Kingsley the mascot: under the foam head of football’s most unlikely hero

Kingsley with fans at Partick Thistle v Kilmarnock. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/Guardian

Partick Thistle’s mascot Kingsley, designed by the artist David Shrigley, caused consternation when he was unveiled in June. Is he too scary? Or could he be the best thing that has ever happened to the Jags?

It is midday at Firhill, Glasgow, the modest home ground of Partick Thistle football club and the most famous mascot in Scotland, possibly the world. Kingsley: designed by the artist David Shrigley and described as Lisa Simpson on meth, an evil Pokémon-type thing, the mascot of children’s nightmares, and – according to the sun god himself – a nice guy from California. Right now, he is simply a man in yellow fleece trousers, braces and lucky yellow pants, trying to fit his massive head through a door.

“Down!” hollers Kingsley’s chaperone, Eilidh Lewsey, a 5ft Gaelic-speaking whirlwind who has been a Jags fan “since before there were women’s toilets here”. A coach couldn’t motivate a Thistle player better. Kingsley drops and shuffles through the door sideways. A couple of sunrays twang against the frame, then he’s through.

“I’ve not experienced much abuse,” he whispers as we approach a group of fans. “Jaggy [MacBee, the last Thistle mascot] got way more abuse. Aberdeen fans were notorious for wanting to fight him. Sometimes, though, when there are 20 people jumping on me, I do feel a wee bit protective of the suit.”

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It is three hours until kick-off against Kilmarnock, and I’m here to spend match day with Kingsley. To see life as he sees it, out of his haunted, wonky eyes. (Actually, he sees out of his monobrow, which provides an excellent field of vision.) Work starts early when you’re a mascot at the top of his game and every fan – and away fan, it turns out – wants a piece of the man Jonathan Jones described as “the rage of Caliban at seeing his own face in the glass”. When I arrive at Firhill in the heart of Maryhill, Partick Thistle’s home since 1909, a mild-mannered man in his 30s greets me at reception. Shaved head, laughing eyes, jeans and Nike trainers. “Jay McGhee,” he says, shaking my hand. “I’m Kingsley.”
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We head to the offices overlooking the pitch where Kingsley’s head lies on the ground, waiting to be worn. Up close, Shrigley’s design is both weirder and friendlier than I expected. It is impossible to look at the unseeing eyes, gaping maw, trio of teeth and thunderous monobrow without smiling, even if it is the smile of uncertainty. It’s the Kingsley effect; the amused, bemused smile that I see lighting up every face that encounters him. Even the men in the office look up from their computers and grin when he walks past.

One comes over and clucks at the Glasgow sky – patches of blue, steel cloud, a light patter of rain. “How does Kingsley do in the rain?” he asks. “Untested,” McGhee replies, “apart from in Wigan, when we left him out overnight. Aye, he was fine.” He crawls inside the big yellow head. “What are you doing in there,” I ask. “I store my water and mobile phone in the spokes,” he explains. “The head is really useful. I hook my keys on the tent poles.”

Children play with Kingsley. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/Guardian
Children play with Kingsley. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/Guardian

It is the start of Partick Thistle’s third season in the Scottish Premiership and the mood at the club is buoyant, despite losing 2-0 to Celtic last weekend when Kingsley made his debut. So far, Shrigley’s mascot may not have sold the small but fiercely loved club any more season tickets (1,700, roughly the same as last year) or put any more bums on seats (3,535 today), but Kingsley is a success story nonetheless. After launching in June at a press conference announcing a sponsorship deal with US investment firm Kingsford Capital, thought to be worth £200,000, Kingsley became the seventh most popular trending story in the world. “He’s probably the only mascot in sport people would be able to name and recognise,” George Francis, the media manager, tells me. “We got 95m hits on Twitter in June alone. That’s a 7,000% increase on last year.”

Ian Maxwell, Thistle’s general manager, says: “It’s been absolutely incredible.” Kingsley has inspired a new slogan for the club, “Not so cuddly any more,” and the photographer Martin Parr has just signed up to take pictures of players. All this is a demand for Partick Thistle – long seen as the soft touch of Scottish football, the friendly alternative to the Old Firm and the team of West End luvvies (Shrigley has been a Jags fan since he was at the Glasgow School of Art in the late 80s) – to be taken seriously. “We’re not happy about everyone having a soft spot for us,” Maxwell continues. And is Kingsley helping? “Well, on the pitch we’ve not scored a goal yet, so he’s not helping with that,” he laughs.

