The adrenaline was pumping. The roar was getting louder. And as the Champions League anthem rang out across Munich’s Olympic Stadium, Manchester United lined up on the pitch for the customary team photo before facing Bayern Munich in the quarter-final second leg. But something wasn’t quite right.
Somehow, the English champions had gained a 12th man. And for once, it wasn’t the referee.
Roy Keane was glaring in his direction. Andy Cole was shuffling uneasily beside him. And more worryingly still, Gary Neville was pointing accusingly in his direction and demanding an explanation.
They had good reason to be puzzled. Because the man in the United kit, complete with number seven shirt and ‘Cantona’ emblazoned on the back, only bore a passing resemblance to the former King of Old Trafford.
But his response to Red Nev was short and to the point.
“I just said, ‘Shut up, you grass, Eric sent me!’”
Karl ‘Fat Neck’ Power remembers his finest hour very clearly, even though it was 12 years ago. And it’s memorable not just because he got to line up alongside the team he’d supported all his life: For a long time, he wouldn’t have believed he would walk anywhere, least of all onto a football pitch. Because doctors had told him he might never use his legs again.
Loaded tracked down Karl, now 45, to Prestwich, north Manchester, where, as luck would have it, he’s putting the finishing touches to a new DVD he’s made of his stunts to date.
“It’s kind of like Jackass meets Shameless”, he laughs, and as an imminent autobiography will confirm, he’s cut from the same ducking and diving stock as the characters in the latter TV series.
After growing up on a council estate in Ancoats, Manhester, he showed promise as an amateur boxer before being seduced by the high times on offer in the ‘Madchester’ music scene of the late 1980s and early ‘90s. He befriended similarly, erm, ‘fun-loving’ characters such as Shaun and Bez from Happy Mondays, and his relationship with them was touchingly commemorated on the 1996 single Fat Neck, which they recorded with their new band Black Grape.
“That just came from being out with party people like Bez at the time,” he says. “I was mostly involved behind the scenes.”
Ironically, though, by that time the fun had been brutally curtailed for Fat Neck, after a vicious assault in 1994 left him virtually paralysed.
“I got macheted in a phone box,” he says. “mistaken identity.”
The attack, which happened in broad daylight, was accompanied by someone asking for ‘Neil’, and left Karl with a severed sciatic nerve in his right leg, meaning that doctors gave him a pretty grim prognosis.
“I was in a wheelchair and they said I’d never walk again,” he says. “I was dead on my feet and by the time Munich happened, I’d been going through physio for ages.”
Thankfully, by April 2001 he was walking fairly freely, all be it with a pronounced limp.
In the intervening years, Karl’s childhood friend Tommy Dunn, another mad Man U fan, had begun following the reds to European away games, accompanied by his teenage son Tommy Jr and a video camera.
At one point he’d managed to climb into the back of Sir Alex Ferguson’s limo unchallenged, and even film inside the dressing rooms
So when United were drawn to face Bayern in a two-legged tie, Tommy’s old mate Karl was the ideal choice for a stunt he hoped would make both of them famous. Not only did he bear a passing resemblance to Eric Cantona, but he had the natural born chutzpah to pull it off.
The stunt was plotted, in Karl’s words, “military style”.
In his back garden, he timed himself stripping off his tracksuit bottoms and walking the exact distance he’d need to cover on the pitch at Munich.
Tommy had studied videos of the routine at Champions League games, and they established Karl’s cue to go on as being the moment Andy Cole shook the hand of the last Bayern player.
The plan worked like a dream, and the following day’s papers were plastered with Karl’s mischievous smirk. He lapped up the attention, but behind the scenes, this was only the beginning.
“We’re going to do five world class stunts,” he boasted.
The second was to take place that summer, at the fourth Ashes test at Headingley.
The plan was for Karl to wait until an England batsman was bowled out, then stride out, helmet disguising his identity, hopefully all the way to the crease.
“I wanted to get bowled at by Shane Warne,” admitted Karl. But fate had other plans.
Karl was smuggled into the players’ toilets, and the signal to go was three rings on his phone. When he heard it, he walked out. But there was one problem – it wasn’t Tommy, but Tommy’s niece ringing, to check how the stunt was going. It was only when he was halfway to the crease he received another call from Tommy to warn him off. As it turned out, though, the sight of Karl getting halfway there, turning round, taking his helmet off and answering his phone, all looked like part of the plan. Front pages around the world once more. Fat Neck had struck again.
Next up was The Italian Job, as Karl and the two Tommies blagged a Mini Cooper in which to drive to Rome’s Stadio Flaminio, for the Six Nations Rugby Union international between Italy and England.
The plan was for Karl to follow the teams out onto the pitch and front up the England team with an All Blacks-style Haka. Except, it didn’t quite come off…
“The guy who was inside on the pitch told me they’d be coming out of the tunnel on the left,” explains Karl, “so I was all ready to take my top off and go on with my kit, and the England players come running out to the right! It was a bit of a bundle.”
In a panic, Karl just ran on and did his haka in front of a bunch of baffled Italian fans. To uproar and acclaim from precisely nobody.
The boys were gutted. For the first time, they’d really fired a blank.
There was only one way to react to it. Bounce back, bigger and better.
