The Joy of Six: weird football stories | Sport

1) Boogers and his caravan

You might have heard of Harry Redknapp. New manager of Queens Park Rangers. Almost got the England job. Not a fahkin’ wheeler-dealer. Redknapp famously bristles at suggestions he is just a crafty cockney, a reputation largely stemming from his days as West Ham’s manager, when punts on the likes of Paolo Di Canio and Trevor Sinclair, and cut-price deals for John Hartson and Paul Kitson, were handsomely rewarded by some fine performances.

Yet while he enjoyed success in some of his transfer dealings at Upton Park, they were rivalled by the failures. The £18m received from Leeds for Rio Ferdinand was frittered away on no-hopers and Titi Camara. There was the curious case of Gary Charles or the time Redknapp claimed Florin Raducioiu went shopping at Harvey Nichols with his wife instead of turning up for a League Cup tie at Stockport, which West Ham lost thanks to a storming own goal from Iain Dowie. But none could match the oddity that was Marco Boogers’s brief but eventful spell in east London.

Boogers arrived at West Ham in the summer of 1995 for £1m from Sparta Rotterdam, having built up a perfectly acceptable reputation in the Dutch league, but it would later emerge that Redknapp had never seen him play, instead relying on a video of the striker. That in itself is not so strange – Redknapp was hardly the first manager to rely on a tape – but it did him no favours when things took a turn for the worse. This being the days before Twitter, YouTube and European football experts, supporters had no idea what to expect and Boogers made his debut on the opening day of the season as a second-half substitute in a 2-1 home defeat by Leeds. He made little impact. But not to worry. He was in a foreign land. Plenty of time to make his name.

As it turned out, his next appearance off the bench a few days later would be rather more eventful. West Ham were trailing Manchester United 2-1 when Boogers was thrown on with the minutes ticking away. He did not take long to make his mark – on Gary Neville, that is. Shortly after coming on, Boogers flew through the air and fulfilled many a Liverpool fan’s lifelong dream, taking Neville out with what the Sun called a “sickening horror tackle”. Thankfully, Neville was not hurt and finished the match but Boogers was immediately sent off and given a four-match ban for his recklessness.

That should have been that but Boogers, affected by the media attention and suffering from homesickness, went back to Holland. Again, nothing remarkable about that. Foreign player visits own country shock! He was not the last West Ham player to do so, after all. In 1998 the Chile defender Javier Margas played three games in England before going awol for a year; he returned the following season and showed his commitment to the West Ham cause by dyeing his hair claret and blue.

For Boogers, though, a simple trip home turned into one of the strangest stories in English football as it was reported that “Barmy Boogers”, as one paper put it, had gone to live on a caravan site in Holland. West Ham’s managing director, Peter Storrie, was forced to deny rumours that Boogers had been deemed “mentally unfit” to play in September 1995. “We had our meeting in the Hilton hotel at Amsterdam,” he said. “I didn’t see a caravan, or a tent for that matter. He is certainly not mentally unstable. It is absolute nonsense.”

Storrie was telling the truth because the story had stemmed from a misunderstanding between a member of staff at West Ham and a journalist and snowballed from there. Strangest of all, the club employee Bill Prosser cleared the story up in a letter to the Fiver in 2005:

Here’s a stitch-up of a work colleague, albeit an accidental one. In the 90s I was the PA announcer at Upton Park. I also handled all of the club’s travel arrangements. You will remember that Marco Boogers famously went a bit doolally shortly after joining the club and was reported to be living in a caravan in Holland. Although this was 10 years ago, it is often quoted as fact to this day. Unfortunately it is untrue and it is my fault.

Marco was depressed after being sent off in his second appearance for West Ham at Old Trafford and disappeared for a few days. West Ham’s Clubcall reporter phoned me and said he was trying to find Boogers for an interview but could not reach him. He asked if I had booked any flights for him.

I told him I hadn’t, but added: ‘If he has gone back to Holland, he’s probably gone by car again.’ The reporter misheard me and stated on Clubcall that I had said: ‘If he’s gone back to Holland, he’s probably gone to his caravan.’ As you know, journalists often listen to Clubcall. Which explains why, the following day, the back page headline in the Sun was: ‘Barmy Boogers Living In A Caravan’. The legend endures … I feel a bit responsible for his misfortune.”

Boogers made only two more appearances for West Ham and, after suffering a knee injury, he returned to the Dutch league in February 1996. It is easy to laugh now but, as Redknapp admitted, West Ham did not handle the situation especially well. This was the start of English football’s foreign revolution and perhaps there was not enough care for foreign players, which has changed now. All of which still did not stop Redknapp from naming Boogers as his worst ever signing at West Ham. At least he kept Sandra out of it. Jacob Steinberg

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2) Pfaffing about

Your country is at the World Cup and has just reached the second round, thanks mainly to a fine victory over Argentina. The obvious thing to do, as the tournament enters its latter stages, is drop your goalkeeper, who is commonly regarded as one of the best in the world. Right? Well that’s what Belgium did in 1982 and, if you consult summaries of the tournament, you’ll see that the odd reason usually given for the sudden demotion of Jean-Marie Pfaff is that the manager, Guy Thys, was punishing the goalkeeper for pretending to drown in the hotel swimming pool. So far, so petty. But there was a little more to it than that, though pettiness remains a prominent driver of the story.

