Dave owns the water from the washing machine used to launder the Reading team kit worn in the 1988 Simod final

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We are all to be indebted to the fearless reporters of Total Football magazine for unearthing, in their March issue, the most important piece of news in British football this month. It concerns Dave Downs, a 54-year- old schoolteacher from Reading, who has taken interest in the minutiae of football fandom into new and previously uncharted territory; the hood, as it were, of the anorak.

Dave is proud to reveal that he owns the actual water from the washing machine used to launder the Reading team kit after it had been worn in the 1988 Simod Cup final triumph over Luton Town. Trying to secure one of the player's shirts as a souvenir, Dave approached the Reading groundsman's wife who washes all the club kit. But to no avail, the gear was not hers to give away.

"So I asked her if she would keep me a bottle of water used in her washing machine to clean the Wembley kit," Total Football reports Dave as saying. "It's in an inscribed milk bottle at home in my display cabinet with all the sediment collected at the bottom. I also have the Division One play- off shirt-wash water next to it in a plastic Coke bottle."

Certainly Ian McArthur and Dave Kemp should doff their bobble hats in Total Football's direction. Thanks to the discovery of Dave Downs, no longer can they be called the saddest obsessives in Britain. Which was the title several of their friends appended to them as the pair collaborated on a book called Elegance Borne of Brutality; a fancy title for what is, in fact, a history of the football boot.

"We were watching that QED television programme about Craig Johnston and his Predator boot invention," remembers McArthur, a 34-year-old teacher. "And it got us to thinking about our first football boots. Mine were white Stylo Matchmakers. I used to clean them after every game with a toothbrush. It took my mum three months to discover it was the same toothbrush I used for my teeth."

Assuming everyone must have similar yarns to tell about their footie footwear, the pair dispatched thousands of letters and started their research into the history of the boot. It is some story they unearthed, too, lovingly retold through anecdotes, photographs, memorabilia and advertisements. Like this ad in the Boot and Shoe Trades Journal dating from 1898.

"A Lesson in Geography," runs the copy. "Teacher in class: 'Now what is North Evington noted for?' Bright Scholar: 'Leeson's football boots, Sir'. Made in Scotch Chrome with Patent Indestructible Toe, these boots are ahead of all others on the market for wearing qualities."

Top that Nike. The caption notes, incidentally, that Scotch Chrome was a new type of white leather. Thus any Corinthian chap sporting Leeson's in 1898 would have looked as sharp as John Barnes did in his new pair of lily-white Diadoras last Sunday at Loftus Road.

"The boot industry has tried all sorts of innovations over the years," McArthur says. "We found a Puma boot dating from 1958 with rows of ceramic studs on the toe cap which looked very like a prototype of the Predator. But for some reason red, purple or white boots have never caught on in any era. Footballers tend to be conservative, they like their boots to be black with white trimmings, they don't want to wear anything which will attract extra attention in case they make mistakes."

Professional players, McArthur and Kemp discovered, spend a lot of time worrying about their boots. And not just about how much cash is popped into them by sponsors. There is, for instance, the odd relationships between boot, owner and skivvy formed when cleaning boots as an apprentice. Recently on Football Focus Nick Barmby was interviewed by Gary Lineker. Much of the interview centred on Barmby's skill at ensuring Lineker's footwear did not let down the player, his club, or his sponsor. "He wasn't bad at it," Lineker said. And you could see the grateful glint in Barmby's eye, like the fag praised by his prefect.

"We discovered that Gascoigne had a real thing about Keegan's boots when he was a junior at Newcastle," McArthur says. "Apparently he used to take them on to the bus home to show them off to all his mates. And then one day he left them on the bus. Keegan was really good about it, though, and let him off."

It is anecdotes like that which make this book such a pleasure. Already it has attracted some unexpected attention: Paul Smith, the designer, bought a job lot of copies, and Jack Walker of Blackburn ordered a dozen. But if the book sells no more than those, McArthur won't mind. Thanks to the book, his ambition has already been realised. During research, he went to Puma headquarters in Germany, where the kindly staff let him try on the very right boot Pele wore in the 1970 World Cup Final.

"It tingled the genitals a bit, that moment," he says. "It was specially made for him with an extra-long tongue."

This was the very boot Pele used to supply that visionary pass which led Carlos Alberto to convert the greatest goal in World Cup history. As an obsessive achievement, you have to say it has the edge over securing the water used to wash Reading's team strip in the 1988 Simod Cup final. Well, only just.