This time, Wimbledon’s centre court was their stage, before an expectant crowd waiting for Tim Henman to come on.
Tommy blagged them into the seating area, posing as security for two players, and while Dunn Snr, distracted the nearest steward, Karl and Tommy Jr stepped over the advertising hoardings in full tennis whites and began to knock up in suitably theatrical style.
It was, by some distance, the most inept display of tennis ever witnessed on Centre Court. Hardly surprising considering they’d only played the game for the first time the day before. Still, no-one intervened. Watching the footage now, it looks as if the whole world of tennis has frozen, unable to fully compute the idea of two northern scallies lobbing a ball back and forth on their most hallowed stage. Ballboys, stewards and police simply stand by, gawping in disbelief.
“We just went on and played, for a minute or so, people loved it,” says Karl. “Then we bowed to the royal box and came off!
“And we only stopped because we’d run out of balls!” he adds.
They followed this up with what Tommy later admitted was their toughest trick of all – squirming himself, Karl and Tommy Jr all their way into the winner’s enclosure at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, and getting the trio onto the podium just before Michael Schumacher was due to celebrate another win, to dance a cheeky (and frankly surreal) Riverdance-style jig.
Once again, they had pulled it off, if only for a few brief seconds, and the Fat Neck legend was complete.
After they once again left the venue without so much as a slap on the wrists for their trouble, they confessed to the waiting press that this would be their swansong. Fat Neck had left the building for the last time.
Alas, since Silverstone, life hasn’t all been straightforward for Karl.
The big pay day he and Tommy had hoped for from the stunts never really materialised. Although, believe it or not they were approached to help sporting events review security at various points, and were even flown to Australia to help promote an energy drink in the wake of their Ashes coup, nothing lasting came of it, even after a 2002 documentary, Britain’s Favourite Hoaxer, appeared on Channel 4.
In the hour-long film (which you can find on YouTube), he reads a newspaper story exposing him for claiming disability benefit during his scams, (“What do they expect me to do? Just mope around?” he complained). That led to a DSS investigation, and he was jailed for six months in 2005 for fraudulently claiming over £26,000. Showman to the end, he waved to friends in the public gallery as he was sent down.
Since then, his old mockers the Dunns have been up to their old tricks.
They were found to have smuggled themselves into Fabio Capello’s England set-up in March 2010, shortly after they had made light of the John Terry/Wayne Bridge scandal by filming themselves asking Terry for an autograph before an England training session, requesting, “Can you put ‘To Wayne, Sorry’?” He declined, with an expletive or two, and wrote ‘To Wayne, best wishes’. What a gent.
More recently, Karl has returned to his first loves – music and boxing. He’s managing a band, The Beats & Cheats, promising that a label will follow. And in November 2012 he took part in a charity boxing competition, Formal Fight Club, and won his bout, to the delight of a packed crowd at Manchester’s Palace Hotel.
“Boxing’s my main sport,” he says, “and if it hadn’t been for my injuries I’d have done more of it. I was dead proud of myself. To be honest it felt like the final chapter in my recovery.”
That encounter is featured in a new DVD he has produced, entitled Fat Neck, for which he’s currently in search of a distributor.
He’s also written his autobiography, Neck, with fellow Mancunian writer Karen Woods. “She’s written six novels, she’s from the same area as me, we’re both dead common, and she’s ghostwriting it.”
A bigger claim to fame may derive from the design for the front cover.
“Damien Hirst’s done it,” he says. “It’s an animals’ head cut off with blood spurting out of the head with images of all the stunts I’ve done. It’s pure Damien – fantastic.”
And now, nearly 12 years since he first made the headlines, Fat Neck is threatening to come out of stunting retirement, like a Hollywood action hero, for one last job.
“There’s going to be one in Manchester to coincide with the book,” he says “I can’t tell you what it’s going to be, but it should be good.”
So ultimately, you have to ask: What’s ultimately the appeal of all this? Fame? Notoriety? The feeling of beating the system?
“It’s that first reaction from people I like,” he says. “That’s the buzz of it. And that night in Munich – it’s still the best of my life.”
TRICKS OF THE TRADE: FIVE STEPS TO GETTING AWAY WITH IT
Confidence is a preference….
Security people are invariably torn between the need to enforce the rules and the fear of inadvertently turning away someone important. So if you look and act like someone important, you’ve got a good chance of not being turned away.
Look the part
The one thing Karl, Tommy and friends got right all along was attention to detail in terms of their appearance. Their kit was always faultless (apart from the time Tommy Jr refused to wear white socks for the Wimbledon stunt, but he was still learning).
Anything can, and probably will, happen, to disrupt your carefully laid plans. But if you keep calm and carry on, the chance is that you will win the day. See Karl’s nerveless reaction to Gary Neville questioning him, and the Headingley misunderstanding.
Distraction is the best form of defence
Many of these stunts would not have been possible without taking advantage of the right people looking in the opposite direction at the crucial moment. See Tommy’s masterful kerfuffle at Wimbledon in order to allow his friends to take the stage.
Loose lips sink ships. If what you’re doing is remotely sensational, anyone hearing about it is bound to tell their mate, probably saying ‘Don’t tell anyone, but…’ Before you know it, the authorities have cottoned on and they’re waiting for you.