Throughout the last decade of an extraordinary career that saw him still turning out in League football as a 50-year-old, Stanley Matthews seldom made more than 20 appearances a season. Understandably, you may think, he steered clear of the hard places – Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, anywhere he was likely to be regarded as more of a threat than a monument to longevity.
London was different. There Matthews was guaranteed headlines and the protective reverence of supporters who, before the advent of blanket-television coverage, showed up thinking it unlikely they would ever again see his unique dribbling skills.
Something else explained why Matthews rarely passed up an opportunity to play in the capital. It was a contract with the Co-operative Society who marketed a football boot bearing his name. On the morning of matches in London, the great winger showed up at a store on Oxford Street to boost sales of footwear he was alleged to have designed.
In the style of the time, Matthews' boot had a toecap that would have withstood repeated blows from a sledgehammer and rose above the ankle like armour plating. Matthews, of course, never wore them. He would not have worn them to dig his garden. But they sold. They sold because people then were no less gullible then than they are now. Pull on a pair of Matthews boots and you were touched by the magic of his body swerve, his sleight of foot, his withering acceleration. A harmless fantasy, but in truth a scam.
Going back many years, acquisition of a Don Bradman bat I could not afford made no appreciable difference to my average. A friend who splashed out hundreds of pounds on a driver endorsed by any number of leading gold professionals still shoots in the high 90s. Struggles to break 100.
Not so long ago, a colleague at the Independent, a keen club footballer who is now plying his trade elsewhere, turned up with boots aerodynamically designed by the former Liverpool midfielder Craig Johnston. Imagining previously denied feats of trajectory, he could not wait to try them out. "Waste of money," I said. Aghast, the poor deluded soul wanted to know why. "Because if they are of any use at all it's only to people who can really play," I replied.
Presently, David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane and Raul are taking part in shake-down trials of a boot with whom they have contracts on a scale that would go some way towards easing the problems of many clubs in the Football League. Camouflaged from the prying eyes of rival manufacturers by a layer of pain, the boot will be in a shop near you in time for the World Cup.
Phineas T Barnum had it right. Never underestimate the gullibility of the public. Boots to send in free-kicks like Beckham, to dribble like Zidane, to finish like Raul. Want to match Tiger Woods off the tee, chip like Phil Mickelson, then buy our clubs. If it's distance your after, buy our ball. Our skis can turn you into a latter-day Franz Klammer. What our racquet has done for Andre Agassi it can do for you. It goes on and on. Even the professionals get sucked in to using equipment eminently unsuitable to their game. "Shouldn't have changed his clubs," is a phrase frequently heard in golf.
There is another side to this. I was once told about a man who walked into a sporting goods emporium on 42nd Street in New York, went to the tennis department and asked to see a newfangled graphite racquet. "I'm not much of a player," he said, "but I've got a lot of money and I want something nobody else has." The price, including stringing and tax, came to hundreds of dollars. The racquet racket had struck again.
For conspicuous consumers who need Gucci and Louis Vuitton labels to advertise their chic, next on the list no doubt is the pearl-handled, platinum-coated, radar-directed implement that guarantees backhand winners down the line or approach shots struck unerringly at the flag.
Anyway, it strikes me that old Stan was years ahead of his time. The boots were not up to much but instinctively he knew how to sell an implausible dream. If the dreamsters had taken a closer look they would have seen that his dancing feet were encased in what looked remarkably like carpet slippers.Reuse content