Pfaff arrived at the World Cup having just sealed a transfer from Beveren to Bayern Munich. His reputation was growing but his popularity with national teammates was not. His perceived cockiness irritated them. While in Spain for the World Cup, the Belgium management arranged a poolside bash at the team’s hotel to which the country’s media were invited. The country’s best-known radio commentator, Jan Wauters, was there and, being a close friend of Thys, he felt sufficiently at ease to play a merry prank: so he crept up behind Pfaff and pushed him into the pool. “Hehehe!” went the revellers … until a problem became apparent: the goalkeeper couldn’t swim. After being rescued, Pfaff was furious, with the players and with the manager, whose buddy went unreprimanded. When the press later asked Pfaff about his near-drowning, he played it down and said he had been only pretending to be in distress. Ill-feeling undoubtedly remained, however, and led to certain interpretations being put on subsequent events.

In the 62nd minute of the last group game, against Hungary, Pfaff came to cut out a cross and inadvertently clobbered his captain, Eric Gerets. The full-back, who lay motionless on the pitch for about a minute before he was eventually substituted. An ambulance was called. It did not arrive until after the match and when the concussed Gerets was taken to it, there was no room for him … because Pfaff had got there first, complaining of a shoulder injury. Off sped the ambulance without Gerets, leaving the aggrieved captain and his chums outraged. Pfaff’s wound turned out to be only minor but resentment towards him was major. Thys chose to leave him out for the next match and picked Theo Custers instead. Belgium were beaten 3-0 by Poland but rather than recall Pfaff for the make-or-break clash with the USSR, Thys turned to his third-choice keeper, Jacques Munaron. Belgium lost 1-0. Gone were their hopes of making a big splash in the tournament. Paul Doyle

3) For Ogrizovic’s eyes only

With its moles, sleeper agents, intelligence, counterintelligence, top-secret files protected by impenetrable encryption codes and electronic surveillance, the clandestine world of espionage is not one you would readily associate with famous footballers. Despite Ryan Giggs’s urbane sophistication, rugged good looks and smouldering sex appeal, he is unlikely ever to be considered as a replacement for James Bond should the MI6 agent decide to hang up his Walther PPK. The Manchester United midfielder’s well-documented attempt to keep a secret couldn’t have been less successful if he’d personally called every house in the UK and told the occupants exactly what it was he didn’t want them to know.

Of course it’s a sweeping generalisation to suggest that, just because one might not necessarily trust West Ham’s striker Andy Carroll to successfully pull off a clichéd park-bench briefcase swap with a Russian counterpart, it is inconceivable a professional footballer might one day be considered to work for the secret service. However, one can’t help but feel that if the current head of MI6, Sir Robert Sawers, was looking to recruit someone from the professional ranks to investigate a shadowy crime syndicate run by an evil cat-stroking megalomaniac, the former Coventry City goalkeeper Steve Ogrizovic would hardly be the first port of call, even if he was a famously safe pair of hands.

Younger readers may not be familiar with the man they call Oggy, an aesthetically challenged former policeman and FA Cup-winning Coventry legend who had a famously crooked nose, made 507 appearances between the sticks for the Sky Blues between 1984 and 2000 and most recently made headlines when he was forced to confirm that, contrary to speculation that he’d been thrown in jail by the Kazakhstani government on suspicion of spying, he was in fact safe and well on the sovereign soil of his native England.

According to a petition posted on in 2003, Ogrizovic had been travelling the world using only public transport in an attempt to raise money for a charity called Over The Bar, which was devoted to helping young goalkeepers develop their skills as athletes. On his way through Kazakhstan, the petition informed readers, the unfortunate Ogrizovic had accidentally trespassed on to private military land, resulting in the hapless tourist’s incarceration. “The British embassy has contacted the Kazakhstani government but nothing has come of this,” wrote the author of the Free Steve Ogrizovic appeal. “Here is our petition to Tony Blair and the Kazakhstani government demanding the release of footballing legend Steve Ogrizovic and protesting his innocence.”

Anyone in doubt of Oggy’s popularity among Coventry supporters was quickly set straight when a whopping total of just under 300 people flocked to sign the petition calling on Kazakhstan to release their hero, a number that, in the intervening nine years, has mushroomed to more than 700. “Please free Steve as he’s a bent-nosed hero to millions,” implored one signatory. “He’s obviously innocent and this is no way for a rubbish goalkeeper to have to spend his time,” wrote another.

