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The secret world of football boots / The Athletic

Here is one of the best articles of 2023 from the popular magazine The Athletic for you to read.

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Anti-clogs. Blackouts. Mixed soleplates. Customised conversions.

To the uninitiated, that will sound like gobbledygook.

To the modern-day professional footballer, it’s the language of the dressing room and the tools of their trade.

We are talking about football boots, in case you were wondering, and Jon Tootle’s garage — now converted into a workshop — is full of them.

A garish pink pair on the workbench — Nike Air Zoom Mercurial Vapor, for those of you who know your ‘cleats’ — belong to one of last season’s leading Premier League goalscorers. They are about to be dyed and given the “blackout” treatment, something players do either for aesthetic reasons or, occasionally, to hide the brand.

Next to them are a pair of Adidas Crazylight – a firm ground boot (moulded studs) that will be converted into a hybrid boot (a mix of studs and moulds – as shown in the right-hand picture) before being returned to their owner at Watford.

Adama Traore sent his boots to Tootle, who is based in Widnes just outside Liverpool, in an Uber so they could get the same treatment. Wilfried Zaha, Joe Willock, Georginio Wijnaldum and Richarlison are also Tootle customers.

Football boots — for both sexes, although this piece is focusing more on men’s boots — have certainly come a long way since the days when it was an off-the-shelf pair of black and white moulds for hard pitches and studs for soft ground.

They weigh next to nothing now, feature a mix of studs and moulds rather than one or the other, and have advanced technologically beyond all recognition. One Nike ‘anti-clog’ range even prevents mud from sticking to the soleplate.

“I never wore anti-clogs and then Pablo Hernandez gave me a pair and I wore them quite a bit at Leeds,” Adam Forshaw, who has just signed for Norwich, tells The Athletic. “Elland Road used to tear up a bit. The anti-clogs are slightly heavier, but the mud doesn’t stick to them.”

And that’s not all. There are boot steamers (to soften them up), boot ovens (yes, you guessed it, to warm them up) and boot stretchers, all designed to try to give a player the perfect fit.

Some are easy customers; Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold wears his Under Armour pairs straight out of the box. Others want the tongue shortened, heel trimmed, studs rearranged, a particular leather used… the list goes on and on.

Declan Rice, for example, has more than 25 modifications to his Adidas boots. Another Premier League player is having a bespoke soleplate manufactured at a cost of £10,000.

As for Toni Kroos, his unwavering loyalty to his Adidas Adipure 11pro boots is a story in itself. The two of them have been together for a decade now, going back to when the Adipure 11pro was first released in 2013. The boot was discontinued a year later, but Kroos has refused to move with the times and Adidas have kept providing him with a pair from yesteryear.

“It’s crazy how he’s done that,” says Ben Warren, who specialises in providing boots to professional footballers. “I’m pretty sure one of the reasons is because he’s German, with Adidas being a German company. But he’s the only player who’s ever been able to do it. Brands are so strict on wearing the latest model.”

Adidas remain tight-lipped on its relationship with Kroos, which has intrigued football boot geeks for years because of how it breaks with convention. All they say, when asked by The Athletic, is that they are “proud” of their relationship with the player.

The point Warren made about brands being strict on players wearing their latest models is one of the reasons players are being put off boot sponsorship deals, especially now the lucrative contracts that were readily available in the past are in short supply (the Covid-19 pandemic helped put an end to that).

According to one leading agent — speaking on the condition of anonymity due to discussing confidential business dealings — boot sponsorship is viewed as more hassle than it’s worth for some Premier League players, who get fed up with dealing with a brand rep asking why they haven’t worn the new colourway that was sent to them during the week.

“They think, ‘For £60,000 ($75,000) a year, I’ll give it up and wear whatever I want’,” explains the agent.

Jack Grealish, with his multi-million pound Puma deal, and Harry Kane, who has just signed up with Skechers, are exceptions to the rule: both England internationals earn a fortune from those contracts.

For many others playing in the Premier League, or even in the Champions League in some cases, the product-only deals from the top brands – free boots and a clothing allowance – will be as good as it gets. Indeed, the majority are hoping for a free “boot drop” a couple of times a season or, increasingly, sourcing a pair themselves.

“I’ve changed from being a classic boot seller, which I still do, to the other part of the business, which is fixing the latest boots for all these top stars because brands aren’t doing it,” Warren adds.

