BLACKPOOL and Southampton both paid tribute to the late Alan Ball when they met yesterday. But there was something missing from this trip down Memory Lane: the Blackpool duck.
There are many ways to remember Ball, of course: World Cup winner “running himself daft”, in the words of Kenneth Wolstenholme; member of Everton’s Holy Trinity in his painted white boots; tigerish midfielder, hot temper boiling over as he grabbed an Polish opponent by the throat and thus became only the second England player ever to be sent off; manager of various struggling clubs, wearing a flat cap in the dug-out.
But watching his former Southampton manager Lawrie McMenemy help unveil a portrait of him at Bloomfield Road yesterday, I was reminded of Ball’s attempt to boost Blackpool’s fortunes during his brief spell as player-manager by reviving perhaps their most bizarre tradition.
And that’s where the Blackpool duck came in.
In the 20-or-so years after the Second World War, Blackpool had a live duck as their mascot. It led the team out, and wandered up and down the touchline during matches.
This had been the brainchild of Syd Bevers, founder of The Atomic Boys, Blackpool’s wonderfully-eccentric supporters’ group of the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
As if taking a live duck to games wasn’t notable enough, The Atomic Boys were also renowned for dressing up in exotic costumes as they cheered on the Seasiders.
Amazingly, Bevers managed to smuggle the Blackpool duck past Wembley security and into the stadium for the 1953 FA Cup final. During the same trip to London, Bevers got into 10 Downing Street – wearing a flowing tangerine cloak and a silver head dress – to hand-deliver a seven-pound stick of Blackpool rock to Sir Winston Churchill, the Premier Minister, without getting arrested. It truly was another age.
Ball’s early playing career at Bloomfield Road coincided with the last days of the Blackpool duck in the mid-1960s. When he returned to the club as player-manager in February 1980, he decided to revive the tradition. So Bevers was dispatched to find a new duck.
The story was perfect for Kick Off, Granada TV’s football show of the day, which sought out and actively encouraged downright bizarre feature ideas. (They included getting Francis Lee to dress up as a fortune-teller to predict the football results, and having comedian Eddie Large lead Manchester City’s team out of the Maine Road pitch a few days before the 1981 FA Cup final, and give the bemused players directions to Wembley in far too much detail.) So a camera crew went up to the Fylde coast to film the story.
Over film of a large duck wandering aimlessly about the Bloomfield Road pitch with a tangerine rosette around its neck, Ball talked up the bird revival.
“I’ve walked out behind the Blackpool duck for cup ties and big games,” he said. “And there’s still a place for things like that in English football.”
Except that there wasn’t, really, by the early 1980s, a far more cynical age than the years immediately following the war. Years later, Bevers said that he felt the Blackpool duck revival had been a bad idea; that its time had passed two decades earlier.
Anyway, the duck didn’t revive Blackpool’s fortunes. Ball was sacked in February 1981; the Seasiders were relegated to Division Four at the end of that season, the beginning of a long spell in the doldrums that only really ended with the club’s promotion to the Championship last May.
Neither Bevers nor Ball lived to see that promotion. Bevers died in February last year, aged 91, a couple of months before Ball passed on. Both, in their own way, did plenty for Blackpool FC. Both deserve to be fondly remembered by the club as a result.
But even though the good times are back at Bloomfield Road, I can guarantee that the duck won’t be returning with them.
Blackpool FC historian Gerry Wolstenholme’s account of the Seasiders duck story can be read here.