When the ball does the talking

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The Independent Online
AS INVENTIONS go it is hardly of the boon-to-mankind variety, but in claims put forward for a boot designed by Craig Johnston, help appears to be at hand for every frustrated footballer.

Thus shod, goal of the month will be a doddle. Power on tap, tricks of trajectory no problem. Just lay out pounds 120 for a pair of Predators marketed by Adidas and you're up there with Ian Wright, Andy Cole and Alan Shearer.

Normally, I'm inclined to let the sports-goods industry shift for itself, but Johnston's enterprise, one that is said to have involved a personal investment of pounds 250,000 and years of devoted effort in his homeland, Australia, demands some urgent attention.

Apparently, when turning out for Liverpool, the scorer of their winning goal in the 1986 FA Cup final, Johnston was never sure of sending the ball to where he intended. The admission will come as no surprise to the faithful at Anfield, but it allows for a nice line in self-effacing sales patter.

'Someone like me, who struggled just to kick it straight, could see there must be an easier way to coax a ball through the air,' he goes around saying.

Coaches know the problem. They recommend practice. Johnston's solution is applied science. It's all in the shape and the texture. Polybutadyne figures in the formula. He refers to the boot as a precision tool. Come next Christmas, harassed parents may have another name for it.

The manufacturer's faith in Johnston's superplayer creation is stated in the most precise terms imaginable - 23 per cent more swerve, seven per cent more power. If he's got it right God help goalkeepers. All that has gone before will be a study in wasted motion.

Pardon my scepticism, but it is the way I was raised. The ultimate football boots of my youth came high-backed in hard leather with toe caps that would have withstood an elephant's tread. Wearing them, players performed mesmeric feats of trickery and flight. It wasn't the footwear that mattered but mastery of technique.

For a long time the sports-equipment moguls have been the greatest highwaymen this side of a wanted poster. With the enthusiastic co-operation of high achievers (Paul Ince of Manchester United is endorsing the Predator) they spuriously peddle a short cut to dramatic improvement.

Golf is a good example. Show hackers a set of new clubs and they drool at the mouth. It's there before them. Drives that go for ever, irons to the heart of the green. If they work for Greg and Nick, Seve and Bernhard, why not me?

Setting some sort of a record for distance, a golf ball once arrived on my desk by post with the claim that it could be propelled out of sight. One hit and it was never seen again.

That's the trouble, you see. In the wrong hands or on the wrong feet, all this fancy gear doesn't amount to very much at all. It only emphasises the negative. I've seen the cloth on a snooker table ripped by a Steve Davis cue. Tennis buffs fantasising with costly graphite rackets. Is there no end to this nonsense?

Probably, in his prime, Lee Trevino, the great improviser, could have worked the ball around golf courses with a kitchen broom. You could have bet on John McEnroe to return service with a shovel. Barefooted, Tommy Harmer, a Tottenham Hotspur genius of the Fifties, could make the ball talk.

The fundamental difference between professional footballers and the rest, Malcolm Allison once declared, is power. 'Pros club the ball,' he said.

Power comes with timing. Timing comes from the refinement of a gift. It can't be purchased. You don't get it from books or the sports goods salesman.

When Johnston admits that any old boot would do for a Glenn Hoddle he touches on an irrefutable truth. Dream on, but unless someone bottles sporting improvement to be taken three times a day, you might as well settle for the kit in the cupboard.