So what’s the story with Martin O’Neill and the number 31?
Football conspiracy theorists have long puzzled over why, throughout his managerial career, O’Neill has worn that number on his tracksuits, with the man himself always declining requests to explain its significance.
One of the more complicated – and therefore, to conspiracy theorists, hugely popular – explanations relates to O’Neill’s time at Celtic, when he inherited a Brazilian defender called Rafael Scheidt who basically lived up to all the your favourites stereotypes of what a Brazilian defender cannot do, ie defend.
The unfortunate Scheidt, who was soon let go, had worn the squad number 31, and O’Neill, so the story goes, subsequently adopted it as some sort of ironic emblem of the standards below which he would never allow his players to slip.
Unfortunately for those who favour this convoluted explanation – but happily for Scheidt - there’s an insurmountable problem: if you simply call up images of O’Neill from as far back as his days as an up-and-coming boss at Wycombe Wanderers, you will find the young manager clearly favouring the number in question.
As Ireland manager, O’Neill already has the first numeral on his tracksuit, courtesy of sponsors 3, but whether or not he has cunningly appended a little 1 in black marker, is more than my old eyes can see. But, certainly, at the time of his unveiling, he was happy to pose with an Irish jersey with 31 emblazoned on the back.
Which still leaves people grasping in the dark for the meaning of it all, from the banal — the number is the US-style form of his date of birth, March 1 — to the if-only-it-were-true suggestion floated on one fans’ forum: “It represents his secret desire to see a united Ireland, but without Mayo as he had a nasty experience in Castlebar once. That’s my guess.”
Or how about this rather more modest proposal to which, after last weekend, I’d be almost inclined to give some credence: 31 is a deliberate inversion of 13, a garlic clove, as it were, to ward off the baleful effects of the unluckiest number this side of 666.
Fear of the number 13 is, as you all know, called triskaidekaphobia, but it may be that Martin O’Neill also suffers from a related strain which goes by the name of paraskevidekatriaphobia or, if you prefer – and who doesn’t? - friggatriskaidekaphobia, both which mean a fear of Friday the 13th.
It was while in O’Neill’s company at Uefa HQ in Nyon after the Euros play-off draw last Sunday, that I drew his attention to the fact that the first leg away to Bosnia in Zenica will take place on Friday, November 13.
Being someone who is firmly in the Richard Dawkins camp on the meaning of life, I did so with a wry grin on my face and entirely in the spirit of generating a bit of bantz with the gaffer. (Oh, how we journos love a bit of bantz with a gaffer).
But, to my surprise, O’Neill appeared genuinely uncomfortable with the revelation and, when pressed, politely declined to clarify his thoughts on the matter.
He did, however, concede that, in his opinion, “about 95%” of football people would be superstitious, a guesstimate which might just err on the conservative side when you take even a cursory glance at the weight of historical evidence.
One of the best known superstitious rituals in the sport, because it was conducted in public on the game’s biggest stage, was France captain Laurent Blanc’s habit of planting a kiss on the bald head of goalkeeper Fabian Barthez before every match en route to winning the 1998 World Cup.
Less well-known is that, behind the scenes in the same tournament, the team always listened to Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ in the dressing room before taking to the pitch.
Also conducted in public, though not always seen by the cameras or the crowd, is Robbie Keane’s penchant, when playing for Ireland, of being handed a bottle of water just before kick-off, taking a slug and then splashing some of the contents back on kit-man Mick Lawlor.
All innocent enough, you might say, but sometimes a player’s strict adherence to superstition can have anything but the intended effect. A case in point: when his Arsenal team mate William Gallas was having treatment for an injury which delayed his return to the pitch for the second half of a game against Roma in 2009, Kolo Toure’s iron-clad insistence on always being the last man out meant that by the time he belatedly rejoined the action, it was only to receive a booking for entering the pitch without the referee’s permission.
Even the greatest of the great are not immune. After a dip in form, Pele once instructed a friend to track down a jersey he’d given to a fan.
A week later he had it back and his form instantly returned. (The kicker: the friend had been unable to locate the missing shirt and simply gave Pele back the one he’d been wearing all along). And Bobby Moore, one of El Rei’s great rivals at the 1970 World Cup, always had to be the last player to pull on his shorts in the dressing room. This so amused his West Ham and England colleague Martin Peters that the latter would take off his own shorts as soon as Moore had put on his, prompting Moore to take his off again until Peters was once more fully attired.
But perhaps the last and best word on the efficacy or otherwise of superstition in football was that once proffered by the irrepressible Barry Fry who, when manager of Birmingham City, had attempted to confound a curse reportedly placed on St Andrews, by urinating in all four corners of the pitch.
“Did it work?”, he subsequently mused. “Well, we started to win and I thought it had. Then they sacked me, so probably not.”
Luminous visions of Cruyff
As mentioned in the main piece, even some of the greatest players of all time have succumbed to superstition in the quest for that elusive edge — as if their own already supernatural powers weren’t enough.
Johan Cruyff used to slap his Ajax goalkeeper in the stomach and spit his chewing gum into the opposition half before every game, a ritual which took on even more meaning for the Dutch master when he forgot his gum ahead of the 1969 European Cup final — which Ajax duly lost 4-1 to Milan.
Later, as a manager, Cruyff once advised that players who were cripplingly superstitious should simply not be picked if they seriously believed the fates were stacked against them.
Sadly, Cruyff was in the news this week for much more solemn reasons, with confirmation he is receiving treatment for lung cancer. For those of us of a certain age, the revelation — coming so soon after it was announced that German great Gerd Muller has been diagnosed with Alzheimers — is almost impossible to square with the still luminous image of a slim, coltish, wonderfully graceful footballer whose innovative approach to the game, first as a player, later as a coach at Barcelona, was immortalised in the audacious piece of trickery we still revere as ‘the Cruyff turn’.
Along with other outstanding talents of his generation, like Pele and Best, Cruyff was one of of main reasons many of my vintage fell so hard for the beautiful game in the first place. We won’t be the only ones hoping he comes out on top again this time.
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