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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Football’s initiations: Laughter, togetherness, fear and abuse

“My legs, they were crumbling. I don’t know how I stayed on that chair. That was the scariest time of my life. It was worse than any football game I played. I was petrified.”

Hogan Ephraim, a former England youth international who went on to make more than 100 appearances for Queens Park Rangers, is recalling his introduction to life as a first-team footballer at West Ham United.

He came through the east London club’s academy and as a rite of passage, he faced a test to be accepted into the group. Welcome to the world of footballer’s initiations, where new players, whether promoted from the younger age groups or recruited from elsewhere, must participate in a challenge.

At some clubs, the initiation is extended not only to players but also to members of the backroom team. Football clubs have modernised and largely fallen into line with enlightened interpretations of employment law but initiations remain a cornerstone of a club’s pre-season rituals, even at the biggest clubs in the Premier League. Over decades, these episodes have evolved, from traumatic and frankly abusive episodes that took place in the late 1980s and well into the 1990s towards a more moderate approach in the present day, where players are most commonly expected to sing a song. Yet the expectation of standing on a chair and using a utensil as a pretend microphone while performing for a cast of new colleagues remains a trembling experience to many.

Ephraim, now 35 years old and retired, says: “I would have been 16 and we sat at dinner. No one’s mentioned it all day and I’m sat in between Anton Ferdinand, Marlon Harwood and everyone just starts hitting their knives on the little plates on the table. At 16, I don’t even say a word to the first team. I say hi and bye, that’s it. But then Marlon turns around to me and says, ‘It’s your time’. I asked: ‘Time for what?’.


Ephraim found singing in front of the group terrifying (Gary M Prior/Getty Images)

“He says, ‘You have to stand on a chair and sing’. I’m expecting him to laugh and I thought he was bantering me.”

It is not only Ephraim struck down by the nerves. Michail Antonio, the West Ham United forward, said on the Footballer’s Football Podcast: “I don’t know what it is about this chair but my heart goes, the words go from my mouth, it’s gone… I crumble.”

The ceremony is taken seriously — one player, Conor Wilkinson, was sent back home to Bolton Wanderers from a loan spell at Portsmouth in 2016 when he simply refused to perform.

“I went there on loan for the play-offs but nobody made me feel welcome and nobody spoke to me,” Wilkinson subsequently told the Daily Record in Scotland. “Maybe it was a bit of an ego thing, as a young lad coming from a bigger club. But they didn’t make me feel part of things. I was only 21 and none of the senior players said a word to me. I would just train and go back to the hotel. So I didn’t want to go up and make a fool of myself in front of them. The manager asked what happened. I told him I refused to sing and the whole experience was really awkward and bizarre.

“I did learn from the experience. That, in the future, I would choose my loans more wisely. I’ve probably done about 10 initiations. The first was Millwall, I was 16. I sang Dreams by Gabrielle when the ‘keeper David Forde launched an apple at the back of my head.”

Some players, it should be said, thrive in this environment. Ephraim explains: “A good initiation is where you think, ‘He’s got a bit about him’ — confidence — similar to what you want in a football player. That slight bit of arrogance where you’re backing yourself, even if you know your voice ain’t the best or you’re not great.

“I remember when I was away with the England youth teams, Daniel Sturridge was a year below and he came up to our group. He was maybe 15 at the time. This guy just took the room over like you wouldn’t believe and he hasn’t even had a training session yet. So you just knew with the confidence, the arrogance… he’s walking around the room in a circle, giving it all sorts and you just knew… this guy’s gonna be able to play. That was the best initiation I ever saw — if he wasn’t so good at football, he should have got into a music career.”

Initiations have received a fresh lease of life due to the rise of short-form social media platforms, with videos across TikTok, YouTube and Twitter. It has become commonplace to see a club’s official platform, or a player on their personal account, share snippets from a particularly memorable initiation performance. When Udoka Godwin-Malife signed for Swindon Town last summer, his performance of John Legend’s All of You impressed team-mates so much that he was then asked by captain Charlie Austin to sing again in the dressing room the next day so it could be shared online.

“I was raised in a church and I went a lot with my family,” says Godwin-Malife. “Initiations are an important ice breaker. When I did my first at my previous club. I was scared but the captain said, ‘Just do it’. It shows the coaching staff that you’ve got a bit of confidence, you’re not shy. After, you feel more relaxed and comfortable. I find it hard talking in front of people. Not singing, though, I’m OK with that.”

