THEY'VE been adopted by women, lauded by pop stars and even ordered in bulk by the Pope. It's years since Doctor Martens were thought of as footwear fit only for a bovver boy, but now all the old connotations of violence and football fan aggression could well be revived.

Dr Martens is selling a version of its classic eight-hole boot customised with flags to trade on the patriotism created by the World Cup. Come June and the start of the tournament, will we see row upon row of xenophobic feet stomping out a patriotic chant? Might there not be a moment when they stop stomping and start stamping on the heads of the rival fans?

Gary Nelson of the Professional Footballers' Association thinks if that happens in France this summer, it won't be the fault of the boots. "If it [violence] is going to happen it will happen, it's nothing to do with what boots a person is wearing," he says. "It's the person inside the boots."

This is not the first time that Doctor Martens has marketed patriotic boots. It says it is merely responding to a demand for boots which feature flags. "We have sold customised Union Jack boots for a long time, at least three or four years, and are enjoying success with boots featuring the European Union and US flags too," said a company representative. Denmark and Norway (among the first to qualify for the World Cup) have already bought and sold thousands of beflagged boots, and Jamaica, which has just qualified, should be next.

The flag might be the thing which convinces a fan to buy, but any Doc devotee will tell you that no boot could be better for all those hours hanging around a football stadium. First favoured by builders for their comfortable heat-sealed air cushioned soles, Dr Martens became a fashion phenomenon in the Seventies when skinheads appropriated the 1460 ankle boot (still the biggest seller) as uniform. Today, the factories, based in the Midlands, make 220,000 pairs of shoes and boots a day, meeting demand for a market that was worth pounds 57m in 1991, and a whopping pounds 250m in 1997.

The company is closely involved with fashion sponsorship: the St Martin's MA graduation which rounds off London Fashion Week will benefit from its patronage, as will the designer Sonja Nuttall, who is using the classic six-eyelet Derby boot for her forthcoming show because of their timeless, androgynous, appeal. Last season the company sponsored fashion newcomer Andrew Groves. Add to that the Dr Martens football league, a grass-roots semi professional organisation based in the Midlands, and you have a brand that means something to everyone.