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Game for a laugh; Soccer club mascots keep thousands of fans entertained at every game by dressing up as lions, dinosaurs - and even a giant hammer! But what makes them want to face the taunts of cheeky away fans? John Earls got the low-down when he tackled this madcap forward line...

MANCHESTER UNITED

Darren Liberman is Fred The Red

Despite the tough-tackling reputation of some of Manchester United's star players, there is only one real devil at Old Trafford - Darren Liberman.

Even the most die-hard United fan will be thinking "Who?" but Darren parades around Old Trafford before matches dressed as Fred The Red - a devil created to celebrate United's nickname The Red Devils.

Darren, 26, is the envy of United fans throughout the world as he leads the teams out before every home match.

"It's the next best thing to playing," said Darren. "I hope I've got a few more years left in me yet because this is a dream job. All the players know Fred and Peter Schmeichel always gives me a high-five before games.

"Once, at a photo-shoot, even Eric Cantona said, `Good morning, Fred'." Darren, who's been in the Fred suit for four years, is one of the original soccer mascots.

"I work for a local firm called Sports Souvenirs," he said.

"We did a one-off birthday card for our chief designer which depicted Fred The Red and everyone was so impressed that we went to United with the idea.

"They accepted it and I think Fred was the first mainstream football mascot." Now, there's even a Fred The Red fan club!

Sports Souvenirs chose Darren because he's an extrovert. "Well, I'm very good at pratting about!" he laughed.

Fred's a great disguise but some people at United still recognise Darren out of his suit.

"The stewards know who I am," he said. "The costume is so heavy that they can spot me in my seat because of the steam coming off my head!"

CRYSTAL PALACE

Keith Blackwell is Pete The Eagle

Primary school head teacher Keith Blackwell could be forgiven for wanting to get away from children at weekends.

Instead, Keith spends every other Saturday dressed as an eagle to entertain young Crystal Palace fans. Although most mascots are only stars inside their costumes, Keith became famous last year as the star of a series of Coca-Cola football adverts.

But Keith, 51, admitted he was far more worried about making his debut as Pete The Eagle at Palace's Selhurst Park ground than he was filming the commercial.

"I've been playing Pete for two years," said Keith, head teacher at Churchill Primary School in Westerham, Kent. "I took over when the original Eagle became ill. He was played by another head teacher who really was called Pete.

"I'd only ever previously been on the pitch when my dad and I ran on to celebrate Palace getting promoted a few seasons ago."

Playing Pete initially caused problems at Keith's school as he didn't let on that he was the man inside the costume.

"There were some PTA meetings on Tuesday evenings, when Palace play their midweek home games," said father-of-two Keith.

"I had to send my apologies and parents were wondering where I kept vanishing to."

It wasn't until Palace gave the school 100 tickets for a game against Wolves that the truth was revealed.

"If you look inside my costume you can see my face," said Keith.

"The kids were saying, `It's Mr Blackwell!' and some even asked for my autograph. What made it funnier was that Wolves' mascot Wolfie persuaded me to have a pretend fight on the pitch.

"Instead of chanting `Pete! Pete! Pete!' to cheer me on, Churchill's pupils were yelling `Sir! Sir! Sir!' As for the `fight', honours were even."

After he appeared in the Coke advert, the Palace players became aware of his fame.

"I did a photo-call with the squad," Keith revealed. "Our defender David Tuttle asked me, `Aren't you that headmaster?' and started bashing me about.

"David should have known better. I gave him a whack with one of my wings at our next home game!"

SUNDERLAND

Tony Davison is Samson The Cat

Tony Davison describes himself as a Clark Kent character. By day he works in Sunderland's ticket office. But at every home game Tony is transformed into Samson The Cat.

Tony, 23, started work in Sunderland's ticket office last November. Just a month later, he was to wear the cat costume.

"Nobody else wanted to do it," he said. "Before me, there were a few other club workers who'd been press-ganged into putting on the suit. But as soon as I found the opportunity was there, I went for it."

The role is a dream come true for Tony. "Sunderland moved stadiums during the summer," he said,

"And so I was the man who led the teams out before our last game at Roker Park AND the first game at the new Stadium Of Light. That's unbelievable!"

Tony admitted his instructions before his first game as Samson were vague.

"The only warning I got was not to goad the away fans," he said. "Otherwise, I was just told to lollop about."

Now Tony says he's become a true performer. "I've learned how to dance in the suit," he said. "It's not just my friends who know me as Samson - half the pubs in Sunderland recognise me now. I even get marks out of ten for my performances!"

Since the team were relegated to Division One last season, Tony says he's now a star to their young fans.

He said: "Kids used to ask me to get them the autographs of opposing players, like Jamie Redknapp. Now, most of them stick to asking for MY signature instead!"

Tony said his favourite moment came when Sunderland travelled to local rivals Middlesbrough's ground.

"Me and their mascot, Roary The Lion, had a pre-match game," he said. "I did a two-footed tackle and the cheer I got from our fans gave me a brilliant feeling.

"I'm not a bad Sunday league player but it's different trying to play in a six-foot cat costume!"

LUTON TOWN

Simon Vaughan is Harry The Hatter

While most mascots run out in front of cheering fans, lorry driver Simon Vaughan admits it's not the best time to be dressed up as Luton Town's Harry The Hatter in Division Two.

"Our form has been dreadful this season," said Simon, 28. "The fans are a miserable bunch and they don't sing nearly as much as they used to. I can't blame them!"

Simon took over from his wife Karen, 25, at the start of last season. "Karen became pregnant, so she couldn't carry on. She's 5ft 4in and I'm 6ft 2in so the fans couldn't help noticing.

"I wear the same costume but the smaller you are the fatter it makes you look. When I started, some fans spread the rumour that it was our old manager David Pleat inside the costume!"

Although Simon has seen many good players such as John Hartson leave Luton for bigger teams, there's no way he'd walk out on the club.

"I'm a Luton fan. I don't want a transfer," he said. "My only disappointment is when we got knocked out of the promotion play-offs last season.

"I would have gone to Wembley and it would have been fantastic to wear the Harry suit there."

Simon says that some of his friends don't know of his role as Harry. "You can imagine the mickey-taking I get from my mates who do know," he said. "But a lot of my friends are sad blokes who support big clubs.

"They think I'm sad enough supporting Luton in the first place, so God knows what they'll think when they find out I'm Harry!"

Simon says Harry - named after Luton's nickname, The Hatters - gets a mixed reaction from their players.

"Some of the younger ones have kicked balls at me trying to knock my Harry head off!" he said.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Earls, John
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Oct 19, 1997
Words:1282
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