Evolution of the football boot

For the first time ever, we recently saw a Premiership player take to the field in laceless boots. This makes the latest chapter in the history of this once humble but essential piece of football kit.

Marketing spin, sponsorship, fashion: especially in recent years, there’s no denying that each of these have played a big part in boot evolution. But putting the hype aside, the ideal boot has a handful of important jobs to do: protect the foot, provide a decent grip and (hopefully) aid control. And of course, the boot has to actually fit. From workingmen’s clogs through to Adidas Predators, boot evolution has seen a steady stream of improvements in each of these areas as the game has developed.

Here’s a look back at how things have changed over the years…

Football boots: as old as the game itself?

We know that King Henry VIII was a useful athlete in his youth (it was a jousting accident that eventually put him out of action and out of shape). There’s also good evidence that football was included in his list of sporting pursuits. His boots haven’t survived and we can only guess at what they looked like, but it’s known that he owned a pair from his Great Wardrobe order of 1526.

Football at this time was a pretty vicious affair, along the lines of the traditional Shrove Tuesday melees that still take place in some villages. For 99.9 percent of the ordinary people who played it, there was almost certainly no special kit involved. Henry’s clothes shopping list is the first evidence we have of someone owning boots specifically for the game.

The work boots era

It was the mid-19th Century onwards that the popularity of football really started to take off. For decades before the establishment of the first official football league in 1888, teams were springing up, very often linked to places of work. Everyday work boots did the job in these early decades: hard leather, reinforced with toecaps and reaching high above players’ ankles.

But then, as now, a decent grip is essential on a wet Wednesday afternoon. Players dealt with this by nailing in their own makeshift studs. In answer to this, the FA ruled in 1863 that no nails could project from boots.

The first ‘proper’ boots

By the late 19th Century, the Football League was already well established. Clubs were professionally run and the clubs themselves took on the responsibility of making sure their players were properly kitted out.

This was when specialised boots first started to appear. These leather boots were heavy (around 500g) and could get considerably heavier in the wet. The designs were crude but the focus was squarely on protection, with a body that reached above the ankle and studs moulded into the sole.

Pre World War 2: some big names emerge…

Gola, Hummel and the Dassler brothers (of Adidas and Puma fame) all started producing football boots in the early decades of the 20th Century. By the thirties, players on the continent were typically turning out in boots that were up to two thirds lighter than just a decade or so earlier, thanks to a combination of softer leathers and new synthetic materials.

The first screw-in studs

Germany won its first World Cup in 1954, coming back from a two-goal deficit to beat Hungary in the final in torrential rain. Of note is the fact that the Germans were wearing revolutionary new boots from Adidas with screw-in studs, suitable for any weather.

Interchangeable plastic or rubber screws gave boots from the likes of Puma and Adidas a degree a truly reliable grip for the first time. But with the emergence of Pele and the golden age of South American football, sheer technical ability and ball skills came to the fore. To keep up, boots had to complement this. Protection and grip was still important, but the focus shifted to finding new ways to help players control the ball. The low-cut design no longer extended above the ankles and thanks to a mixture of synthetic materials and leather, boots were becoming ever-lighter.

The likes of Franz Beckenbauer and Michel Platini helped the classic Adidas Copa Mundial become the world’s best selling boot of all time. Their launch in 1979 cemented Adidas as market leaders.

Predators and beyond

The new age of boot design arrived in the mid-nineties when former pro, Craig Johnston released his creation, the Predator through Adidas. New polymer technology ensured an ultra-lightweight build, while the design enabled a greater surface area to come into contact with the ball. The sole was flexible and on some versions, studs were replaced with a bladed design, ensuring greater stability. Models such as the PowerSwerve claim to deliver greater power, improved control and the ability to swerve the ball through longer ball contact. The Predator is still going strong.

Earlier this season, Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil became the first Premiership player to play with laceless boots. Apparently ‘locking’ the foot into the boot via a thermoplastic cage, these boots allow for a glove-like fit while providing an ultra-clean top surface area to offer greater control and accuracy.

Ensure your team and your club have the best possible protection this season by talking to our specialist football insurance providers today.