“Puma have gone the other way and are signing up a lot of players, so you’ll see a lot more Puma boots on the pitch now. But it’s probably mind-blowing for a lot of people that players are having to buy boots themselves.”

By the sound of things, it is the player’s agent who often picks up that bill.

Andres Iniesta started it more than a decade ago.

Tootle saw a photo of the former Spain and Barcelona midfielder wearing a Nike CTR boot that “had a stud where it doesn’t exist”.

Tootle, who had been specialising in providing a boot “blackout” service up until then, was fascinated. “You could tell the stud had been put in after manufacturing. I was like: ‘How has he done that? Why? That’s giving him extra grip. That’s really cool.’

“I went on to YouTube and it turns out that kitmen have been doing this for players for years. The (Adidas) Copa Mundial has been converted for decades. I could teach you to convert Copa Mundials and an hour later you could do a pretty decent job.

“This, however, is a different story,” adds Tootle, picking up the pink Nike Air Zoom Mercurial Vapor boots on his workbench. “Some of these moulds, if you cut them too far, they’re hollow inside. And if you cut to the point where it’s hollow, you’ve lost your base for the stud to sit on and there’s no going back. You’ve wrecked the boots.”

It’s an expensive mistake to make when the boots the professionals wear cost upwards of £200.

Aside from wondering what the brands think of any of this – Adidas told The Athletic they “recommend that any modifications affecting performance are always done by the manufacturer” – the obvious question to ask is: why do so many players want the soleplate converted?

After all, there are manufactured soft ground (mixed sole) boots on the market and the players who are contracted to brands receive those directly.

“Some players just prefer the feel of the firm ground soleplate, which is lighter and more flexible,” says Tootle, who reconfigured Kyle Walker’s Puma boots a few years ago for that reason.

“For others, it’s because the firm-ground boot just doesn’t exist in studs. For some, it’s because they only want four studs or two studs in the sole and obviously that doesn’t exist. So I’ll do a custom soleplate for them.

“Zaha, for example, loved the Nike GreenSpeed 360 — an environmentally friendly boot. It was black at the back and green at the front. They didn’t release it in studs and he wanted to wear it in the Premier League. So I had to stud it for him.

“But then you’ve got players like (Swansea’s) Jamal Lowe and he loves the (bespoke) conversions. I did a four-stud conversion for him last year on two pairs.”

How a player can know where he does or doesn’t want a metal stud positioned on the soleplate is interesting. Tootle explains that Aiden McGeady, the former Republic of Ireland international, “wanted the metal studs away from the edges of the boot because he had his foot on top of the ball a lot”.

He grabs a pair of worn Adidas boots (shown below) from a shelf. “I did these for Edouard Mendy,” Tootle adds. “Mendy wore them for 30 games and then the Chelsea kitman, Ricky Dowling, got him to sign them and send them back.

“The Chelsea manager at the time had been complaining because Mendy was taking goal kicks and slipping over. He’s got size 12.5 boots and, apparently, the gap between studs on his SG (soft ground) Adidas boots was too big and causing him to slip.”

Tootle charges £44.99 for a sole conversion, which isn’t going to leave a hole in the pocket of a Premier League player. It might, however, keep them on their feet.

“These are the studs I use for the professionals,” he says, delving into a tray and holding up a stud that is more narrow than the traditional ones.

“I have 11mm and 13mm — 11mm for the front and 13mm for the back. These ones here are 15mm but the players generally don’t like them that long. There’s that story of Wayne Rooney telling the Manchester United kitman before the Chelsea game to put all of them (15mm studs) in his boots and then he injured John Terry badly.”

Terry’s own relationship with football boots is worth revisiting, bearing in mind he wore three new pairs for every game — one for the warm-up, one for the first half, and another for the second — “and never wore them again”.

According to Terry, his boots were “a little bit bigger and a little bit stretchy” after wearing them once and “you lose that little bit of touch and feel”.

Although players generally want their boots to be tight — Dominik Szoboszlai, the Liverpool midfielder, wore boots that were too small for him as a youngster, which is not uncommon — many professionals are reluctant to change them regularly due to a mixture of superstition and comfort.

Tootle shows a photo of a pair of battered boots that belong to a leading Premier League player. One of the studs has collapsed completely, while the others are so worn down that it’s hard to imagine they serve much purpose.

“Look at them!” Tootle says, smiling and shaking his head. “That’s what he was wearing them like in the Premier League.”

