The idea of a supernaturally induced run of bad luck was a staple plot device in football comics when I was young. Every week Roy Race and colleagues seemed to be battling against a gypsy curse to turn around Melchester Rovers dismal start to the division one season. The hoodoo is also a favoured explanation of fans and local sports journalists when things start to go pear-shaped for their team. The ‘gypsy curse’ was an old favourite (travellers displaced by building of new training facility ill-wish the side) but there is also the ‘unquiet spirits’ version (stadium unwittingly built on ancient burial ground) and the ‘feng-shui is all wrong’ one (unlucky south changing room at the Millennium Stadium).
There is an archaeological connection, in case you are wondering. Next month UCL are hosting the Monstrous Antiquities conference, on the links between archaeology and the uncanny in popular culture. Vanessa and I were discussing lots of related topics this week, as she is writing her MSci dissertation on television portrayals of archaeology, and I was reminded of a curious incident from my days working in commercial archaeology.
When Southampton FC left their old home at the Dell and relocated to the brand new St Mary’s Stadium they seemed to leave their form behind them too. Players and fans were puzzled by their inability to win at home until they were approached by a local white witch who informed them that there was a pagan Saxon burial ground under their new pitch. One quick exorcism later and the problem was solved (at least until Gordon Strachan retired as manager). This version of the jinx, which you could find in the Southern Daily Echo, many message boards and even the normally reliable When Saturday Comes, shows the power of urban myth and archetype to shape the memory of very recent events.
There is a pagan Saxon burial ground under St Mary’s, but its presence can’t have come as too much of a surprise to the club or the players. Barrs, the stadium contractors, paid Wessex Archaeology a lot of money to spend four months removing all the surviving archaeology, including the early Saxon burials, from the areas that were going to be the stands of the new stadium. I worked on the site, digging up cremation urns next to a profile board marked ‘corner flag’, and can remember the playing staff gingerly manoeuvring their Lamborghinis onto the building site car park so they could be shown around the excavations.
Of course, Melchester Rovers’ jinxes always turned out to have a corporeal explanation, usually the sabotage of a desperate rival manager and his henchmen. Southampton’s problems in the first decade of the century had an even more mundane explanation: their first season at St Mary’s was the last year Matt le Tissier played for the club.