It Is What It Is: Premier League sock heights analysed – and football’s most truly iconic image

Welcome to the first instalment of It Is What It Is, the sister column to Adam Hurrey’s Football Clichés podcast, a parallel mission into the heart of the tiny things in football you never thought really mattered… until you were offered a closer look.

The Great Premier League Sock Census, 2022

I know what you’ve been wondering for the last 21 days since the Premier League season kicked off: what sets Kieran Tierney, Lukasz Fabianski, Cesar Azpilicueta, Adama Traore and Rodri apart from their 400-odd top-flight colleagues?

The truth is that they represent a stubborn 1.6 per cent of Premier League players in 2022, five consistently tidy throwbacks, a quintet of standards-maintaining sticklers.

They are the only remaining Premier League shirt-tuckers.

Of the 887 individual appearances made in the Premier League in the first three rounds of fixtures this season, just 14 have begun and ended with the player’s shirt safely secured in his shorts. Spread as they are across five different clubs, these militant tuckers-in even look like outliers within their own teams. Their public representative — if they really needed one — is the infamously Tesco-carrier-bag-wielding Tierney, who explained his shirt/shorts philosophy to culture magazine The Face back in March.

“It’s something I’ve always done from youth level. We always get told to tuck our shirts in and I was quite small then. My shirt was always down to my knees, so I’d always tuck it in… I’ve just carried that on.”

Of the five shirt-tuckers, only Wolves’ preposterously proportioned Traore has failed to appear in all three of his team’s fixtures so far but, when you add another variable into the equation, he stands alone: Traore is the only player in the Premier League to tuck his shirt in and wear his socks above his knees*.

Where shirt-tucking is an all or (mostly) nothing affair in Our League, sock height is a much more fluid concept.

The connotations of low socks, in particular, are almost generation-proof. Ever since players began to depart from football’s implied collective dress code in the 1960s, socks around the ankles have denoted a certain type of player: a free spirit, defensively laissez-faire but capable of fleeting passages of magic at the other end. Jack Grealish — the most notable sock-height deviant of the current era — perhaps fits that mould most comfortably, but there is otherwise little pattern to the 5.1 per cent of current Premier League low-sockers.

Of the division’s 22 pathological shin-exposers this season, five are forwards, nine are midfielders and eight are defenders (including two centre-backs: Tottenham’s permanently on-the-edge Cristian Romero and Leicester’s wantaway Wesley Fofana. Just wait until the purists see the data! Not that they actively look at data).

66.8 per cent of Premier League players seemingly put little thought into their sock height (“normal range” is defined, by me, to be anything between the top of regularly-placed and regular-sized shinpads to below the kneecaps.) A third of them, however, are committed high-sockers: that is, they actively reject the traditional, manufactured fold of the sock and open it above the knee joint, a style destigmatised around the turn of the millennium by Barclays-era titans Thierry Henry and John Terry.

Unlike low-sock culture, there isn’t an obvious implication being made: the 128 high-sockers — from Almiron to Zouma, from Ayew to Zinchenko — presumably find it more comfortable, despite the 90-minute irritant of having to pull them back up whenever running, sliding or gravity interferes.

Despite the mild overtones of elitism (Kylian Mbappe has arguably taken on Henry’s mantle as European football’s premier high-socker), the three most high-socked Premier League fixtures so far this season have featured the so-called “so-called Big Six” against lesser-fancied opponents: Brentford’s demolition of Manchester United, Liverpool’s home draw with Crystal Palace and Arsenal’s surgical dissection of Bournemouth each featured 12 pairs of covered knees. The most high-socked team in a single match so far are West Ham (eight players against Brighton, including their entire back four, numbers that will surely not impress David Moyes.)

Almost without exception, the low-sockers and the high-sockers are steadfast in their style. Almost without exception: Tottenham’s Yves Bissouma (low on his debut against Southampton, emphatically over-the-kneecap against Chelsea and Wolves) is the only player so far to switch.

Ultimately, we are witnessing the phasing-out of footballing formality: among the outfield shirt-tuckers, only Manchester City’s Rodri can be confident of a regular starting place, while Fabianski is the only goalkeeper who tucks his shirt in, despite some anecdotal research suggesting it hinders the full upward stretching of the arms. After all, on these marginal considerations seasons can hinge.

(*But where are the players who tuck their shirts in but wear their socks low? What sort of player would that even imply? Please let me know in the comments.)

This week on the Football Clichés podcast: The Adjudication Panel

Adam was joined by The Athletic’s Charlie Eccleshare and David Walker for the Adjudication Panel. On the agenda this week: the most expensive footballer of all time not to have a Wikipedia photo, a Portuguese twist on the old “six-pointer”, corners being “wazzed” in, penalties being “lashed in”, and some very curious half-and-half scarves at the King Power Stadium.

