The boot that bites

the material world
There used to be a cartoon strip in a Seventies football comic called "Billy's Boots". In it a schoolboy footballer of no natural skill found in a bin a pair of elderly boots which once belonged to "Dead Shot" Kean, a long-retired striker of legendary scoring prowess. Billy slipped the boots on and discovered that in them he could play just like Dead Shot, scoring, each week, the kind of blistering winner most of us are only ever acquainted with between the hours of midnight and 5am.

Faustian deal

Those of us of limited footballing skill have often dreamed of chancing upon some item of kit that will transform us from leaden-footed hoofers into fleet-heeled sorcerers, capable of banana-ing benders from 40 yards into the roof of the net. Which is the lure of the Adidas Predator Boot: hand over pounds 119.99, runs the Faustian deal, and you too will own the boots that make Robbie Fowler the Dead Shot Kean of his generation. The advert is unequivocal: "If you can't score in these," runs the copy line, "you can't score in anything."

For once, nobody could accuse an advertisement of inaccuracy: after a test run in a match of unfeasibly low skill and achievement I can report I didn't score - but then, it is highly unlikely I could score in anything.

Not so Neil Ruddock, the Liverpool and England footballer, who recently netted twice against Leeds while thus attired. "I get most goals with my head, so they haven't improved my scoring rate," he says. "But seriously, I love them. I get about 40 per cent more distance and power on my long-range passing, so they've made a big difference to my all-round play."

Well, Ruddock may say that, since his bank balance is upholstered to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds a year to wear the boots. And other top players, Ryan Giggs (Reebok) and Eric Cantona (Nike) for instance, manage to produce moments of magic without them.

None the less there is, Adidas claim, science at work here.The secret of the Predator is in the fin-like rubber uppers, which make the wearer look as if he has strapped a pair of armadillos to his feet. "It's just like the bobbles on a table tennis bat," says Ruddock. "It causes more friction; the ball stays on the foot fractionally longer, so you can do more with it."

Batty idea

And indeed, in the early days of development the Predator was coated in table tennis bat rubber. The idea of this fusion of sporting disciplines came to Craig Johnston, the former Liverpool player, while coaching school children in Australia in 1991. He noticed that the slippery surface of the ball, and the sleek leather upper of the football boot, meant they were not in contact for long. He superglued some old table tennis bat rubber to his boots, and found an immediate difference in his ability to apply spin to the ball. Johnston took his discovery to Adidas, who set their designers to improve the concept: hence the armadillos. Paul Ince, who has donated a pair to the Manchester United Museum, was one of the first to test-drive them; after permission was obtained from UEFA, they were unveiled at the 1994 World Cup. Paul Gascoigne approached Adidas about swapping from his previous boot sponsors, and Rob Andrew kicked that last-minute drop goal in the Rugby World Cup against Australia while wearing a pair.

"They take a bit of getting used to," says Ruddock, "At first, I knocked the ball all over the place. I overhit it and it skewed off my foot, which gave the rest of the lads a good laugh. But after a fortnight, I cracked it. I suppose it's a bit like a new set of golf clubs."

Sadly, as with a new set of clubs, the manufacturers concede the boots will only improve something which is already there. For most of us, the best chance of footballing prowess remains finding Dead Shot Kean's magic boots in a dustbin