FOR the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Argentina were managed by Diego Maradona.
Before and during most matches he could be seen crossing himself furiously, more than most priests do in a month of Sundays.
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With the help of slow motion in our TV truck, I think the most we counted was 14 crossings of himself in one go. His right hand was a blur of frantic devotion.
Here was a man who had let superstition run out of control.
I knew this was the case because I was the same — it’s about all I had in common with Maradona.
There are so many examples from my own football-supporting life, I plain don’t know where to start.
How about in the gents’ at West Brom? Just before kick-off in one game I went for a wee and found myself struggling because it turned out I’d put my boxer shorts on the wrong way around.
The gap was at the back instead of the front. I managed, but it was tricky.
When I got to my seat, I told my friends what I’d gone and done.
Upon winning that particular match one of them suggested I should do the back-to-front boxer shorts trick at the next home game.
This I did, and we won again. And the same for the following match.
Before kick-off at the game after that, someone checked with me that I’d gone back-to-front again.
When I confessed that I’d forgotten to do so, I was sent back to the gents’ to remove my trousers and don the boxers the right — or rather wrong — way around. We won again.
The next match, I made sure the boxers were back to front beforehand, but we lost.
And so, finally, this boxer nonsense could stop. But something else would soon come along. Ahead of one match, I ate two pies instead of one. And we won 2-0.
The god of football had obviously spotted something. Before the next game I downed three pies. Result? 3-0.
I spent the following game in a state of some digestive discomfort having downed four pies.
Needless to say, we didn’t score four goals and neither did we win. That was the end of the pie superstition.
When my daughter was too little to refuse to attend matches, I took her to The Hawthorns a few times. Every time I did so, we seemed to win.
Word of this must have got around because at one game a friend of mine was asked, anxiously, by someone I’d never even met if I’d brought my daughter to the match.
This was too much for me. I couldn’t be dragging a four-year-old girl into the hopes and dreams of random football fans.
I resolved to call a halt to this superstition business and I’ve been a lot happier for it.
But as a special favour to our boys, I’m bringing all my old favourites out of retirement on Wednesday evening.
My boxers will be on back to front, I’ll eat three pies and I’ll force my daughter to watch with me.
Nothing can go wrong. And if Gareth wants to use that in his team talk, then he’s more than welcome.
Of course, players also have pre-game superstitions. Below are some of the England stars’ rituals.
The attacking midfielder, 25, likes to roll down his socks so far that his shin pads are visible and says: “Obviously, your socks are supposed to go above your calves.
“But one year the socks shrunk in the wash, so they wouldn’t go higher.
“That season, I ended up playing really well. So it became a superstitious thing for me. I thought, ‘I’m going to keep doing this because I’ve done well’.”
The captain and striker, 27, has previously attributed a goal streak at Spurs to ditching his razor.
In 2014, after scoring in three consecutive games, he said: “I have not had a shave since my first goal.
“It is the first time I have gone for the bearded look, and the missus might not be too happy if I score the next couple of weeks but it is a superstition I am keeping.”
Left-back Luke, 25, was once given a pair of socks by his girlfriend Anouska Santos, adorned with the face of his baby boy.
Now he believes his customised socks, bearing the image of little Reign London, brings him good fortune in crunch matches.
He says: “I will always make sure I have them on. They are kind of like my lucky socks.”
The centre-back, 28, revealed he speaks to his psychologist for a few minutes before every game, to put himself into a hyper-competitive state.
He says: “We talk about settling down the inner child, and any feelings he might have, in what I’m about to do.
“Then we talk to the best version of myself and what he looks like, how he’s stood, how he feels, how he competes.”
Striker Marcus, 23, always points to the sky, remembering his Nana Cillian, who imparted valuable wisdom to him when he was a boy.
In his book, he wrote about the pain of losing her when he was 11.
He says: “Check out what I do before I get on the pitch – I do the sign of the cross then I point up to my nana. That’s my way of trying to share what big moments I can with her.”
Defender Kyle, 31, will do anything to avoid a rotten performance – including wearing rotting shin pads.
He’s worn the same pair for 14 years, saying: “They’re hanging together a bit but are doing OK. I will never change them. I’ve never lost them.
“They have to be there. It’s impossible not to have them. I’d rather lose my boots.”
He also eats spag bol every night before a game.
Keeper Dean, 24, always has a quick chat with his lost loved ones, looking up at the sky to them.
He says: “I do it for my grandad and Pops. They’re always looking down on me, so I like to talk to them before the game. It’s just a weird thing I’ve always done, asking for their support in the games.
“I ask them to get behind me . . . and tell them it’s my time to shine.”