In praise of the hooped sock

IT IS easy to be critical about some of the football shirts being created these days, but when you talk about socks, there is one underused element of hosiery the game should never discard – the hooped stocking.

There’s something a little jaunty about the hooped sock. It is more interesting than the plain version, more durable than a white sock and has the air of the cavalier about it. While we tend to salivate over a decent striped shirt (defined stripes, not trailing blood or Jackson Pollock type splashes), we often overlook the sock. In fact, going back in time, when books and directories used to list a club’s colours, it was “Blue shirts, White shorts”, rarely, if ever were the last pieces of the uniform referred to.

And yet, these socks would complement a striped or hooped shirt perfectly. Take, for example, Newcastle United’s socks from the mid-1970s, Supermac’s bandy legs encased in some very continental-looking hosiery. Did they not look better than black with white tops? And go back to the pioneering days of football and look at how the kit of the Royal Engineers, Queens Park and others displayed shorts and socks that mirrored each other.

But logistics played their part in the plethora of hooped jerseys of the late 19th century, quite simply the looms were often in short supply that could produce vertical stripes.

Arsenal toyed with hoops in the late 1960s, their classy red and white shirts were finished off with navy blue (thin) banded socks. They looked good, but why blue? And why were they dropped in favour of red socks? Their reintroduction was a throwback to the Chapman era.

One of the best designs has to be Barcelona’s socks in 1974, the red and blue hoops adorned by Johan Cruyff. You only need to glance at the images of Cruyff at that time to know this was a cosmopolitan team making full use of its visual identity. These glamorous creations probably did more than most to link hooped legwear to the continental club.

There is something a little “rugby” about a hooped sock, rather like the shirts that seem to be more prevalent in the oval-balled game. Horizontal stripes certainly make players look bigger, both their torsos and lower limbs. Hence, rugby may feel more comfortable wearing socks that are more “dandy”. Vertical stripes are more common in football, maybe to make the players seem fit, agile and a little aerodynamic. While rugby clubs were happy to retain the traditional jerseys that emphasised physique and power, football clubs probably wanted to differentiate themselves from the competing code.

There are some kits that could have done with a little styling. Wouldn’t Celtic and QPR’s hoops look better finished off with some matching socks? Or how about Brazil having some very vivid recolouring? But we don’t want everyone to have a hooped sock, otherwise their presence becomes “everyday”. The fact that not everyone likes or uses them makes them noticeable when a team runs out wearing something a little different. Long live the hooped sock, in all its glory!

The fall and rise of Unai Emery

WHEN Arsenal appointed Paris Saint-Germain boss Unai Emery as the successor to Arsene Wenger in May 2018, it was seen as a somewhat imaginative appointment. He was a coach who was on his way up, he knew how to win major prizes in Europe and he was, for want of a better cliché, a “special one”. Smart and personable and untainted by cynicism. Arsenal were hoping for a new Wenger, a manager who could be a change agent just as the professorial Frenchman had been back in the late 1990s.

If Emery had been hired in 2016 rather than 2018, the story might have been different. PSG had secured Emery after he had pulled off a hat-trick of Europa League triumphs with Sevilla, beating Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool in the 2016 final in Basel. It was arguably the third of these successes that convinced PSG he was a coach with a future and he was lured to Paris and expected to make a team of globetrotters into European champions. He was also given the footballing diva, Neymar, to help that process.

But Emery found getting past clubs from his homeland a problem, notably in the catastrophic and somewhat embarrassing 6-1 defeat at the hands of Barcelona in the 2016-17 Champions League. This seismic defeat, along with the loss of the Ligue 1 title in 2017, sowed the seeds of Emery’s ultimate downfall in Paris, even though nobody has managed to bring home the trophy that “project PSG” has really been all about. By the time he arrived at Arsenal, Emery had won six major trophies, including a league title. There appeared to be something rather classy about Emery, who was 46 when he joined the Gunners.

It was clear from his early press conferences and interviews that Emery’s English was going to be a problem, especially if things didn’t go well on the pitch. It made for some slightly uncomfortable post-match discussions and also made him something of a figure of fun with some hacks. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in The Guardian, Emery was “written off by Arsenal because his Vs sounded a bit like Bs.”

At the Emirates, Emery took the club to the Europa League final in Baku but saw his lack-lustre team torn apart by Chelsea. Arsenal finished fifth and were losing their place among Champions League qualifiers. Confidence in him started to wane in the early weeks of 2019-20 even though Arsenal lost just one of their first eight league games. Even when they were finding it hard to win games, they had still lost just three times at the time Emery was sacked in November 2019 after a Europa League defeat at the hands of Eintracht Frankfurt. But performances were, generally, not good and the fans turned against him, claiming he didn’t care about the club. A lot of people probably thought they had heard the last of Unai Emery for a while as he returned to Spain and was eventually appointed Villareal manager.

Did Arsenal give up on Emery too soon? Certainly, the early months of his successor, Mikel Arteta (possibly the man they really wanted to take over from Wenger) didn’t suggest they had found a better choice. Indeed, Emery’s win rate at Arsenal was 55.1%, Arteta’s is currently 54%. Unfortunately, he was the wrong man for the wrong club just as David Moyes was never going to be successful after the departure of an icon at Manchester United.

