daughter's cuddly toys? Well it wasn't FIFA or FA directives, leastways not yet, which drove Stuart Pearce to reach for the stuffed pony called Beanie. It was that old sporting helpmeet: superstition.

In Pearce's case the team he manages, Manchester City, had, pre-Beanie, lost all league games bar one. They had also been dumped out of the Carling League Cup by lower-than-lowly Chesterfield.

Such a humiliation forces the pressure gauge into the zone marked "sack the manager". It was time for Pearce to clutch at a straw - in his case Beanie. It worked. Manchester City beat West Ham United 2-0. Next week Beanie was again selected to appear by the manager's side and City pulled off an unlikely last minute draw at Everton.

Why is sport, professional and amateur, riddled with superstition? The answer must lie in one of its great attractions: the uncertainty of outcomes.

The fact is that no matter how hard a team or individual tries, no matter how many training hours are put in, there is no guarantee of success. Indeed it often seems that the individual or team that tries the hardest loses, often because the focus on effort is detrimental to other attitudes and attributes necessary to sporting success.

Surprisingly, once superstition sets in, it often stays there, whatever the result. For example, the England cricket team's eccentric former wicketkeeper Jack Russell refused ever to abandon the scruffy, flowerpot-shaped white hat he sported when standing behind the stumps. No matter that he kept for England during one of their more down than up decades, the 1990s, the lucky shapeless white hat stayed put, despite edicts from the team management to wear an official three lions' cap.

But Russell's superstition was as nothing compared to those of major league baseball player Wade Boggs who played for the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees in the 1980s and 1990s. He was dubbed the "chicken man" as that's what he ate before every match, his favourite being lemon chicken.

During batting practice he entered the batting cage at 5.17 pm and left it at 7.17 pm precisely. Before each bat he wrote the Hebrew word chai, meaning life, into the dirt in the batter's box. He played exactly 150 balls during practice. Who can blame him? He won five American league batting titles between 1983 and 1988 and was a two-time runs scored leader.

Another, though more short-term, form of sporting superstition is the winning-streak routine. When Croatian tennis ace Goran Ivanesivic was, to the despair of tongue-tied commentators, on a winning streak at Wimbledon he followed a strict pre-match regime. This involved eating at the same restaurant table, ordering fish soup, lamb, and ice cream with chocolate sauce and talking to the same people from the previous day - if they were there.

Finally there is that most ephemeral of sporting superstitions: the curse. When all is going wrong, players and supporters will proclaim their team or favourite is cursed and search for culprits.

In the case of Birmingham City it was a gypsy's curse which hung over its ground, St Andrews. Barry Fry, who managed these under-achievers during the mid 1990s, decided to act. He consulted a Romany medium who told him the only way to lift the curse was for him to urinate in all four corners of the pitch. This he did one cold Friday evening in 1996. "It was a pretty difficult exercise," he said at the time, "doing it four times in succession."

A pretty pointless one too: the following day Birmingham lost 4-0 to archrival Wolves. But Fry had the last laugh: he stopped the cheque paid to the luckless medium.

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