I don’t like team mascots. In fact, I despise them. I don’t even like the idea of grown men or women running around in furry or feathered costumes for any reason. After this weekend, however, I may have found a way to embrace such a thing, should it ever come the way of NSC.
I realize this column might be a little oddly timed, coming on the heels of all of the excitement around the draft, but I can’t really help it, as I just listened to a remarkable little story, with which some of you may already be familiar. During a recent road trip, on the recommendation of a friend, I was listening to an episode of the podcast, The Dollop, that focused on Cyril the Swan, an infamous mascot for Swansea City AFC. While the podcast is worth listening to, if only to hear the wonderful give and take between the two hosts, the narrative is largely derived from an earlier essay in The Howler. Most of the story around Cyril takes place in the 90s and 00s, while Swansea was bouncing around in the lower divisions of English football. So, even if you were a major US fan of Premier League at the time, there’s a good chance you don’t know the story well. I highly recommend either listening to the podcast telling or reading The Howler essay as it’s a highly entertaining narrative. (If you do know the story, the retelling on The Dollop is wildly entertaining).
The briefest outline of the story goes something like this. When Neil McClure purchased Swansea AFC in 1998 for £100 (and a couple million in debt), he hired former Tottenham Spurs commercial director, Mike Lewis, to find ways to market the team. Lewis, who was famous for creating halftime extravaganzas, settled on creating a large, 9 foot Swan as a mascot for the team (despite the owner not liking the idea at all). Lewis talked groundskeeper, Eddie Donne, into taking on the role. Despite Donne’s own misgivings, he took on the role with a great relish and found a huge variety of ways of antagonizing away fans and other players, and became something of a hero to the local crowd who were also initially reluctant to embrace a mascot. While there is no need for me to go into depth about the story here, highlights of Cyril’s behavior include, as Wikipedia has it, “removing the head of Millwall mascot Zampa the Lion, and drop-kicking it along the ground. On a Dutch TV documentary, when asked what he said to Zampa, he replied ‘Don't fuck with the Swans’. The Swan was fined £1000 for the incident.”
While the story itself is a great bit of fun, one of the things I most appreciated about it was the fact that while the owner continued to have misgivings about it, and while everyone involved, included the fans and Donne himself, were hesitant about a swan mascot, it was eventually embraced, becoming an intricate and central nodal point for the clubs’ fans. Not only did they embrace Cyril, they turned him into something of a rallying point. Think about it: the club makes a weird, halfhearted attempt with a carnivalesque move to turn a costume into something which will move merchandise and raise funds. However, the fans—many skeptical—and the man behind the mask himself—who had absolutely no interest in taking on the role—somehow bound together to turn this into something of their own. (Something so successful, in fact, that multiple mascots were named elsewhere, in part, as a result).
And I think that’s the attitude fans—including fans of NSC—need to take. The club is going to take some actions or create some designs, logos, activities, and so forth that many of us don’t like. I, for one, want to be on the record as saying I strongly hope that they do not move in the direction of putting someone in a furry costume to act as a mascot. I not only do not like the mascot as a sideshow, but I find most of them really creepy (e.g., when Vanderbilt’s Commodore is hanging out with college kids, I always find it a bit cringey). To underline, if the club decided to have someone dress up a freaking animal outfit and dance around the field at halftime, I would be the first one to protest.
And, yet, perhaps the better attitude for us to take if (when?) that ever happens, is to face the reality of what exists, own it and turn it into something with meaning for us. In a minor way, that’s one of the things I first admired about the way the fanbase seemed to be working with the “Soccer Circus” theme that began at the Metro hearings. Or the embrace of the “Big Bird” theme. Turning something like that around, and owning it, is just a massive coup for the fans. If the fan base continues to take the attitude that we “own” the atmosphere, or at least that we have the ability to shape and partially define it, we can turn everything we see as a negative into a positive. So, what happened with Cyril (not all the details but the broader outline) is how we need to approach events here, especially as we approach the MLS season.
There are clearly bigger issues for the club to worry about. And more important topics for the supporters to discuss. However, the one thing fans own is the expression of support. They create and shape meaning. That’s something to relish in, a place to be creative.