Football fiction: Old Leather

Art by Shivani Khot

I’m holding these old boots in my hands. Nike Tiempos. Leather. White with lime green highlights. Top-of-the-range boots that cost a small fortune back in the day. Battered now, though. They’re starting to flap open at the toe and the inner lining is coming out. Years of grime ingrained into the stitching. I press at the boot with my thumb; the leather is hard and stiff. Not how you want it at all. You want it buttery soft.

You also want your boots to fit perfect. Even a millimetre too big and it would throw your touch right off. So the trick was to buy them half a size too small, even a whole size sometimes, depending on the boot. You wore them in a hot bath for 10 minutes or so and then all you had to do was walk around the house in them for a bit. The whole boot would soften with the heat and then almost remould itself to your foot. It was like they’d been made specially for you, just like the real pros.

Now, the season I wore these, that was class. Voted Players’ Player and won the Managers’ Player award. Scored 16 goals from midfield, played nearly every game. Best season of my life.

I remember this one goal. We were playing top of the league and it was 1-1 in about the…oh I don’t know. Late on, anyway. We broke from a corner and I swear I’ve never felt so quick. I was knackered, too. We’d been chasing the ball all game. But you forget that, don’t you, when you can smell a goal.

This fella Darren–class he was, always thought he should’ve played at a higher level–put me through on goal and I knew I was going to score; I was grinning like an idiot, half celebrating in my head, before I even took the shot. I opened my body pretending like I was gonna curl one to the far side, but at the last second wrapped my foot round the ball and stuck it away at the near post.

There’s nothing in the world like bagging a goal and no one can tell me otherwise. Look, I’m married, I’ve had kids and all the rest of it. But the feeling you get when you stick an important one away like that: you’re flying, absolutely flying. And all the lads pile into you and you’re just lost in it and all this nervous energy comes out and you’re screaming, clenching your fist and beating your chest. 

Nah, nothing like it. I promise you.

Anyway, that summer a big club came asking for me. I mean, I say big. But I just mean relatively, you know? They were getting a few hundred fans at each game at the time and they wanted to give me a hundred quid a week, plus more for every game I played and even more on top of that for every goal I scored. It was nearly my mortgage. Anyone would’ve said yes to that.

I suppose it’s easy to say now, but truthfully, deep in my gut I don’t think I wanted it. I just wanted to play footy with the boys I’d been playing with since I was fifteen. I’d even grown up with a few of them. I knew all the old codgers who came to watch us every Saturday. And they knew me. They bought me drinks in the local after the games and, when I bumped into them around town, they’d stop to ask me what I thought of the new coach, or the last match, or whatever.  

Anyway, money talks, don’t it.

I bought new boots that summer which is where I went wrong, I reckon. You see, I know people don’t believe this, but boots can proper change the type of player you are. Well, maybe not really. But if you’re a big lump of a centre half you shouldn’t ever be wearing Mercurial Vapors, should you? And if you’re a little tricky winger I don’t think you should be wearing Puma Kings. You know what I mean?

Anyway, that summer I got a bit ahead of myself and got a pair of Mercurials. You know the ones with the sock thing that covers the ankle. I mean, the whole boot is basically just a sock. Doesn’t weigh a thing. You can barely feel it’s there at all. Proper good lock down, too, so your foot doesn’t move inside the boot. Fit me beautifully, to be fair. Snug as a bug. Nice long studs to get better traction in the sprints, too.

The problem was, I wasn’t a Mercurial type player. The Tiempo was more my speed. I was neat: short, sharp passes, a cushioned touch, tidy. I shouldn’t have been wearing Mercurials. It just wasn’t a good match.

I started the first game at right back. I was happy to have been given a start, I guess, but I’d never played there in my life and I was having a bit of a nightmare. I missed a tackle in the first few minutes, which the other lot scored from, and I’d given away a couple of stupid free kicks.

Anyway, about 20 minutes in, I went for a 50-50 with their captain. He was one of those horrible ‘get into them’ type players. Ugly troll-looking fucker. Was probably wearing Mundials or Umbros or something like that. 

We got to the ball at exactly the same time except he was sliding in. My right foot planted and he came over the top of the ball, landing just above my ankle. Those stupid long studs meant there wasn’t any give, and my ankle just collapsed under the weight.

I knew straight away it was bad. Your body knows. I remember screaming into the mud. I remember the wet grass on my forehead. Like pushing myself into the ground would somehow fix it. It seemed an age before the physio came on. By that time I’d already spewed my guts up. I lay there sweating and shivering and the useless prick didn’t have a clue. Tried to make me get up and walk on it.

Anyway, long story short, it turned out I’ve torn a bunch of tendons. It took me six months to even jog again, let alone kick a ball. Didn’t play another game that year. Still got the hundred quid a week, which is something I guess. But I just wanted to play footy.

I sit on the bed and pull the Tiempo on. The leather is old and hard. Not how you want it at all. My ankle never really recovered from that tackle. I still can’t fully flex it and it makes funny clicking sounds when I try to do circles. On cold mornings, when I get out of bed too quick, it stiffens right up and I can barely move it at all. Happened this morning come to think of it. I hobbled on over to the shower and stood under the steaming water for a few minutes. The heat loosens it up, you see.

Harry Becker-Hicks

Fan of Arsenal, Wenger-ball and Dennis Bergkamp. Good at watching football, bad at playing it.