How Wil­lie won the World Cup


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The 1966 World Cup wasn’t just about Eng­land’s glory on the pitch – off it, a car­toon lion broke new ground in mer­chan­dis­ing, and the badges, beer mats and bed­spreads flew off the shelves

It only takes a sec­ond to score a goal. So ran one of Brian Clough’s bet­ter-known max­ims.

Reg Hoye needed around 300 times longer to ac­com­plish his aim – four min­utes, 59 sec­onds to be ex­act. How­ever, the five min­utes the il­lus­tra­tor spent on a rough sketch of the car­toon lion cho­sen as the face of the 1966 World Cup ar­guably ranks as one of foot­ball’s seis­mic mod­ern mo­ments. A game-changer in its own way as sig­nif­i­cant as lines­man Tofiq Bahramov’s call to let Geoff Hurst’s sec­ond goal in the fi­nal against West Ger­many stand.

Once World Cup fever had gone into over­drive fol­low­ing Eng­land’s tri­umph, World Cup Wil­lie – Hoye’s cre­ation and the tour­na­ment’s first mas­cot – was in the van­guard. This was an om­nipresent fig­ure li­censed to ap­pear on any­thing from beer mats and horse brasses to cuff­links, knit­ting pat­terns, tof­fees and even toy periscopes.

An ebay search for World Cup Wil­lie on any given day still turns up any­thing from 80 to 100 pieces of mem­o­ra­bilia. Of­fi­cial tea tray, any­one? Yours for just £125. A nine-inch ‘soft plush’ toy? That will be £400, please.

It might have been 50 years-plus of on-field hurt for Eng­land, but 1966’s gift to the global game just keeps on giv­ing. It’s now a $2 bil­lion busi­ness. FIFA’S re­tail and mar­ket­ing web page fea­tures a pic­ture of this year’s World Cup mas­cot, Zabi­vaka the wolf, and boasts of li­censed prod­ucts and re­tail pro­grammes that are “syn­chro­nised to ac­cel­er­ate aware­ness”. What­ever that’s sup­posed to mean.

And it all be­gan with an unas­sum­ing, be­spec­ta­cled il­lus­tra­tor from Mar­low, who was paid only a one-off fee for his ef­forts. Reg Hoye was a free­lancer with Wal­ter Tuck­well & As­so­ciates when the FA’S World Cup or­gan­is­ing com­mit­tee got in touch, re­quest­ing some de­signs to ex­ploit the com­mer­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties of­fered by the tour­na­ment.

“My fa­ther and Wal­ter Tuck­well were ex­cited,” Reg’s son Leo ex­plains to FFT. “Wal­ter be­cause he was a very shrewd busi­ness­man with an eye on the till; my dad be­cause, at last, one of his artis­tic cre­ations was com­ing to life.

“In ad­di­tion to the fee, he got the odd perk, but I don’t re­ally think he wanted any­thing more than that. Like so many peo­ple of his era, he’d been through the war and was happy to be able to re­turn home to his stud­ies in Hack­ney, though he al­ways re­garded World Cup Wil­lie as his proud­est achieve­ment.”

Hoye – sum­moned with fel­low artist Richard Cul­ley – had pre­vi­ously worked on il­lus­tra­tions for Enid Bly­ton’s Noddy books, as well as the BBC’S Dr Who and The Daleks. Given carte blanche, with just the image of the Jules Rimet Tro­phy to work with – the pair got busy. Ini­tial sketches of a bull­dog were shelved, as were those of in­di­vid­ual fig­ures don­ning bowler hat and cloth cap, partly be­cause Hoye saw them as too class-con­scious.

The sketch liked best by FA sec­re­tary De­nis Fol­lows – who later helped Reg’s other son, actor Nicholas, bag parts in Dixon of Dock Green – was one of four sub­mit­ted of lions “to show that we’re not as clapped-out as peo­ple think we are”, Hoye later ad­mit­ted.

The first of these de­signs was based on Hoye’s son Leo, al­though the one launched at a press con­fer­ence in July 1965 bore an un­canny re­sem­blance to the FA’S rather square-shoul­dered chief ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer called EK Will­son. Hence the nick­name.

“A lion with a Bea­tle hair­cut, a Union Jack jer­sey and an ad­dress some­where in Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park,” quipped the Daily Mir­ror.

“Dad was very sin­gle-minded once he had cap­tured the spirit of the char­ac­ter he wanted to bring to life,” re­veals Leo. “He wasn’t im­mune to sug­ges­tion, but his con­cep­tion on pa­per was fi­nal and sub­ject to his re­vi­sion only.”