One man’s liberation, however, is another man’s ordeal. In most respects, it is embarrassing but harmless. Yet it has not always been this way. Locker room culture has long been subject to a strict omerta, where players can be tested to their physical and psychological limits. In previous decades, initiations appeared closer to hazing, where elaborate and deeply unpleasant tasks were set, mostly to prove an imagined form of masculinity under the facade of team-building.

Take, for example, a staggering recollection from the autobiography of Mel Sterland, a one-cap England international who made hundreds of appearances for Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United between 1978 and 1994. He writes in his book — named Boozing, Betting and Brawling — how, at Sheffield Wednesday, apprentices were subject to a ceremony “known as a blacking”. It would take place in the dressing room at the club’s Hillsborough stadium, and, if selected “you were held down while the others punched and kicked you”.

He wrote: “After being stripped bollock-naked, Vaseline and boot polish would be put on your bollocks. Deep Heat, which is used to relieve muscular aches and pains, was also put on your bollocks and your knob, causing a real stinging sensation. Vaseline would be rubbed in your hair, up your a*** and in your ears.”

Sterland was the “bog brush man”. He wrote: “I’d get a really hard toilet brush, shove it into their bollocks, which were covered in Vaseline and boot polish and twirl it round. They’d be screaming in agony.” That was not the end of it. Afterwards, a player would be tied to the treatment table, and left in the centre circle of the playing field to try to escape, often for several hours. Sterland wrote that, on one occasion, the Wednesday players even asked all the women working at the club to observe a player, but forbade them from helping a player escape.

He added: “An alternative was to cover the apprentice in Vaseline before putting them in a dirty skip kit. We’d then take the skip to the showers and piss on them, before putting them in a cold shower. Nobody complained about it when I was there — you just had to take it on the chin.”


Sterland’s autobiography makes for difficult reading (Getty Images)

Sheffield Wednesday were by no means alone. At Manchester United, the dressing room was an intimidating place for a young player when the celebrated Class of ’92 generation, which included David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers, emerged at the club.

In Neville’s autobiography Red, he recalls a lifesize cutout of United’s first-teamer Clayton Blackmore being placed on the treatment table, and promoted youth players would be expected to lap-dance and make out with the picture in front of big-name stars such as Bryan Robson and Mark Hughes. Neville wrote: “Refuse to make love to Clayton properly and a second-year apprentice would smash you over the head with a ball wrapped up in a towel.”

He added: “Perhaps the worst of these punishments was being stripped naked and having the United kit (a pretend version) rubbed on to you in dubbin (a greasy wax) with a wire wool brush.” Players would then be dumped into a freezing bath and sometimes placed on a spin setting in the tumble dryer. Neville, then only 16, described it as “the hardest months of my life”. He wrote: “While I cringe looking back on some of the humiliations we endured, there’s no doubt it helped to bond us.”

Future Premier League player Robbie Savage, who was part of the same group of players emerging at United, wrote in his autobiography Savage! of challenges such as “Chat-Up-The-Mop”, where a dressing room would turn into a darkened night club and a youngster would have to chat up another player dressed up as a mop, as though they were a girl in a nightclub, before pretending to have sex (while fully dressed) with a hole in the treatment table.

Savage wrote: “What went on might be regarded as bullying and it certainly wouldn’t be allowed now, but I loved every single minute of it.” He added: “Some of the lads used to hide in the kit van. They even found it hard to concentrate at training because of the thought of what was going to happen next.”

Professional football environments these days are less likely to descend in this direction, partially because so much is now released via social media, but also because athletes are by nature more professional and better paid. Clubs are also more alert to potential issues of safeguarding, particularly around minors.

Drink plays an increasingly smaller part in official dressing-room activities. Micah Richards, now a pundit on BBC, CBS and Sky Sports, broke through at Manchester City in the early 2000s. He told The Athletic in 2019: “Some of the stuff we got away with in my younger years… when I did my initiation song at City, I was not allowed to do it until I had downed five beers. This was the culture and I was 17. They got away with murder. Now I feel for the modern players. You have to live like monks.”

Some of these episodes straddle a fine line, landing somewhere between a group of people bonding and events that create unwelcoming environments. The Professional Footballers’ Association, the trade union for footballers, told The Athletic that while “football is a unique environment, any workplace has to adapt to wider societal changes, and we provide guidance to players on appropriate personal behaviour and specific issues such as a discrimination”. It added: “It is important that players feel able to identify and challenge inappropriate behaviour within their club, whether it involves team-mates or staff.”