Meanwhile, the panel try to make sense of the unfolding controversy over the abbreviation of EFL team-names and establish the “You know exactly what you’re going to get from a [Manager X] team” league table.

Confusion reigns on Memory Lane

As all connoisseurs of mundane Premier League history will attest, one of the slipperier nostalgic concepts is that of “the streets won’t forget”. Occasional names are put forward for this very precise footballing category, but few are brave enough to attempt a cohesive XI. Step forward, BT Sport:

Before appraising the merits of the line-up above, how comprehensively can the criteria of TSWF be defined? It is, almost by definition, a paradoxical pursuit: players too uniquely skilled to fade from memory completely, yet not consistently productive to be impossible to forget.

And that’s the sweet spot: the streets will always remember your Shearers, your Cantonas, your Zolas and your Bergkamps, it goes without saying. But the mere threat of forgetting all about the ambidextrous mid-to-late-2000s set-piece threat of Morten Gamst Pedersen is what keeps a phenomenon like TSWF alive.

BT’s lineup is peppered with perennial TSWF shoo-ins — Pedersen, Hatem Ben Arfa, Adel Taarabt, Michu — but otherwise padded out by one-trick wonders (2010 BBC Goal of the Season winner Maynor Figueroa, veteran tracksuit-bottoms merchant Gabor Kiraly and “Goal! The Dream Begins” stunt double Laurent Robert.)

Perhaps the 3-5-2 formation doesn’t do the exercise any favours: after all, how many Premier League centre-backs were mercurial enough to embed themselves in the collective brains of the streets without being 1) too error-prone for the Premier League and/or 2) too well-known to worry about the streets misplacing their name?

(David Luiz? Too good, too expensive, a Champions League winner. Tal Ben Haim? Too slapstick. Christopher Samba? Playing for QPR certainly helps, as does a handful of appearances up front for Blackburn and simply being sold to Anzhi Makhachkala.)

Overall, it’s a faithful, respectful attempt to honour one of the nichest accolades of the Premier League era but, perhaps appropriately, not quite right.

The purging of the iconic

The dust has already long settled on a very novel early season controversy, one described in some quarters as “cultural vandalism” and “cultural barbarism” of a practice described in other quarters as “aural poetry” and “secular liturgy”.

It’s now almost three weeks since the fascinatingly overblown (but, also, quite heartfelt) reaction to the BBC’s quietly taken decision to scrap the reading of the classified football results after their 70-year presence on Saturday teatime radio show Sports Report. Since three weeks is an absolute eternity in football, let alone towards the panic-business end of a summer transfer window, naturally the protests have fizzled out to almost nothing. The BBC has not relented and the classified results (for the uninitiated: the very formal reading out of every single score from the English and Scottish professional divisions that day, including a bafflingly beloved mid-score intonation that essentially served as a microspoiler for the away team’s goal tally) remain out of service.

From the rubble of the classified results, a warning was fleetingly sent: do not mess with the minor crown jewels of British football. But what else could inspire such a specific harrumph of a reaction if it was unceremoniously removed from our sight?

The Match of the Day theme tune

The world would burn. While, objectively, the Match of the Day theme is now far too jaunty a piece of music to introduce a weekend slice of cynical, multi-billion-pound action from the most power-hungry league in the world, the footballing world would genuinely burn if the BBC decided to even revamp it.

We know this because they’ve tried it before, in a quiet attempt to make the Match of the Day music (in this case, for the FA Cup in 1990-91) even less emphatic by having it played on flute.

This was reportedly met with such rightful opprobrium that the old version was restored immediately.

Abide With Me

Given the recent trajectory of the FA Cup in the footballing landscape, it wouldn’t be a surprise, although the reaction would be a mournful one. Abide With Me is a 6/10 hymn that sounds like an 8/10 belter when 80,000 football fans sing it. For some, its removal would be the beginning of the end. For others, they probably didn’t know the words anyway.

The Community Shield

Once the unrivalled season curtain-raiser, the Community (nee Charity) Shield has shrivelled somewhat in the shadow of intercontinental tours and the increasingly frazzled pre-season preparation of English football’s big clubs. Would we miss it if it was scrapped? Yes, because — no matter how short the summer break can feel — the new football season can never quite start early enough. The classified-results purists might not feel quite the same sting here, though.

The genuinely iconic BBC stock image of a ball in the back of a net

Some, witheringly, like to toy with the idea that modern football began in 1992. In fact, modern football was born at the home of Queens Park Rangers on August 20, 1991 — for that is when and where the definitive generic football photoshoot was carried out.

Around a dozen images were captured that sunny day in west London, most of which have never been seen by the public. The pick of the bunch — a Mitre Delta Multiplex nestling gently in the back of the net at the School End of Loftus Road, green turf below, blue sky and floodlights above — went on to become an incidental, background mainstay of the BBC’s football coverage. Upcoming fixtures? Put the Loftus Road ball behind them? Someone on the news talking about an issue in football so sprawlingly wide that it can’t be summed up in a topical image? Use the Loftus Road ball.

