Romance and nostalgia are powerful things. A football fan is certainly not impervious to the two – especially at a time when their usual escape route out of everyday stress remains closed.
While the closure of football stadiums has meant watching games through the more impassive medium of television, a new generation of low-sock wearers have come to mark their territory on the game, conjuring up fond memories of the mavericks who came before them.
“Low socks call to mind a player who has a very original way of thinking,” says Sam Diss, head of content at football title, Mundial. “Someone who says, ‘These are just socks. I’m not arsed.’ I always think of Totti when I think of low socks.”
Roma legend Francesco Totti perfectly embodied the kind of footballer who rolled his socks down. The Italian attacking midfielder had the elegance, freedom and undeniable skill that epitomised the romantic notions of your classic low-sock virtuoso. His Serie A contemporary Rui Costa similarly fitted the mould of a creative playmaker that, whether on or off the ball, demanded attention – and the rolled down socks certainly helped.
In today’s English Premier League, Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe and Everton’s Tom Davies have become proponents of the pulled-down look. But no one comes close to exemplifying the charmingly imperious low-sock wearer as Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish. His socks and tiny shin pads are a genuine influence on how he plays the game. Grealish says they allow him to move more freely on the pitch and not feel restricted. Smith Rowe attests to the freedom low socks and children’s shin pads offer.
Josh Warwick, co-founder of online football store Cult Kits, plainly recalls watching a young, low-socked Grealish play against his beloved Ipswich Town.
“I remember seeing him when Villa got relegated, knowing who he was and the hype around him. He was pulling them off even then. He’s got the physique for it, so you’ve just got to admire it,” he says. “You’ve got to have something about you. It’s a bit of a statement.”
Often hand in glove with low socks, tiny shin pads also seem zeitgeisty. Everton and England striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin equated his miniscule shin pads to custard creams, much to the delight of Twitter and the tabloids.
The FA offer a loose definition on shin pads, stating they must provide “reasonable protection”. The fact that many players are interpreting the law in their own, less obedient way can show a certain extent of nonconformism in the game. It’s also about relatability.
Sheffield United’s leggy centre-forward Oli McBurnie, who is the antithesis of the Totti school of low-sock nonchalance, told The Guardian that shin pads feel alien to him, because he, like many other footballers, doesn’t wear them in training. He speaks for the average bloke who plays down Leisure Leagues on a Tuesday.
“When you go and play five-a-side, you don’t wear shin pads. I can’t remember playing a match and thinking ‘Thank God I had those shin pads on’,” says Warwick.
Low socks, accompanied by tiny shin pads (or no pads at all), have always been a sign of difference and individuality in the professional game. In the modern age of brand management and watertight public relations, this has only become more pronounced. Rolling down your socks is one of the simplest yet most noticeable things you can do on the pitch. It’s an immediate marker of defiance and character, both of which are hard to find in today’s game.
“It’s one of those rare instances where modern players can actually have their personality come across on the pitch. Players are a bit identikit now, but something as simple as wearing your socks low is a hark back to a simpler time when you’d have players with mad hair, gold chains… just a bit of something about them,” says Diss.
Warwick has a similar opinion. “It’s all about creating your own identity and being a bit different. With any sort of individualism, like Cantona rolling up his collar, I’m all for it.”
Showing any form of personality, taste, or interest outside of football has typically been frowned upon by club top brass and the most conservative, irksome of football fans, who just want a player to perform on the pitch. In the modern age, the job of a footballer goes well beyond putting in a shift for 90 minutes; they are ambassadors of the club and the brand. Being an individual is deemed inappropriate.
But, with changing consumption patterns and desires among younger fans, the originality and personality synonymous with wearing low socks could, if not already, be encouraged by the powers that be. It’s good for business.
“Clubs are now starting to realise that you can let players have a bit of personality. They still have to be able to perform, but allowing a bit of that is not bad for the brand. It’s very good,” Diss says.
82 per cent of Premier League fans under the age of 18 say their favourite player does not play for their preferred club. This same generation is heavily swayed by their gaming experience and the individual players – not clubs – they like to use on FIFA. It helps that mercurial players from the European leagues like Memphis Depay, Lorenzo Insigne and Pablo Dybala (class in real-life and on the GameBox) wear their socks lovingly low, consistently or otherwise.
Consumers aside, players themselves are actively taking steps to break free from their imposed homogeneity. Issues highlighted by the pandemic, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, have prompted some to broadcast their opinion on matters inside and outside the game – Marcus Rashford, admittedly a high socker, being a clear and obvious example here.
As Melissa Reddy writes for GQ on the power of the footballing personality, “The age of individualism is on the rise and it’s about time.” It’s no coincidence that we’re seeing more players take the simple but evocative act of rolling down their socks, at a time when it feels like we’re returning to some semblance of personality in top-flight football – football we can relate to.
While the beautiful game is no stranger to passing trends – raise a glass to the snood – it seems like low socks, with both history and iconography behind them, are here to stay. Low socks can only be seen as a good thing, for both fans searching for something to latch on to and players wanting to exert some personal touches on the pitch.
Ultimately, though, they just look really cool.