This was published in The Gooner issue 101 in January 2000.
In 1971 Charlie George was trying to look like David Bowie. But then in those days a lot of young footballers wanted to look like rock stars. George Best started it a few years earlier, when he rejected the footballer’s regulation short back and sides and instead began a link between music and football fashion by going for a Beatle cut and sideburns.
In the days of baggy shorts no footballer was much interested in looking different from his fellows. Look at any pre-1960 team photo and among the mix of tall and short, thin and stocky, young and old, the most obvious constant is that they all have their ears on display. But when the minimum wage went their inhibitions started to disappear too. Teenagers had been invented, pop music was throwing up new styles and trends every year and football wanted to join in. George Best and his contemporaries unwittingly unleashed a hairdressing monster on the game.
By the time Charlie George came on the scene younger players were almost unanimous in their desire for long hair, while the senior players tended to stick to more traditional styles. What they had in common was that hair started to encroach on previously clean shaven faces. It had started in the sixties and became unstoppable in the seventies. There was a small amount of variety here – at one time in his Arsenal career Terry Neill sported a particularly sinister looking Mexican moustache, which was somewhat at odds with the rest of his clean cut appearance – but in general the facial hair of choice was sideburns. They started off small, but as the seventies progressed sideburns got bigger and bigger. Soon the best efforts – Malcolm McDonald’s for example – were almost a beard in themselves, and could give Noddy Holder a run for his money.
By ’77 Glam Rock had made way for Punk and Disco, and footballers seemed to prefer the latter. There weren’t many spiky barnets around the footy pitches of Britain, but within a short space of time there was every variation of perm on display. Keegan led the way, then legged it to Germany, a country where even today the perm is challenged only by the mullet as a leading hairstyle. Meanwhile back home the likes of Graham Rix and Alan Sunderland were left to show off ever larger amounts of curls until the disco boom finally faded and the perm market with it.
Unfortunately for Keegan and also Tony Woodcock, a few years in Germany can blunt your fashion sense. Keegan’s judgement may have been affected by his old mates at Liverpool, where a perm enclave flourished undisturbed for several more years, untouched by fashion, as isolated as if they were on the moon. The likes of Phil Thompson, Alan Kennedy, Terry McDermott and Graeme Souness, even if not native Liverpudlians, adopted the style with such vigour that it spread from the dressing room to the terraces and out into the city, becoming the cliché for Scousers’ appearance that carries on to this day.
The next musical trend to cast its shadow over the pitch was the New Romantics. Fringes, both floppy and flicked, marked out the trendy football pro of the early eighties. Aside from the lingering perm of Tommy Caton, the Highbury dressing room became almost exclusively a fringe zone.
However, in 1984 a footballing hairstyle that owed nothing to music suddenly appeared. During the ’83/’84 season Everton captain Kevin Ratcliffe started sporting a short and neat style that some of his teammates copied. It attracted enough attention to merit a special pre-FA Cup Final interview on BBC1 before he went out to face Man Utd. The revolutionary thing was that the back of his neck was visible – footballers’ necks hadn’t been seen for years. Ratcliffe claimed not to know what the fuss was all about, he just liked his hair short. And close examination revealed the cut to be more a direct descendant of the traditional short back and sides than anything new. This never caught on at Arsenal where the necks of Talbot, Mariner, Sansom and Quinn remained resolutely covered.
The late eighties saw fringes get longer and floppier, sometimes combined with half-perm at the back, à la Charlie Nicholas. Chris Waddle took this a stage further, with a fully fledged spiky-on-top mullet. Others like Barry Venison eagerly joined in, and it was only once his playing days were finally over that Venison saw the error of his ways.
In the nineties we’ve had a host of new styles, including the Steve Bull/Dennis Wise no-nonsense crew cut, the Gary Lineker sensible schoolboy, the Jason Lee pineapple and the short bleached blond crop sported by Gazza and (thankfully briefly) Ian Wright, among others. As usual there’s one person who doesn’t keep up, and while the rest have moved on David James is still busy with the home trimmer and the peroxide bottle.
The influx of foreign players has meant more long hair on view than we’ve seen since the seventies. Thankfully the Baggio braids never made it to these shores, but we’ve had the Patrik Berger Alice band and the half-tied Emmanuel Petit ponytail, as well as the homegrown Darren Peacock ‘My Little Pony’.
It may seem that anything goes, but of course some players don’t have a lot of choice, for the simple reason that they don’t have a lot of hair. Who can forget the classic Bobby Charlton? He may have been the most senior of United’s superstars but how he must have envied Best’s luxuriant locks and Denis Law’s sticky-up Rod Stewart look.
There’s another group that is yet to be represented at Arsenal: the voluntary baldies. Virtually every club has at least one who’s preparing for old age by getting rid of it all now. Less painful in the long run, though the likes of Vialli keep a bit spare on the chin just to show they can still grow the stuff if they want to. Roy Keane veers between psycho shaving all over and innocent cherub cut depending on how many suspensions he’s chalked up in a season. At Leeds these days nearly everyone has a fluffy schoolboy look, because, well, nearly everyone is still actually a schoolboy.
In a way nothing changes. Our own Denis Compton was advertising Brylcreem back in the fifties, and now we’ve got David Beckham doing it. The difference being that Beckham can choose any style his wife likes, while Compton just gave his peers the choice between short back and sides and untamed on top, or slicked down short back and sides.
There’s another link with the past, too. Although the divergence of modern styles means we’ve now lost any connection between music and football, I started this off by saying that Charlie George once harboured ambitions to be David Bowie. The funny thing is that by a neat twist of fate nearly thirty years on, David Bowie in his latest incarnation looks exactly like Charlie George.