At Wimbledon in the 1980s and 1990s, where the team became known as the ‘Crazy Gang’ due to intimidating figures such as Vinnie Jones and John Fashanu, the club’s initiations became the stuff of legend and controversy, with stories of alcohol-fuelled escapades and even players being tied to the top of cars and driven at speed down motorways.


Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang celebrate winning the FA Cup in 1988 (Peter Robinson – PA Images via Getty Images)

When Brighton defender Eric Young arrived at the club in 1987, he turned up at his new team with his former club’s training bag. “We’d had enough of it so it got burnt,” Dennis Wise, the Wimbledon midfielder, would later say. “It was our way of saying, ‘You’re not with Brighton any more, you’re with Wimbledon’.”

When John Hartson arrived at the club in a £7.5million ($12m at the time) transfer from West Ham United in 1999, he came in for training and his introductory press conference in a designer Armani suit.

Hartson later told the Guardian: “We were coming back in from training and there was this almighty fire hanging out of the window. I was thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, the dressing room is on fire!’. But there was no fire alarm going off and everyone seemed to be laughing their heads off. As I got closer to the dressing room I saw that it was my suit that they were actually burning.

“I had nothing to put on after the training session so I ended up wearing a pair of Wimbledon training shorts to the press conference. I never got the suit back, I never got the expenses back, but that was all just part of it. Sam Hammam (the chairman) would come in the morning and the lads would have him up on the treatment table and they’d ruffle his hair and pull his trousers down and hide his shoes. Sam was just bonkers and you’d be looking around thinking, ‘Well, Jesus Christ, if your chairman is getting involved then everybody gets involved’. It was the best team spirit I ever worked in.”

These kinds of pranks were commonplace in the lower leagues. Take Oxford United in the 1990s, where Matt Elliott, who went on to play for Leicester City, made his name earlier in the decade.

Elliott told The Athletic: “We knew this actor who was classically trained but he was a fan and loved getting involved.

“We used to train in this park where the public could walk by and when we had a new signing we used to let him know. He would turn up pretending to be drunk and waving a two-litre bottle of Lambrini (alcoholic cider).

“He would start hurling a bit of abuse from the sidelines at the new guy but would then jump over the fence, waving this bottle, and stagger over, picking out the new player and then accuse them of something outrageous, usually involving his own wife.

“They would be laughing at first and denying all his accusations, until he pulled out a fake gun. Usually, then they would take off, running as fast as they could.”

The act wasn’t just confined to the training pitch either.

“We had a young lad join, who I won’t name, but we had a night out the evening before, where he met a young lady,” adds Elliott.

“So the next day, the actor comes down to the ground and we tell him the new guy is in the shower. We called the lad out, telling him someone was wanting to see him and he came out into the corridor with just a towel wrapped around him.

“The actor started on him with the same act, accusing him of dallying with his daughter, his precious princess, and all this, and really laid it on thick. The guy was protesting but then the actor pulled out the gun.

“The player threw his arms into the air pleading with him that he was sorry, only for his towel to fall down.

“So he was stood there, stark naked, in the corridor, almost in tears when the actor just smiles, holds out his hand and says, ‘Welcome to Oxford, son’.”

By the 21st century, it had calmed down. Ephraim recalls how, at QPR, young players would also be expected to perform around Christmas time. It may be a play, a dance, a song or, sometimes, a stand-up comedy routine.

“Just don’t bring Joey Barton’s name into it,” he recalled, of the period when Barton was a member of the first team. “So everyone else might get a little dig or two and there’s not a word about Joey… he’s too intimidating.”

Overall, however, Ephraim still sees the greater good in gentle initiations: “There was a time when I thought football was going a little bit protective, a little bit softer nowadays than what it used to be. And I thought, ‘Are they gonna say that’s borderline bullying or something like that?’.

“But it’s good to see that the new generation have bought into it and it’s just a laugh and it builds team spirit and then the older players, they’ve got respect for you. They see you outside of your comfort zone and you bond over that and then naturally it grows. It opens up conversations and it just grows from there, and you even feel more at ease on the training pitch. You feel like you’re a part of the group now.”

Additional reporting: Richard Amofa and Rob Tanner



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