This story was first featured in Issue 4: Stranger Things with illustration by Van Hong (Soccer In Sepia), the magazine is currently available to buy here.
Football is a slick machine; everything from the colour of undergarments to goal celebrations is carefully controlled. Players stay on brand and deliver anodyne platitudes, though managers can often add a little spice to interactions with the media. All told, it’s a shimmering, gleaming product. What happens, though, when a unibrowed, rejected Simpsons model becomes the face of a football club?
In 2015, Partick Thistle F.C. unveiled their strange new mascot. It wasn’t a cute, family friendly animal. Swansea, Liverpool, and Arsenal – and most clubs, it must be said – have that corner of the mascot market well catered for. Even though the football world was already familiar with eccentric sideshows, like Portland’s Timber Joey cutting pieces off a log to celebrate a goal for the home side, this was different. With points representing the sun jutting out of his head, wild eyes, and a dark mouth, Kingsley was the new breed: unique, striking and a little bit terrifying.
Then again, it’s not often these things are designed by a Turner Prize nominee. While the name is derived from a commercial deal with a sponsor, the art of the character was invented by David Shrigley, a contender in 2013 for the annual prize in British visual artistry. Choosing the Glasgow resident as the creator of the mascot was an inspired choice; his work has been described as being ‘burnt black in humour’ and he is a self-confessed fan of the Jags. Furthermore, his taste for monochrome drawings complements the black and white of the club crest.
Partick Thistle-related forums and fan groups lit up with praise for the new addition to the club, but there were also raised eyebrows and questions over the merit of having a monster as the mascot. Some mascots even said that it was a disgrace to the name, though Shrigley offered the pithy rejoinder that – since they are not unionized – they didn’t have the right to complain. Mascots at rival clubs even posted pictures of themselves trembling before meeting Kingsley. The club, for their part, were delighted with it because they wanted a design that moved away from the generic, a symbol that epitomized their struggles to stay in the top flight.
As weird as it is, Kingsley represents something deeper; it offers us a chance to give a different face to football.
Aesthetically speaking, Kingsley is not very easy on the eye. It’s not for nothing that some of the promotional material includes scenes of kids running away from the monster. If anything, the mascot is part of a glorious tradition that stretches back to ancient Greece. Masks used in those old tragedies bear the same wide grimace as Thistle’s man in yellow. If Sky hasn’t convinced you yet, football is the greatest drama of all. It represents the feast and the famine; the colourful, vibrant carnival costume before the lean times.
For one thing, it’s better than the rebranding of the Juventus crest, another black and white emblem. One year and presumably millions spent to have produced what appears to be the punchline to every joke on the emptiness of modern marketing. It’s sleek but it just doesn’t mean anything. It’s telling that when The Independent praised the change, they did so by citing how it could be a boon to the ‘wider portfolio’ of the Turin-based club. Gone are the nods to history, with the deletion of the bull, shield, and crown. It will be replaced by a genuflection toward soundbites and a monetized global image.
While board members across Europe fret over what children in emerging markets want from their club, anger permeates the game. It also permeates life. And though football is glossy and packaged at the highest levels, there is little sense in cossetting ourselves from the realities of that natural human emotion. We see it on Arsenal TV, through reactions to the new Juve icon, and through protests inside and outside stadiums. Fans will get irate for all manner of legitimate and spurious reasons. Why not see the yellow personification of this emotional state dancing around before kick-off? It’s not showing anything that doesn’t already exist in the game.
On the surface, the deformed sun king of Firhill seems to jar with the pared-down modernism of the new Juventus crest. But this Scottish based character and the new Old Lady badge do share something in common – long-standing ideas about image influence both. The latter has opted for a graceful design that works for other large companies, such as Apple. David Shrigley’s creation taps into an Asian tradition.
In Japan, mascots represent cities, businesses, and teams across various sports. They generate a lot of advertising revenue but their main brief is to educate. Many are cute but others take on the appearance of Dickensian figures, with bodies, faces and limbs carved crudely into the fabric of a mascot’s costume, calling in a mind a time when novels had paragraphs – if not pages – depicting the angles of a person’s smile and character. In this way, they share may physical similarities with Kingsley.
These Yuru-Charas are tasked with loving their local community or club and with being awkward. It’s this amalgamation of concepts that represents most clubs around the world. The white hankies may fly when Real Madrid lose two on the trot, but the reality for less endowed teams and their fans is one where the hopes and dreams of a new season suffocate in the slow strangle of dropped points and frequent losses. Fans give their support and love sometimes in spite of the football. And the style, if not exactly awkward, is rarely as elegant as the football played by the super clubs.
So, what to make of the strange being that is Kingsley? You won’t get any answers from the artist; he prefers to let the art speak for itself. Which is the way it should be. We don’t expect football to provide all the answers, so we don’t need to expect differently of art, and indeed football art. Perhaps the mascot functions like an Ewok – an offbeat piece of merchandising that will help keep the club afloat. It could be a Japanese shisha, keeping guard and waiting for the Old Firm, protecting against the poaching of players or the scoring of goals at Firhill.
Whatever it might truly mean, it’s a step toward something tangible. It’s an identity that draws on the wider influences that shape us all. Football is the global game because it draws from the well of a common global culture. Kingsley represents that. The Cure foretold this happening when they sang about the ‘sun humming’ in Strange Days, and now that we’re more than 18 months into his reign in Glasgow, here’s hoping for more mascots like Partick Thistle’s sun king.