Li­cens­ing a car­toon char­ac­ter as the ‘face’ of the tour­na­ment would, it was hoped, have some ap­peal, even to those who had no real in­ter­est in the foot­ball it­self. As 1966 be­gan, The Sun­day Times re­ported that £4 mil­lion worth of goods, “all stamped with some sort of World Cup in­signia would flood the mar­ket”, with the FA ex­pected to mop up more than £200,000 in roy­al­ties.

Ini­tial in­ter­est in Wil­lie was mod­est, but Eng­land’s un­ex­pected tour­na­ment tri­umph lit the touch-pa­per.

While Alf Ram­sey’s win­g­less won­ders took off, so did all of the ac­com­pa­ny­ing hoopla. Now ev­ery­one wanted a piece of a fig­ure syn­ony­mous with the Three Lions’ suc­cess. And as Hoye ex­plained: “He al­lowed us to cre­ate a prod­uct with a sense of fun” – some­thing for which an in­ward-look­ing FA had not pre­vi­ously been par­tic­u­larly famed.

Though he stops short of sug­gest­ing that World Cup Wil­lie first marked the pro­fes­sion­al­i­sa­tion of graphic de­sign – and ‘a vis­ual aes­thetic of world sport’ – Robert Opie, con­sumer his­to­rian and founder of the Mu­seum of Brands and Pack­ag­ing, ad­mits that Eng­land’s win was a light-bulb mo­ment.

“Char­ac­ters had been around a very long time – car­toon strips, an­i­ma­tions, Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse and so on,” he says. “These kind of things go way back, so World Cup Wil­lie sits among these great car­toon and pro­mo­tional char­ac­ters. He was a big, very Bri­tish, mo­ment which made his­tory.”

De­feat to West Ger­many could have or­phaned Wil­lie, but vic­tory gave him a thou­sand fa­thers.

“You can’t re­ally un­der­es­ti­mate the change a win over a loss made,” adds Opie. “If we had lost the fi­nal, we’d still be talk­ing about it in a very dour sense – World Cup Wil­lie would have just been another char­ac­ter with­out the fame.”

Not that Leo knew the re­sult. His dad was work­ing in Lon­don, but the rest of the Hoyes were hol­i­day­ing in Corn­wall for Wil­lie’s show­piece mo­ment.

“None of us, ex­cept dad, saw the fi­nal un­til later on,” he re­veals. “There was no TV. Ra­dio? A few snatches amid ter­ri­ble in­ter­fer­ence. The phone? For­get it. We had to wait un­til the fol­low­ing day and read about it in the news­pa­pers.”

In the wake of Eng­land’s his­toric win, ap­pli­ca­tions flew in for li­cences – more than 120 – from France, Ger­many, Italy, Den­mark, Holland and, in par­tic­u­lar, the So­viet Union. Within weeks, in ex­cess of 10 mil­lion items were rolled out.

“We were so ex­cited, as dad had hit the big time,” chuck­les Leo. “It was as if some­thing new was com­ing out ev­ery week. I can re­mem­ber be­ing pre­sented with a pink World Cup Wil­lie can­dlewick bed­spread and it was em­broi­dered with the mul­ti­coloured mo­tif of Wil­lie. There were bath­mats, too.

“How­ever, the best thing was a green track­suit which was em­bla­zoned with the feisty wee lion. I was even al­lowed to wear this at school. I was only 12 and quite shy, but I was just swept up in the mid-60s mood of, ‘Let’s go for it’.

“I re­call be­ing im­mensely proud of my fa­ther. Every­body was. My school­mates didn’t rib me too much about it ei­ther, even though they all knew I was pretty hope­less at foot­ball.”

With the de­mand for goods so high, World Cup Wil­lie mer­chan­dise flew off the shelves al­most quicker than they could be made. That of­ten came at the ex­pense of qual­ity con­trol. As there was no ap­proved style guide to fol­low, poor Reg had to draw Wil­lie to or­der

A sub­se­quent do­mes­tic at­tempt to piggy-back Wil­lie’s suc­cess floun­dered – 1967’s League Cup Re­view sug­gested boost­ing the tour­na­ment with ‘League Cup Les’ – but it wasn’t long be­fore club mas­cots emerged. Birm­ing­ham’s ‘Beau Brum­mie’ and Sh­effield Wed­nes­day’s ‘Ozzie the Owl’ were just two ex­am­ples. Hoye was later asked to mock up the first Red Devil mas­cot for Manch­ester United’s badge.

Nowa­days, ‘merch’ comes at you from all an­gles. In 2014, 850,000 pack­ets of World Cup-themed con­doms sold out in just 15 days – they were ex­pected to take three months.

“I hope those were up to World Cup stan­dard,” laughs Leo.

If they thought it was all over in 1966, it was only just the be­gin­ning. Nice one, Wil­lie. Nice one, son.


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