How satisfying it must have been for Emery when Villareal knocked Arsenal out of the Europa League in 2020-21, although he had far too much dignity to gloat. He then went on to beat Manchester United in the final. He credited his former employer with helping him to win the Europa League, the experience of managing in England had been invaluable. At the same time, there was an underlying feeling Emery had been thrown back in the pond rather hastily.

In his own backyard, Emery was a man in demand. Villareal came calling eight months after he left Arsenal and he took them to seventh in La Liga. With a minimum of fuss, Villareal slalomed their way through the Europa League, going 15 games without a defeat and disposing of Arsenal and, after a prolonged penalty shoot-out, Manchester United. It was clear that United underestimated both Villareal and their specialist coach.

In the Champions League this season, they came through a group with United and then into the knockout stage, overcoming Juventus and Bayern Munich. Nobody really envisaged they would get past the round of 16, but their away form in the Champions League has been impressive. On the back of these surprises, a reassessment of Emery has begun and the verdict seems fairly unanimous – he is a quality coach who knows how to negotiate cup competitions and difficult opponents. In fact, only Zinedine Zidane has a better scorecard in knockout games in Europe.

Can he pull-off what would be a massive shock and eliminate Liverpool from the Champions League? It is the biggest ask because Villareal simply don’t have better players than the Reds, so Emery would have to produce something very special out of his hat. But their record in Europe means Klopp’s side will need to be at their very best over both legs, because Unai Emery seems to have perfected the sort of two-leg strategy that was a hallmark of teams like AC Milan, Liverpool and Bayern Munich, way back in time.

It’s truly good to see him back to where he belongs and a contender at the top table. It didn’t take long for him to return to the game after what had clearly become a nightmare in north London. The big question is, will he yearn to revisit the Premier League at some point, considering he has unfinished business in England, or will he eventually take one of the really big jobs in Spain? He may have a number of choices for his next big move, especially if he can add a Champions League final to his CV.

Mirror image – UWCL includes familiar names

THE UEFA Women’s Champions League has reached the quarter-final stage and the eight teams involved are: Arsenal, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Lyon, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Wolfsburg. It could almost read like the A to Z of men’s football in Europe, with the exception of Lyon and Wolfsburg. Five of the eight have appeared in at least seven quarter-finals in the past decade and in the past five years, six have taken part in at least four. The men’s game has actually been less polarised since 2017-18.

Clearly, money talks in the women’s game almost as much as it does with men. The leading clubs are almost all affiliated to elite European clubs and unsurprisingly, those teams are dominant in their domestic leagues. Of the last eight of the Champions League, the leaders in Spain (Barcelona), France (Lyon), Germany (Wolfsburg), Italy (Juventus) and England (Arsenal) are all in the mix. While men’s football took decades to create huge imbalances, women’s football seems to have reached that stage at a rather extraordinary speed.

Barcelona, the holders, demonstrated how superb their team was when they swept Chelsea’s women aside in 2020-21 in the Champions League final. In the league this season, Barca have won all 24 of their games, scoring an astonishing 136 goals and conceding just six. They have already been crowned champions. Likewise, Lyon are unbeaten in France, winning 16 of their 17 games and PSG, Arsenal, Juventus and Arsenal have all lost just one game each. 

The elite in women’s football have financial strength and this enables them to lure the top players to their clubs. For example, the Guardian’s top 100 women footballers, published at the end of 2021, included 13 from Barcelona, 10 each from Lyon and PSG, nine from both Arsenal and Chelsea and eight from Bayern Munich. In total, the current last eight of the Champions League accounted for 58% of the top 100.

The Women’s Super League in England is dominated by three clubs: Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. Chelsea have won five titles since 2015 while Manchester City have been runners-up six times in that same period. Arsenal’s most recent championship win was in 2019, although they lead the table in 2021-22.

Interest is growing in the women’s game in England and the average WSL crowd is now around 1,600 with Arsenal the biggest draw with gates of just under 2,600. Chelsea average 2,500 and Manchester City 2,200 and another half dozen generate more than 1,000 with Manchester United just under 2,000. There’s no shortage of media coverage these days and the profile of women’s football is growing all the time. Currently, there is considerable momentum behind the levelling up of wages, notably in the FA Cup, but while the highest level of women’s football has attendances comparable to step two or three non-league, advocates will have to be prepared for a long game.

Only one WSL team has won the Champions League or its equivalent, Arsenal in 2007, who beat Swedish side Umeå 1-0 on aggregate. The winning goal was scored by none other than BBC pundit Alex Scott and the combined crowd from the two games struggled to get to 10,000. The last Champions League final with a crowd drew almost 20,000. This year’s final will be played in Turin.

The names might be familiar, but the Champions League should make for compelling viewing over the coming weeks. Can anyone really stop the Barcelona machine?

Quarter-final draw: Bayern Munich v PSG (22 March, 30 March); Juventus v Lyon (23 March, 31 March); Arsenal v Wolfsburg (23 March, 31 March); Real v Barcelona (22 March, 30 March).