What your kit says about you (and others)
When you play amateur football, your gear really shouldnÃ¢ÂÂt matter.
What is your kit, after all, but a fig leaf with which you mask the flubbering, triple-bellied nudity of your basic technical deficiencies, declining fitness, marzipan-strength mental toughness, tactical naivety, non-existent leadership qualities, bad sportsmanship and inability to do a stepover while the ball is moving without falling over and then having to pretend youÃ¢ÂÂve actually hurt yourself so no one laughs too much?
This is an interesting question, because in some ways your kit is everything. ItÃ¢ÂÂs all youÃ¢ÂÂve got out there. These are your props, your inadequate inflatable life vest, and your something to cling to.
Kit is undoubtedly more important to the amateur than the professional, with his glistening armoury of super-boots and non-cling muscle vests. Your kit is your only friend out there. ItÃ¢ÂÂs the only thing you can control. And while you hate it, and always treat it bad, you sort of love it too.
THE BOOT TREE
Mainly you love your boots. Everyone has a personal family tree of boots, a wonky, zigzagging chain of succession that links right back to their first pair. I still remember very clearly my first proper boots.
Growing up in the 1980s, there was a period when, briefly, the brand of choice, the real primary school envy-magnet wasnÃ¢ÂÂt any of the big names, but Patrick. This wasnÃ¢ÂÂt a coincidence. Patrick had spent a huge amount of money persuading Kevin Keegan to wear their boots and front up their ad campaigns, in the days before kit manufacturers did this as a matter of course.
It was a brilliant move: briefly Patrick were It-boots. Green and black and with schoolboy-heaven aluminium studs, my Patricks were by a distance my most prized possession. I used to clean them with a tooth brush and a butter knife. IÃ¢ÂÂd unscrew each stud and dry it individually.
"Mum! Where's the butter knife?!"
I also became quietly fixated with Kevin Keegan, who by this stage was a shaggy-permed veteran. So much so that I still felt the lash of betrayal reading KeeganÃ¢ÂÂs autobiography years later and discovering that (a) he thought Patrick boots were crap and only did it for the money; and (b) Patrick were in fact a small French sportswear company who went bust within 12 months of signing him up.
After Patrick I moved on to bigger-name boots. I had some classic mushy-leather late-80s affairs with tongues that lolled out over the laces creating a tassled-loafers effect, a type of boot I associate with Glenn Hoddle in his wedge haircut pomp.
I had a pair of purple-striped boots that eventually split in half, the lower section coming flapping off during a match, an event that was strangely humiliating, like having your trousers disintegrate, or finding yourself unexpectedly nude in a public place.
For the last few years IÃ¢ÂÂve had two pairs, both crushed, wrinkled, all flapping inners and crusty laces. I wish theyÃ¢ÂÂd die. I wish some fissure would appear in their impermeable scuffed rhino-hide. I wish I could get some new, rejuvenating boots, boots with technology behind them, super-light, super-sticky, super-intelligent, maybe in puce or terracotta or Pacific Sky.
This is of course an aspirational dream. IÃ¢ÂÂve never had a pair of boots that stayed anything other than damp and baggy beyond the first wear. All boots tend towards a central boot identity of bedraggled off-black lumpiness. This is how they want to be and you canÃ¢ÂÂt fight it.
Similarly, there is no point in ever trying to do anything about the team kitbag. All teams have a kitbag and all kitbags are essentially the same, albeit with nuances of smell and unwieldiness. The kitbag contains the kit, either in moist and soiled form, or reeking of fabric conditioner and surprisingly clingy with nylon static. It also contains a lifetime of oddments.
The kitbag is like a mobile shed. Nothing is ever thrown away. Misshapen plastic shinpads, ancient ointments, rolls of tape, gloves, socks, pants, pens, whistles, notebooks, sprays and unguents. There is no end to the kitbagÃ¢ÂÂs riches.
Warning: The world lies within
And no one will ever dismantle the kitbag. It will always be there, agony to carry, but able to be wrestled into any car boot space. The kitbag is the spiritual centre of any team. This is where its beating, bloody heart lies, not to mention 14 separate unmatched grubby grey shoelaces and an old bottle of Diet Sprite.
Some other rules of football team gear:
1. All goalie kits are instantly out of date and horribly, pointy-collared unfashionable. This happens instantly. There is no point in buying a newer, flasher one. This is the goalieÃ¢ÂÂs lot. He is essentially a comic figure.Ã¢ÂÂ¨
2. All newcomers to the team automatically draw out the tiniest shorts, the most strangulating shirt and the socks with hole in. For this they are rightly mocked. This is also no accident. Everyone knows about the Ã¢ÂÂgoodÃ¢ÂÂ bits of kit. No one admits to knowing this.Ã¢ÂÂ¨
3. It is impossible to look good in football kit. Not even people who would otherwise look good look good. The point of amateur football kit is to emphasise the extreme variety of the human species, and to re-state the dizzying physical prowess of the professional, who looks sleek and loose and quite natural in a pair of small shorts and T-shirts. As opposed to you. Never look in the mirror. DonÃ¢ÂÂt look too closely at your team-mates (spare them this). And never invite any kind of borderline romantic interest along to watch. You will not come out of it well. Ã¢ÂÂ¨
4. Kit can still help you Ã¢ÂÂreadÃ¢ÂÂ your opposition. Beware the white-booted winger: youÃ¢ÂÂve got to be good. Watch out for ancient, greying knee bandages. They suggest immunity to pain. And above all beware teams where not a single player has turned out in apologetic fill-in Hawaiian beach shorts, grey work socks or some kind of hopeless plimsoll. These are the ones youÃ¢ÂÂve got to watch. They donÃ¢ÂÂt just have kit. They have proper kit. They cannot be trusted.
Elsewhere on The Sharp End:
Football: fighting minus the fists (mostly)
Why tactics say a lot about humanity
Why shouting and swearing is park football's birdsong
Why winning means nothing and everything
The manager Ã¢ÂÂ parent, pastor, secretary, dictator
Do you love Sunday League? Have you got the photos to prove it?
You could appear in a Puma ad on Sky Sports TV.
Go to SkySports.com/lovefootball and start uploading now.