A reporter from the Coventry Evening Telegraph, detecting the whiff of rodent in the air, becoming suspicious of the story of Ogrizovic’s internment and using the kind of dogged investigative techniques for which the names of the Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have long been synonymous, eventually managed to discover that the then academy director wasn’t in fact languishing in a Kazakhstani cooler, by going to the club’s Ryton training ground … and asking him.

“This is a complete hoax,” said a slightly surprised Ogrizovic, upon being told of his plight. “I haven’t a clue where it has come from. I haven’t made any trips to Kazakhstan lately – nor am I planning to. I can only assume that with the well-documented breakthroughs in science of late, I have obviously been cloned.” While Oggy’s good humour in the face of such a bizarre and potentially upsetting story is to be commended, it is perhaps worth noting that although he emphatically denied ever having set foot in Kazakhstan, to this day he has never said he isn’t a spy. Barry Glendenning

Steve Ogrizovic in action for Coventry at Arsenal.

Steve Ogrizovic in action for Coventry at Arsenal. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

4) Slaven’s canine quandary

“There was an explosion of green,” said David O’Leary, remembering the reaction to his winning penalty for the Republic of Ireland against Romania at the 1990 World Cup. It put them through to the quarter-finals, where they would meet Italy. “The biggest mistake was standing still. I nearly got killed by all my team-mates.” Only one of them might have meant to do any harm: the substitute Bernie Slaven, who had spent the whole of the tournament on the bench. “I basically trained for six weeks with a group of fringe players,” Slaven told the Glasgow Evening Times in 2003. He was pleased to be there, but didn’t hold out much hope of playing. “We called ourselves the Muppets.” By the time Ireland reached the knockout stages, Slaven had had enough. He wanted to get home to his dogs.

“I became a figure of fun when I called home on that trip,” he recalled. “While others were speaking to their wives, I would go on the phone and say: ‘Put the dog on.’” The Middlesbrough forward was taking his dog for a walk when he found out he’d been called up to Ireland’s World Cup squad, and once left Ayresome Park at half-time to take the dog out, after being substituted. “I could see the floodlights and hear the crowd from where I was walking, which was surreal,” he said. Not quite as surreal as the picture that Tony Cascarino, Slaven’s World Cup room-mate, paints in his autobiography. “I’d be sitting in the bed alongside and Bernie would be howling like Lassie into the phone: ‘Woof, woof, aru, aru, woof!’ He’d be kissing the receiver and lavishing affection – ‘Hello, lovey dovey’ – on a dog! The first time it happened, I nearly wet myself.”

“The reason was simple,” Slaven explained, trying to save everyone a change of underwear. “I got more sense out of her.” Unfortunately his canine chum couldn’t get her chops around the words “Brian Deane” or “Neville brothers mare” to warn Bernie off betting that Boro wouldn’t beat Manchester United at Old Trafford in December 1998. Georgina Turner

5) A snappy idea

There are a few ways to stop pitch invasions: electric fences, a heavy police presence, or making your team so bad that no fans turn up to run on the field in the first place. But the Romanian fourth division is a rough and ready place. Back in 2003, Steaua Nicolae Balcescu had been threatened with expulsion from the league after a series of pitch invasions and clashes.

Steaua’s chairman, Alexandra Cringus, perhaps showing why the team he was running were in the fourth division rather than the first, decided the best way to stop the hooligans was by building a crocodile-infested moat around the pitch. Because if you can’t build a crocodile-infested moat around the pitch, what’s the point in being in charge of a football club, eh? “This is not a joke,” insisted Cringus. “We can get crocodiles easy enough and feed them on meat from the local abattoir. The ditch is planned to be wide enough that no one could manage to jump over it. Anyone who attempted to do so would have to deal with the crocs. I think that the problem of fans running on to the pitch will be solved once and for all.”

This wasn’t some slapdash plan, though. Cringus had had a good long think about health and safety too: he planned to build the moat far enough from the pitch that players wouldn’t accidentally tumble to their doom. He even thought of the crocs too: Romanian winters can be harsh so the water would be heated by electric pipes. You may not be surprised to discover that local authorities rejected the scheme. Tom Lutz

6) Sechsy time with Franz

A different kind of receiver trouble now: remember the fun you had in German classes at school, when it came time to learn to count to 10? Eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf … sechs – ho ho! You said sex! Days of fun. So imagine the hilarity in 2004, when Franz Beckenbauer decided to take o2 up on the offer of a personalised phone number and chose 0176 (the usual prefix for chat lines) 666666. Hundreds of men apparently started calling Beckenbauer looking for sechsy times – enough to make a Kaiser pine for the days when “Sepp” would show up on screen as the phone shrilled into action.

The final straw came when the thing went off at 3am, and Beckenbauer answered to “a gruff man” asking him to “talk dirty” and “turn him on”. Beckenbauer, who earned the number after appearing looking serious but satisfied – hey, stop that at the back – in a series of adverts for the mobile company, had wanted those digits so that it would be easy to remember, but he decided at that point he could handle something more complicated than his “hot number”, as Der Spiegel put it. GT

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