It has meant everything… and nothing.

But — and this is the true BBC football scandal that nobody has started an online petition about yet — it has been quietly killed off. Investigations by The Athletic can reveal that this truly iconic image, once the pinnacle of stock football photography, has now been sidelined. It was last used online as the background for the catch-up broadcast of June’s Scottish Junior Cup final between Auchinleck Talbot and Yoker Athletic.

Now that is “cultural barbarism”.

This week on the Football Clichés podcast: Every Premier League Club’s Transfer DNA

Adam, Charlie and Jack Pitt-Brooke undertook a stock-take of all 20 Premier League clubs’ transfer market identities: which precise sort of player encapsulates their transfer window habits in the modern era? And who is the most [Club X] player never to have signed for [Club X]?

This journey through the transfer window and beyond includes: the England Under-21s of the early 2000s who somehow never played for Leeds; an entire line-up of overwhelmingly Bournemouth names; which club have the strongest obsession with goal-shy strikers; and the most by-the-numbers club-website transfer announcement ever seen.

The corridor of uncertainty

Each week, It Is What It Is will field queries from readers on the quirks and anomalies of the language of football (and other niches). The opening mailbag is an early statement of intent…

Hello Adam, I heard on another Athletic podcast that someone had been “denied by the crossbar”. But can a goal be denied by an inanimate object? The post/bar doesn’t move so the shot was always going to hit the woodwork and was never potentially going to go in. A defender or goalkeeper can deny by performing some kind of action to repel the ball, but not a post or crossbar — Andy Hammond

A common complaint about the football vernacular, this: the figurative sentience of “the woodwork” — crossbars and posts can also come to a goalkeeper’s “rescue”, so they giveth as much as Andy insists they taketh away — has long been disputed. Similarly, there is a widespread insistence that a goalscoring effort that strikes the frame of the goal is somehow “unlucky” compared to one that narrowly missed the target completely (but let’s not get started on whether hitting the woodwork should count as being in the spirit of “on target”).

In summary, given football’s real-time preoccupation with narrative, a little poetic licence when it comes to the intentions of the goalframes is well within the remit of the language of the game. Approved!

So, presumably, like an actual bowl cut? The hair formed into a deep crevice big enough to 1) comfortably house a size 5 football and 2) withstand the legal opposition shoulder-barges that would inevitably follow? More importantly, would Opta consider this a header? How would the ball be transferred there in the first place?

(No, but seriously: unsporting conduct, yellow card.)

Do footballers’ emotions range from fuming to buzzing, or are there any more extreme feelings they can have outside of that line? — Adam Nathan

The full range of declared footballing emotions (in ascending order):

  • Gutted: Versatile and relatable, best used for long-term injury victims but also useful for devastating big-game defeats.
  • Fuming: Few people in football declare they are fuming, but refereeing decisions can mean they are “left fuming”.
  • Disappointed: The sheer range of uses for the word “disappointed” in football is incredible. It can traditionally be deployed in any scenario from “a goalscorer of some repute has just dragged a shot wide with only the goalkeeper to beat” to “nuclear armageddon has taken place right in the middle of the second half”.
  • Happy: Scorer of one or two goals, but should have scored another.
  • Delighted: Scorer of a hat-trick, newly-unveiled signing.
  • Buzzing: 18-year-old debutant. No higher football emotion.

What positions can be called “mid-table”? I’d like to think 9th-14th in a 20-team league is certainly mid-table as 15th starts getting into “relegation battle” territory whilst at 8th you’re almost certainly looking at Europe. The term “mid-table” is often used far too loosely — Matt Ginsberg

Ninth to 14th seems acceptable but it then depends on whether the team in 15th are “looking over their shoulders”.

Why do football people always say “yeah like I said…”/“like I say” when referring to things that they haven’t yet said? — Dan

My instincts here are that players — who are frequently giving several interviews in quick succession — are increasingly self-aware when they start to slip into the stock football language of “kicking on from here” and “it’s a tough place to come and get a result”.

Dr Gareth Carrol, a lecturer in psycholinguistics at the University of Birmingham, says a textbook “Yeah, like I say” has a firm place in our everyday communication.

“These phrases are part of our normal speech and they tend to be used for a variety of purposes, such as structuring what you want to say, flagging up something important, or simply as a way of filling space while people think of what they want to say next.

“In a similar vein, one I’ve noticed a lot (especially from cricketers being interviewed) is a tendency to start answers with ‘Look…’

“I noticed it first with Australians, but it seems to have spread (and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see footballers doing it too). It feels like a way of deflecting criticism, as in, ‘Look, I know what you just said is true but here are the reasons why what you are saying is wrong’.”

It Is What It Is will return every Friday — send in your questions and observations on the language of football (or any other curiosities you’ve spotted) by commenting below or tweeting Adam here.

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