Sam Perrin lifts a pair of black Nike boots off peg No 18 at the Wolves training ground. They belong to Sasa Kalajdzic, the Austrian striker who scored the winner against Everton the Saturday before last and followed it up with another goal in the Carabao Cup against Blackpool.

“Have a feel of them,” the Wolves kitman says, handing over a pair of Nike Phantom boots that look… well, totally out of place in the boot room and not just because of their colour.

“So this lad, Sasa, has been injured and struggling with his boots big time,” Perrin adds. “He got these in a Nike outlet shop in the Algarve — they cost €35.”

He laughs. “Because he’s got thin, long feet, he had too much give here,” Perrin says, pinching the material to show how it was loose on the top of the foot when he tightened the laces.

“Nike said don’t worry… so these are made to fit his feet,” he says, taking another pair off the peg. “But in Portugal in pre-season, he was struggling, so he said, ‘I need to go and buy some boots’. He came back with these and a pair of Adidas Kaisers. And I was like, ‘Well, you can’t wear Adidas because you’re Nike. You might be able to get away (with it) by telling them, ‘It’s the only boot I can wear at the moment until you make me a boot’.

“Anyway, he tried these and said they’re absolutely brilliant, wore them all through the rest of the pre-season, including a game in Dublin.”

Sadly, Kalajdzic was not wearing the cheapest boots in the Premier League when he scored those two goals in the space of four days last month: the Nike Phantoms are now only being held onto for sentimental reasons.

Perrin is in his element talking about boots and could give chapter and verse on every Wolves player’s personal preferences.

Years ago, it was the apprentices who were responsible for the boot room — cleaning and polishing the boots as well as packing them into a skip for matches — but the kitman is in total control now. Perrin and his assistant can clean all the boots in 20 minutes, while polishing is no longer needed.

The players have a minimum of five pairs of boots on their peg.

“I like to take three pairs for everybody (to matches),” Perrin explains. “I’ll always take one mould, one stud. But if that player prefers one or the other, I’ll take a second version of that.

“The majority of them now wear studs (a soleplate that has screw-in studs alongside moulded studs) in matches. Daniel Podence (now on loan at Olympiacos) wears a mould until it gets a bit wet and boggy and then he’ll go to studs. The only other person who used to do that was Ruben (Neves) — he used to wear moulds all year round apart from when we played at Anfield. He said he felt like he slipped all the time there, so he’d only ever wear studs.”

There is only one pair of anti-clogs in the boot room at Wolves (Max Kilman). A common complaint from players is that the anti-clogs are too heavy. Indeed, Nike tend to supply their contracted professional players with a totally different soleplate to the anti-clog technology, which appears to be used more in the Championship and below.

“With Premier League clubs, it’s not so much mud (on the sole of the boot): it’s grass,” Perrin adds, showing a photo on his phone (see below) after a game at Tottenham Hotspur. “When the grass is combined with the desso (the hybrid pitches that are partly made up of artificial fibres), it rips up more. It’s normally just grass that’s clumped together (on the soleplate), but it still clogs, which is what the anti-clog doesn’t do.”

Perrin picks up a couple of pairs of firm-ground boots in which the soles have been converted.

“These belong to Mario Lemina,” he says. “Mario doesn’t wear an inner sole — he just doesn’t like to. We had to coat it with silicone so he couldn’t feel the metal (from the stud inserts).”

Lemina has since had custom-fitted boots provided after Adidas visited the club to measure his feet — something which, according to Perrin, happens a lot less now than it used to.

The alternative is the boot stretcher. Pedro Neto’s Nike Mercurial Vapor boots were on Wolves’ stretcher when we visited, being widened.

“You can stretch the length or width,” Perrin explains. “We’ll leave these for a week and then there’ll be a bit of give in them. I couldn’t twist that (handle) when I last put them on, which was about two days ago, but I can now because they’ve loosened up a bit more. They’ll be ready to come off in the next day or two and then they’ll fit perfectly.”

Perrin has two more pieces of equipment to show us. He pushes open the boot room door and points to a small machine in the corridor. “Everyone winds me up and says you can put sausage rolls in it!” Perrin says, laughing. “It’s a boot oven.”

A boot steamer sits next to the oven and both are popular with players. The steamer can be useful for helping to break in new boots, while the oven makes them feel like a pair of slippers that have been left next to the fire for 20 minutes.

