It is 2004. I am sat cross-legged on the floor of a nondescript Sports Direct Megastore. I am ten years old.
It was the permanent ‘All Stock Must Go’ sign in the window that brought us here. It is not a declaration that the company is teetering on the edge of administration like the Bolton Wanderers of 2019; the sign is a callous statement regarding the ultimate aim of competitive retail – the more you buy, the more we make! Today there will be at least one item that does not sell.
Climb the stairwell past the Lonsdale tracksuits and Champion sweatshirts, walk past the boxes of Donnay socks and that strange bin containing freakishly large tennis balls, and you will eventually find yourself at the foot of “The Wall”. With more universal recognition than the great German walls of Borussia Dortmund and the one that once divided Berlin, “The Sports Direct Wall of Football Boots” is a holy place frequented by footballing pilgrims at least once a season. From the smallest child to the largest adult, “The Wall” seems to stretch further than conceivably possible. Nike, Adidas, and Puma perched for as far as the human eye can see. Members of staff glide across its heights using the multi-coloured splotches as if they are stepping-stones on the climbing apparatus inside of your local leisure centre. Sat at the very bottom, among the Sondicos, is where you will find me.
Cheeks still wet from tears; I have just been told that I am unlikely to become a professional footballer.
The conversation with my father had started off like all others when shopping for this season’s new pair of boots – which ones do you like? Are you going for Nike or Adidas this year? Don’t be stupid, Dad. Do you think Steven Gerrard’s parents ask such silly questions? I had one thing in mind: the latest Adidas Predators.
When you are a professional, you can pay professional prices.
Since 2002, I had been caught up in the Mania of the Predator football boot. Two seasons in and I felt invested. Never before had I owned a boot so stylish, so popular, so Zinedine Zidane as the Predator Mania. My love for the red, white and black was certainly not about to change. I first saw the Predator Pulse in a copy of Match Magazine, then later on the feet of the most talented David Beckham look-alike in our class. When he scored his usual six goals for our school team that week, I decided that my feet had grown a size bigger. ‘Dad, we need to go to Sports Direct’.
At the age of ten, I hadn’t quite come to realise the influence that modern capitalism had on the beautiful game, even though it was plainly set out in front of me. The less fashionable and defensive-minded players picked from the lower shelves – the clunky, cheaper-looking stuff. After a considerable economic jump, those moving into midfield could start to browse the middle shelves. But it was the strikers, the goal scorers, the glory hunters who could purchase the cream of the crop. With their underbellies showing sets upon sets of gleaming metal-bladed teeth, the real boots were at a height set off-limits to grubby-handed children. My teachers always told me to be ambitious and aim high. These boots, however, were only to be lapped up by the lolling elasticated tongues of the aristocratic footballing elite.
I am haggling with my father, trying to gain yards up “The Wall” like an American Football play. I have to have those metal blades, for how else can I possibly run on the school marshlands? Without an elasticated tongue, my laces could come undone in a pivotal cup final moment (should we ever reach one) – and my last attempt, my power-play, my Hail Mary pass: ‘but Dad, everybody has them’!
My father has always been an exceedingly generous man, but he is also unflinchingly stubborn. He responds with a mantra that I will never forget: ‘Son, when you are a professional, you can pay professional prices’. And that was that.
I remember leaving the store that day with a pair unwanted Umbros claiming that I will never score a goal ever again, resigning to the fact that I will be a lumpy centre-back for the rest of time.
Fourteen years later, I found myself sat at a computer with a credit card in my hand, looming over an eBay item titled ‘RARE Predator Pulse 2004, UK 10.5’. With the seconds slowly counting down, I remember feeling weak with anticipation – my feet quaking in my prospective boots.
‘Congratulations!‘ – what a victory. It felt like more than three points, more than Champions League qualification; I had just won a trophy. The advertisement said they were to arrive in five working days via Royal Mail first class. You may be thinking ‘first class’, too right! But it seems more pertinent to add that my father is my local postman.
The day he handed them over will forever be etched in my memory – like signing for your dream club.
I recall shaking as I nervously opened the box. I shouted for my sister because someone else needed to bear witness. They were perfect. They were exactly as I remembered, albeit six sizes larger and much heavier (not like the armoured socks that we use in the modern game). Important questions rushed through my mind: Will they fit? Will the laces reach underneath? What if the blades wear out and I can’t find replacements? What if they get muddy? Are you allowed these on 3G? Should I even wear them? Like I said though, they were perfect.
It is true; I will never be a professional footballer. Yet, every Sunday morning for the rest of my adult life, I sure will feel like one.