During the 1930s Chilton Colliery met Stockton in a Northern League match. Despite protests that it was too cold for football, the referee ordered play to go ahead. In the 83rd minute the official was finally forced to concede defeat to the freezing temperatures and abandon the match. His decision came too late for the one of the players who had earlier collapsed with exposure.
Two decades later a game between Bishop Auckland and Shildon went ahead despite the fact that there was so much snow on the pitch that Bishop’s keeper Harry Sharratt (seen above in action at St James Park against Crook in the 1954 Amateur Cup Final first replay) was able to amuse himself during the first half by building a snowman on his goal line.
It was surely nostalgia for such displays of good, old fashioned senseless British pluck that provoked Alan Curbishley’s December 2000 outburst about players clothing. “When you wear woolly hats, gloves and all sorts you cannot play properly,” the Charlton boss thundered. And quite right too.
Older readers will recall a time when even goalkeepers didn’t dare wear gloves. Thirty years ago any child who tried to slip a pair on when taking up a position between the sticks would find the PE teacher sneering, “Oh dear does the nasty ball sting diddums lickle fingers?” The games master would then go on sarcastically to posit a future in which a generation of namby pamby stars would refuse to head the ball unless they were wearing a crash helmet, insist that the floodlights be fitted with heat bulbs and strap hot water bottles to their torsos on frosty afternoons (To judge by his body shape an approach already adopted by Phil Stamp).
The man who changed such attitudes to hand protection was seventies German goalie Sepp Maier. As an argument for legislation against the slow encroachment of gloves onto the field of play Curbishley could not do better than to cite the example of Maier. The Bayern Munich custodian started off with perfectly normal mitts but gradually expanded them until by the end of his career they looked like a pair of enormous flat-fish. Indeed naturalists believe that the noise of Maier clapping his hands to encourage his team mates is the nearest we will ever come to hearing the sound of manta rays mating.
Maier’s vast gloves were re-enforced with wire. In thousands of years time archaeologists will discover their skeletal, metal remains and conclude that during the latter part of the 20th Century a species of huge handed Homo Sapiens roamed Northern Europe until they all starved to death one Bank Holiday weekend because their mighty salami-like fingers were incapable of successfully punching their pin numbers into ATMs.
As if gloves were not bad enough, some overseas players are flagrantly wearing vests under their shirts. For managers of the old school, raised in the harsh environment of, well, the old school such developments must set alarm bells ringing. They know where it will lead. One minute it’s keeping his vest on during games, the next it’s a note from mother excusing him from showers because he’s going through “that shy awkward phase”.
At least vests are worn to keep warm, though. That cannot be the main purpose of gloves. If it were why would so many players wear them in combination with sleeveless shirts? When you are cold you cover up. And tuck your shirt in.
No, footballers’ gloves are a role-play thing. The mix of bare arms and black leather makes the even the most soft-hearted winger feel like they are in a cyberpunk movie or a motorcycle gang. They think they look cool and tough. Keep an eye out and you may even see the odd bustling midfielder throttling up an imaginery Harley with his right hand before accelerating off into the opposition half.
Gloves are just fashion masquerading as utility. They are a fad like cycling shorts. Half-a-dozen years ago there was not a striker in the land who did not don a pair of these form-hugging garments. They were so ubiquitous the FA even had to legislate on their colour. The lycra trunks were supposed to guard against hamstring strains, though the main effect may well have been psychological. They suggested dynamic bursts of speed even where none existed, the football equivalent of the go-faster stripe. And where are they now? Mouldering in the back of the changing room lockers with the peroxide bottles and those strips of elastoplast players used to stick across their hooters to increase oxygen intake. My guess is that if Curbishley bides his time the gloves will join them there before too long.