“Whenever it was freezing cold, which is a lot of the time here, Joao Moutinho would use it,” Perrin says. “He said it wasn’t as good as the steamer — the steamer is wet, so it really does soften the boots. But then the minute you went outside, your feet were freezing cold. So he used the oven, which does the same job in softening them, but they stay dry and warm.”

“The Adidas PRIMEKNIT collar straps you in as a flexible Aeroplate inlay in the Speedframe outsole propels you to G.O.A.T.-level agility on firm ground.”

Establishing the extent to which a football boot improves your performance is difficult, but it’s fair to say that Messi’s £220 signature boot — the X Crazyfast Messi.1 — would be doing a lot of lifting to get most of us gliding across the pitch in the way the Adidas website describes.

Messi, as with Mohamed Salah and Son Heung-min, has the final sign-off on the signature version of his Adidas boots and, according to a spokesman for the brand, player feedback plays a big part in the design process.

The subject of boot design has become a big issue in the women’s game, partly because of the prevalence of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries. A survey conducted prior to the World Cup revealed that as many as 82 per cent of female footballers in Europe experienced discomfort wearing football boots. In March, Puma launched their first women’s-specific boot, but there is a clear sense that the big brands need to do much more.

How interested players of any gender are in the materials used to make football boots is hard to know. Comfort is clearly an important element and kangaroo leather, with its softness as well as durability, has been popular for that reason — but increasingly controversial, too.

This year, both Nike and Puma vowed to stop using kangaroo leather. Adidas told The Athletic that the amount of kangaroo leather in their product material mix was “significantly below one per cent”.

The reality is that synthetic boots have taken over. They are light, retain less moisture when wet, allow boot designers to be more creative with technology and are a lot easier to clean and look after than leather.

Despite all of that, the boots from days gone by are still in big demand from players at all levels, including some top professionals, who enjoy wearing them in training.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was pictured sporting a pair of 2010 Nike T90 Laser III boots a couple of years ago, while Ben White trained at Arsenal last season in the white and pink Adidas F50 Adizero 2011 model. When at Chelsea, Antonio Rudiger rolled back the years to 2009 with a pair of customised Nike Tiempo Legend III boots.

“There are people that supply all the boots that people like me used to wear 15 years ago,” Forshaw says. “You’re really nostalgic about it. Then you buy a pair for £250, get them out and they weigh a tonne!’ You’re like: ‘How did I ever wear them?’”

Forshaw, 31, tells a story about one of his early training sessions with the first team at Everton and how he received a rollicking off an experienced international because of his boots.

“It was pouring down and he said, ‘What are you doing with studs on? Midfielders don’t wear studs. Only defenders wear studs. You’re a ball player’. I’ve never forgotten that. So I didn’t wear studs at all until the last few years when I’ve played quite a defensive-midfield position and I’ve thought I just can’t afford to slip.”

Martin Kelly, the former Liverpool and Crystal Palace defender who is now at West Bromwich Albion, smiles. “When I was at Palace, the majority of players would wear moulds, but I was one of the old-school players. My game was basically tackling, so I would never not wear studs. I would always stamp on Wilf’s (Zaha) feet by accident – the amount of times he’d moan at me. He’d be like, ‘Why don’t you wear moulds?’ But there’s just no way.”

The mention of Zaha brings to mind a tale that Warren, the boot supplier, told about last-minute deliveries to stadiums. Zaha needed boots at short notice on the opening day of the Premier League in 2020, so Warren sent a pair of Nike Mercurial Vapor Mbappe Rosa (even the names are complicated now) straight to Selhurst Park. They arrived at 11am, Zaha wore them and scored against Southampton within 13 minutes.

Indeed, there is no feeling quite like taking a new pair of boots out of the box and sinking your feet into them for the first time.

That said, whether those boots are anti-clogs, mixed soleplates, customised conversions, cost a fortune or as little as the pair that Kalajdzic picked up in an Algarve sports shop, it’s hard to ignore the old adage: it’s the feet that go in them that matters most of all.

(Top photo: Jon Tootle; design: Eamonn Dalton)

Stuart James

A former professional footballer with Swindon Town, Stuart James went onto spend 15 years working for The Guardian, where he reported on far too many relegation battles to mention, one miraculous Premier League title triumph and a couple of World Cups. He joined The Athletic as a Senior Writer in 2019. Follow Stuart on Twitter @stujames75

The secret world of football boots – The Athletic

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