The Last Defender: Half-time shirt-swapping

during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg match between AS Monaco and Arsenal at Stade Louis II on March 17, 2015 in Monaco, Monaco.

They say clothes make the man, but ‘they’ are idiots. Men make clothes, not the other way around. You can’t just turn around the actual way things work and pretend it’s profound insight. Martin Skrtel isn’t actually made of skirts. Sebastian Coates and Kenny Jackett don’t hang around cloakrooms together. Cesc Fabregas doesn’t actually have a fabric ass.

But there is a school of thought that says controlling the clothes is a means of controlling the man. From school uniform to military attire to fines for turning up to training in unclean boots, our culture is filled with example of fashion as an indication of someone’s discipline levels.

It works on some people, but personally I’ve always regarded ‘discipline’ as one of those nebulous words that people use for their own purposes without really knowing what they mean, like ‘respect’ and ‘role model’ and ‘nebulous’ and ‘hygiene’. Surely it’s better to gain respect through being fair and reasonable and concentrating on the issues that actually matter, rather than by spending loads of time enforcing entirely arbitrary rules in the name of ‘discipline’? Doesn’t that rather undercut the message that what you say deserves attention and respect?

But that doesn’t stop some people from taking it very seriously indeed. Rory Smith related in a recent edition of the excellent Set Piece Menu podcast that he once had to buy jacket and tie at an airport after finding himself as the only journalist travelling with United and remembering Sir Alex Ferguson’s fierce attitudes towards more casually-dressed reporters. Just think about the fact that Fergie’s control and influence extended so far as to dictate the dress code of people who don’t even work for him.

For lots of people, the look of the thing is more important than the thing itself. An act can all be entirely harmless when broken down into its constituent parts step by step, but when taken as a whole amounts to a serious infraction. For example, if you told most fans that a player had swapped shirts with another player outside the dressing rooms after the game, they wouldn’t bat an eyelid. If you told them that they’d casually tapped Lionel Messi on the arm in the tunnel at half-time for a similar exchange, they’d probably be fine with that too. But doing it eight yards prior, in front of the dug-outs? Burn the heretic!

I get it: we want players to show that they share the fans’ hurt in troubled times. The attitude is that visibly going out of your way to swap shirts in public is the unprofessional act of a pre-occupied and bedazzled small-timer, more interested in the glitz and glamour of football than they are in doing their jobs.

But that ignores that top-level players commonly wear two shirts per game anyway; that swapped shirts are often given straight to charity auctions and thus bigger players are worth chasing down; that many people respond poorly to disciplinarian regimes; and that years of observation tells us that for footballers, this an inherently harmless, meaningless and routine act. Only in the emotional cauldron of football could the phrase “he’d give you the shirt off his back” be spoken with such distaste.

It’s strange that supporters have such strong opinions about it despite having practically no frame of reference for whether or not it’s the done thing: I doubt many people in the stands are used to casually stripping to the waist and swapping clothes with a trusted colleague midway through the working day, regardless of how commonplace it may be on the playing field or inside the offices of a moderately-popular football website.

Perhaps predictably, the criticism from within the game seems mainly to come from Ferguson’s old charges: Paul Scholes tutted at Mesut Ozil for his half-time shirt swap during Arsenal’s 2-0 win (win!) over Monaco in 2015, Roy Keane had a pop at Eden Hazard for the same last year, and Ryan Giggs stuck the boot in to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and co after United were seen swapping shirts after their 4-0 loss to Chelsea in October. That’s treble-award-winning player of the year Eden Hazard, five-time German player of the year and World Cup winner Mesut Ozil, and 13-time league champion with 317 goals in 508 games Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Bloody amateurs the lot of them.

Let’s face it, it’s not the players who need to keep their shirts on here.

Steven Chicken – follow him on Twitter here