We head to a basement room known as the Dungeon, where McGhee gets into costume after listening to black metal or country and western music, which he says is necessary in order for PT to win. In a box room lies the discarded costume of Jaggy MacBee, the mascot who preceded Kingsley. “When we launched Jaggy there was one photographer and a radio programme,” McGhee says. “Now Kingsley is practically a full-time job.”

McGhee, 33, is a data analyst from Cumbernauld and a lifelong Jags fan. “My dad first brought me here on my ninth birthday,” he tells me. “Partick Thistle against Forfar; we won 2-1. My dad was a supporter, so was my grandad, and one of my cousins was in the youth team.” Three years ago, he entered a competition to become Partick Thistle’s mascot. “I thought it would be a laugh and I’d get free entry to the matches,” he confesses. He had to make a video, in which he dressed up as Captain America, did the dishes and talked about how much he loved the club. “They brought me in and that was it. The Jaggy MacBee costume fit me perfectly.”

He prefers being Kingsley, though. “He’s got a wee bit of mischief about him,” he muses. “The crowd loves him. The club have told me to wind up the opposition, but I have to keep myself in check.” His best moment was just before kick-off against Celtic. “I slapped my bum in front of Celtic’s huddle. I’ve never experienced an adrenaline rush like it.”

“I think Kingsley is absolutely brilliant,” says Kris Doolan, who has played for Thistle since 2009 (and goes on to score two goals). “He’s got a bit of swagger and it’s given us confidence, too. It’s spread through the club.”

 Jay McGhee, the man beneath the mascot. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/Guardian
Jay McGhee, the man beneath the mascot. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/Guardian

It’s time to head to Munro’s, a pub in the West End of Glasgow, where supporters from Edinburgh are meeting. As soon as we get out of the taxi, Kingsley is mobbed. Cars toot their horns, two women wave from a bus and a bunch of Jags fans run out of the boozer opposite to cuddle Kingsley and tweak his sunrays in the way dogs’ ears are fondled. Grown men walk past and fist bump him. Some just nod, shake his hand and murmur “Hiya pal” before moving on.

In the pub, a group of children wait patiently while Kingsley negotiates yet another door. None of them seem remotely scared. One asks if he can wear his suit. “I think it’s the most weird but inspired bit of marketing the club has ever done,” says Tom Hogg, a chartered surveyor from Edinburgh. “I think giving an artist like David Shrigley carte blanche, when he is known for being a bit strange from a layperson’s point of view, is fantastic.”

For Shrigley, it isn’t Kingsley who is scary. “Being a football fan is an angsty activity,” he tells me. “I don’t think you need to explain angst to obsessive football fans. And we all know what it’s like walking down the street in deepest, darkest Maryhill. The children are not going to be the slightest bit intimidated by Kingsley, no matter how angsty he is. Kids are scary!”

Back at Firhill, the fans are gathering in the car park, where last week 2,000 Kingsley masks were handed out, many of them to the Celtic fans. McGhee’s wife Alison turns up: they met at the club and got their wedding photos taken at the ground. “I thought Jaggy was creepy,” she admits. “Kingsley is lovely. And who says a mascot has to be a cuddly bear?” More photos, high fives and ray tweaks. Kingsley chases a few children, much to their delight, and steals a few hats. A child tells him off for wearing the old club shirt under his costume. We head into the stands, where Lewsey barks at everyone – adults and children alike – to queue for photos. I’m starting to realise why being Kingsley is almost a full-time job. It’s exhausting. How is he bearing up? “Hot,” is his muffled reply.

In the minutes leading up to kick-off, Kingsley heads on to the pitch to gee up the fans and goad the opposition. The whistle blows and the game begins. No bum-slapping at Kilmarnock today, but something even better. A few minutes into the first half, Doolan scores the first goal of the season and Kingsley ploughs into the celebration, producing the most bizarre and hilarious image of the day. The crowd erupts.

“I just went for it,” he tells me at half time, back in the Dungeon. “I was just saying to a photographer that they’ve never once scored when I’m on the touchline, and then it happened. I’ve always wanted to do that.” The thrill is short-lived. A security adviser beckons McGhee away as if he were a naughty schoolboy. He returns looking chastised. “I just got into trouble for winding up the away fans,” he says. “I’ve been told to stay away from them.” Has that ever happened before? “No,” McGhee and Lewsey say in unison. “We never had this problem with Jaggy.” But, Lewsey adds: “Then again, Jaggy would never have done that.” McGhee laughs and looks pleased. “That’s true. It must be Kingsley.”


Tag: Partick Scottish Premiership David Shrigley Glasgow Scotland


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