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24 January 2016

The pleasures of being a dedicated follower of football fashion

What do players wear on the pitch? Trends seem to come and go.

By Hunter Davies

I was showing a friend my treasures, which I always do when it is their first time to my house. I have a set pattern, a guided tour of my twenty or so collections, trotting out the same spiel about how those four Beatles photos are originals but we had a leak and they got ruined. That this is the real artwork for Harry Beck’s 1931 Tube map. Yes, a letter or autograph of every prime minister back to Walpole. Now look at my suffragette comic postcards, divided in two – pro-suffragette and anti-suffragette . . . do concentrate.

For some reason I took my visitor Tom into the bathroom, which I don’t usually do, well there might be someone in the bath. Immediately he started studying all the football photos. They are of unknown teams, dating back to the 1900s, sitting, arms folded, usually five at the front, three in the middle, three at the back, just as they lined up on the field. I don’t know who they are, or where they are, though clearly some were in foreign fields, because you can see the palm trees. As I lie in my bath, I contemplate their fate, wondering which of these innocent young men survived the First World War.

Tom was bending down, studying their boots. “Look, this one has bars. Must be before the mid-1950s, which is when their use finally phased out. They were very common in Victorian times . . .” I peered closely and sure enough, you could see the underside of one of the boots. Instead of studs, there was a row of little bars.

I like to think I can spot and roughly date most passing fads in football kit but somehow I had missed the bars. Big belts, for example, around your middle; if you see players wearing them, it’s likely to be pre-1900. They were to hold up your long knickers and make yourself look tough, like a boxer. Shin pads arrived in 1874, invented by Sam Widdowson in Nottingham who cut down cricket pads. Until about 1900, they were worn over the socks, so always easy to spot. In the 1880s the first football studs appeared. In 1905, long knickerbockers were replaced by shorts. In 1939, the first shirt numbers appeared.

If the old photos include some of the pitch, look out for any goal nets. They didn’t come in until 1890. As for markings on the pitch, there was a period when the penalty area was not straight lines, as in a rectangle, but had two bulges sticking out, like a bra. I have spent hours studying old photos searching for them. You can see them in pictures of the 1897 Cup final. They had gone by 1901 and the present-day markings came in.

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Tom is the son of Harry Langton (1929-2000), the great collector of football art and history whose collection was acquired by Fifa and then the National Football Museum in Manchester, where it forms its core. Tom, who is an ecologist, has inherited his father’s archives and materials and is looking for ways to promote interest. He wanted to see what I had that he might not have. Not a lot, is the answer.

The thing about football kit is that it is always changing. Not just because of fashion, but new materials come in, how we play football changes, rules change, and of course manufacturers are always keen to create changes just to sell more stuff.

There is, in fact, a big change happening in boots at this very moment. All season when watching European games, I’ve noticed some players wearing what appear to be bootees – boots coming up to the ankles. Nike has been promoting these boots, in which part of the inside of the boot is knitted and pulls up over the ankle. I hope I’ve got that right.

Meanwhile, Adidas, Nike’s deadly rival, is launching what it calls laceless boots. “The laceless football boot is a defining moment for the brand, revolutionising the game and challenging what is expected of performance footwear,” so a breathless Adidas spokesman informed me. “It is an industry-leading concept, the latest in a series of groundbreaking innovations from Adidas Football which will land in 2016.”

Exciting, huh? When I was a lad, we played in laceless boots most of the winter. We called them wellies . . . 

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This article appears in the 20 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war