Sometimes, inexplicably, the universe aligns perfectly and things for a fleeting moment are nascent. It could be a convenient fire alarm during a Key Stage 3 mock exam or a reduced pack of chicken in Tesco, alone, just in time for your arrival or, perhaps even more elusive, your mum could buy you something that is wonderful and not an over-priced, novelty puzzle game from the Beatties Christmas section. On some unknown day in 1998 my Mother came home with a box of size 5 R9 football boots.
They looked like a motorbike and felt like you were walking on leaves. Silver, blue and more silver all deviating up and down the leather. If released now they may look a bit tawdry but for an 8 year old who was content to wear a football shirt all day, these boots were like gold or a shiny Blastoise. Arriving in time for France '98 these boots seem to signal the beginning of football, or at least some new type of football. Players seemed to be quicker and stronger.
Perhaps it was because of TV's smoke and mirrors or because Ronaldo started his opening game up against a 33 year old Colin Hendry, nevertheless football left the tedium of Super Sunday with its two English teams bruising one another and displaying as much flair as a pub skittles tournament. For one summer football was on every day, every night; Batistuta, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Bergkamp, Zidane, Christian Vieri – the last time players ever held a level of mythology, before they are exposed as wealthy-abusive-gambling-Peter-Pan-car-crashing-super-model-dating- merchandises. How exactly did Bergkamp control that ball?
I was too young to remember Euro '96 so 4 weeks in Paris represent my first, canonical football memory. Before the World Cup Dion Dublin, Michael Owen and Chris Sutton were the joint top goalscorers in the Premiership. That same year Ronaldo was in some unknown country called Italy scoring 25 goals. Even on Fifa '98 he was mysterious, he was some guy called Calcio up front for Inter Milan. This Ronaldo personified the design of the R9 boot. It's easy to be mislead when viewing the inflated figure of recent years, but then he was
indomitable and incomparable.
Therefore, with the boot came an expectation. You could no longer take kick-off, pass it back to the centre back and hit the ball 20 yards (which is long for an 8 year old), towards the left wing for a big header. There were now things such as back-heels and rainbows. Everyone wanted to dribble a ball inside the house and imitate that Nike advert in the airport. In 1998 I would have been entering my debut year with Earls Barton Football Club. A fledgling career that would go on to last for Eight years. Eight years of hostile games in Corby, Irchester and Wellingborough. Mornings when the cold air would bite your thighs and pitches deluged with dog shit.
Football's gold standard today is supposedly Stoke away, in the rain, in the cold and preferably on a Wednesday evening. However I have the temerity to suggest that Corby Hellenic away in late-January before breakfast borders Dante proportions. We never won but that is irrelevant. I don't remember any specific scores but I remember those boots and I remember playing in a team full of pure Earls Bartonians, an idyllic time before the invasion of charlatans from the nearby towns. Very much like a more modest La Masia. Mes que un club etc.
Like most things from the '90s, there is a significant nostalgia attached to those boots. They were there before girls, before how my hair looked became a priority, before hangovers or the typical quarter-life existential crisis and before I knew what 'Moby Dick' was really about. They represent a time wherein I had choice. With my size 12 feet I no longer have the luxury of choosing boots, rather they choose me.
They are invariably those large, illuminous green Umbro boots in Sports Direct for an eternally reduced £18. Every couple of months when I play football again and pull boots on they never have the same comfort or the same attachment as those R9s. I don't know what happened to them. Inevitably, they would have suffered from my Father's periodical purge of all my items whilst away at University. I would like to think that they have stoically survived somewhere and are still shining as vividly as the moment I opened that Nike box in 1998.