Reality bites as my boots are now only for walking

RECENTLY your columnist played a soccer game with his colleagues, an inconsequential matter among good friends which was more about opening the lungs than the result (won by the ‘oldies’ 4-2, though: in your face, youthful exuberance!).

My usually keen parsing skills let me down slightly in the run-up to the event. I didn’t realise until the day before kick-off that the email announcing the details of the event stated the game wouldn’t take place in a gym or on a five-a-side pitch, but on an actual grass-and-mud-based field.

This was a problem, because I don’t own a pair of football boots. I haven’t owned a pair for several years.

There are many cliched indicators of middle age, from buying some class of sports car or motorbike to installing Grecian 2000 in the bathroom medicine cabinet, but this particular sucker punch caught me unawares and left me winded.

No football boots!

From the age of nine onwards, I always had football boots, no matter where I was, from Dublin to California. I packed football boots when I emigrated to America and maintained a pair through semi-annual outings during a long exile in the capital.

Even in recent years, when reduced to once-a-decade invitational astroturf airings, I had footwear that was exclusively, specifically and totally dedicated to play and nothing else.

And now? Nothing. Obviously I had thrown them out and not remarked upon their passing.

My first football boots were a pair of Blackthorns, with a design so resolutely unfashionable that it has surely come into vogue as an ironic collectible among those who collect ironically.

However, if you are expecting a detailed chronological list of ‘Boots I Wore’ then you’ll be disappointed.

The only pair I can specifically recall wearing were — I think — Mitre boots which split along the sides at a fairly inconvenient point in a junior football game.

And the only reason — apart from their demise — for remembering those is that they were a break from adidas boots, which is all I and anyone I knew wore, or were interested in wearing.

What I’m more interested in is not just the fact that I don’t have boots any more, but that I didn’t realise I was buying my last pair when I did, because as a marker of the time when you must leave your boyhood finally behind, surely nothing surpasses buying your last pair of football boots.

If I had known that day, maybe a decade ago, that the boots I was buying would be my last, I would have invested something in the moment. Or had a wistful look on my pus, or something. It just seems a terrible opportunity missed: the realisation that the cardboard box I had in my hands would see out whatever little playing career I had.

I’ve written here before about Roger Angell, the superb baseball writer who works for the New Yorker, and his famous piece in which he told his therapist (he’s a New Yorker, after all) about the recurring dream in which he tiptoed downstairs and out into the garden to read his own, then-current dates — 1920-55 — on a headstone.

When Angell said the headstone reminded him of baseball memorial plaques, he “stopped and cried, ‘Oh... Oh,” because it had suddenly become clear. My dreams of becoming a Major League ballplayer had died at last.”

Maybe I’ll start dreaming like that now, imagining myself slipping out into the garden to look down on a row of little headstones with “Blackthorn Specials, 1977-9” or “Adidas Copa Mundials 1984-5 (KIA Tank Field, Dillon’s Cross)”.

Back in reality, I debated with myself about wearing a pair of runners for last Saturday week’s game, but in the end had a flash of inspiration and borrowed a pair of boots from my brother.

It was well worth the experience, putting on the two little time machines. Togging off next to the car also helped recreate the atmosphere of U14 games from three decades ago, and it was great to hear the unmistakable clack of studs on tarmac as we crossed the road.

It’s unlikely the footwear improved my performance significantly — they weren’t Billy’s Boots, and if you don’t get the reference I suggest you log onto ebay immediately — but after the match they helped to create the best memory of the day.

I’d forgotten the simple pleasure you get from hitting the soles of your boots off each other to loosen the turf lodged in the studs; no wonder, when it must be over 10 years since I had to do it last, and over 30 years since I had to do it first.

But for a few minutes last Saturday it was just like being 13 all over again. I may buy a new pair of boots just to have that experience again whenever I want.

* Twitter: MikeMoynihanEx

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