It's a funny old game | Tony Kinsella fears the worst when football managers tell jokes

It's a funny old game

Tony Kinsella fears the worst when football managers tell jokes

From court jesters, to Shakespearean Fools, via circus clowns, to club comics, the art of making people laugh was once a calling; a vocation; a career path coursing through the blood and buried in the funny bones of the chosen few.

But in recent years, with open spot opportunities freely available to anyone deluded enough to give it a go, the craft of the comedian has been deconstructed and demystified, with a battalion of journalists writing first-hand accounts, and desperate publicity-leeches like The Hamiltons cobbling festival shows together.

With TV’s obsession of putting square pegs in round holes – celebrity this-that-and-the-other – it was only a matter of time until football folk got in on the joke-telling act. Of course, in the largely laddish world of after dinner speaking, ex-pros and current coaches have long since found a ready-made comedy circuit, where people will inexplicably part with hard-earned readies for Razor Ruddock anecdotes and scampi-in-a-basket.

As long ago as the 1970s, I witnessed ex-Burnley winger Steve Kindon bringing the house down by comparing his own modest talents with World Cup winning England captain, Bobby Moore: ‘What a player; he had pace, a football brain, two great feet, commanding presence in the air, immaculate tackling and great passing skills. All he lacked was pace. Whereas I had loads of pace … but fuck all else.’

A decade or so later, I sat in an almost-exclusively male audience for an evening with Tommy Docherty and Malcolm Allison at Bolton Albert Halls,  where the Q&A session involved a buxom girl in a clinging T-shirt dashing around the room with a radio mic.

‘Bloody hell,’ said The Doc, churning out a hack pub -gag, ‘if she was my daughter, I’d still be bathing her.’ Sexism, incest and raucous male laughter; you’d think The Female Eunoch had never been published. Big Mal’s shtick was to begin every anecdote by name-checking various Mancunian barmaids: ‘Sharon, I said … cos I happened to know her…’ All this and a big cigar!

So, there must have been a good deal of editorial agonising when the BBC, on behalf of Sport Relief, commissioned Some Football Managers With Jokes. Would the no-holds-barred banter of the dressing room lead to the kind of ill-advised –isms that damaged the careers and reputations of the likes of Andy Gray and Ron Atkinson? There is good reason why Roy Chubby Brown has not featured heavily on Auntie Beeb and Jim Davidson depends on Celebrity Big Brother to seek out an audience.

Well, there were moments when the director-general may have felt a shudder down his spine. Martin Allen’s intimidating Cockney trill in a gag about a bloke picking up this ‘bird’ in a pub; John Still’s joke about how ugly Princess Camilla looks; and both Ian Dowie and Kevin Blackwell (‘Oi think moy woife mighta caught a glimpse’) dabbling in cod Oirish accents to characterise half-witted Paddies and Murphys.  

Neil Warnock fooled no one with his clumsy editing of a Jewish stereotype (‘There was this bloke … I won’t mention where he’s from…’) and changing the punchline from ‘Volvo for sale’ to a long-winded reference to a Ford Cortina. There was a bevy of gags, too, resembling Blackwell’s joke about a husband attempting to extend his wife’s prison sentence, in which bitter blokes seek cruel revenge on irritating  spouses, in a narrative arc that devotees of Bernard Manning would recognise. David Pleat’s joke about a woman stealing a tin of peaches was pretty much identical to Blackwell’s effort. Andy Capp is alive and well.

Seaside-postcard sexuality also proved a rich seam, with Bobby Gould even describing the act as ‘nudge nudge, wink wink’ (albeit in a bizarre gag involving a hint at a Messi-Xavi-Iniesta gang bang) and Phil Brown delivering, with timing and aplomb,  a genuinely risque joke about taking the lid off a sperm jar. Shaun Derry’s offering of a sarcastic washing machine that ‘takes the piss out of your knickers’ was a high spot (which says it all, really).

In the age of Twitter and social networking, joke theft has become a major issue on the comedy circuit – but not so much among the football managers, given the blatant ‘borrowings’ committed by Blackwell (Stewart Francis’s ‘Armageddon’ joke),  John Ward (‘All the signs were there’ – Milton Jones) and Lee Johnson (‘I can’t do Tuesdays’ – Tim Vine.) At least Gary Rowell had the decency to attempt a bog-standard Tommy Cooper impression when tapping into the great man’s act, only to lapse into Frank Carson’s catchphrase, ‘It’s the way I tell ‘em!’

But most of the theft clearly involved rejects from Christmas crackers; twee jokes about animals: ‘Newly webs’ (Bryan Robson), ‘an irrele-phant’ (Gerry Francis). Alex McCleish, a dour hybrid of Ivor Cutler and Arnold Brown, churned out both the cold polar bear and the camel in Edinburgh zoo stories, while Gould laboured through the centipede putting on its football boots routine. And come on, Martin Allen. A joke with the punchline ‘Winnie’s pooh’ might have your grandchildren wetting their kecks, but this is prime time (-ish) television.  Lee Johnson’s monkey in the bath joke was an equally corny chestnut, but did include a very enthusiastic impression of said primate.

The biggest surprise was how few managers took the opportunity  for a sly dig at rival clubs, which might have given some context to the random gag-fest. Graham Taylor rather churlishly fixed on Southampton and lowly Scunthorpe United for generic jokes that could have dissed anyone.  Owen Coyle clearly played to the gallery with a Quasimodo joke that deployed Piers Morgan as its pay-off, when Ian Dowie or Peter Beardsley would’ve made more sense. And it was left to Peter Reid to do the obligatory dig at Wayne Rooney’s stupidity, at which point I could only think of Reidy labouring in the slipstream of Diego Maradona and Wayne Rooney taking home 300 grand a week.

So, no alarm bells really; no lashings of disturbingly un-PC material to have disgruntled liberal viewers up in arms. Perhaps the most telling factor in socio-political terms is that, for reasons that should be self-evident, only one black joke-teller (TV pundit Leroy Rosenior) featured in the entire half hour show. But, given his lame pun about frozen cows and Thora Hird, he’s no Reginald D Hunter.

Published: 25 Mar 2014

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