The Daisy Cutter recently met up with Trusox founder Jim Cherneski for a fascinating discussion on the origins of the sportswear phenomenon that is sweeping through football and the wider sporting world. The subsequent interview was published in The Set Pieces. Here, in an accompanying feature we further explore the rise and rise of an innovative sock that is worn by three-quarters of the players at the Euros and the lengths rival brands have gone to ensure you remain unaware of this.
1/ Imagine having an idea so ingenious and practical that a stranger’s immediate reaction is to wonder aloud how on earth it doesn’t already exist. Imagine being so passionate about your invention that you don’t bore your friends with it down the pub but instead embark on the steepest of learning curves – teaching yourself about completely alien worlds of clothing technology, patents, and high-end business along the way – until just a handful of years later a rival company is offering $40 million for your product and half the world’s most famous footballers are wearing it: most of them covertly and against the express wishes of their official sponsors.
Jim Cherneski doesn’t have to imagine any of this. He has experienced the surreal highs and crazy lows that embarking and succeeding in such a venture brings along with industry manoeuvrings that he equates to Watergate. It is an extraordinary tale that reads like a thriller. And perhaps most intriguing of all it is a tale about socks. Yup, socks.
Like the greatest modern inventions – from Apple computers to grunge – it all began in a small garage. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s Jim played professional soccer for a number of sides in the US before returning to his native Maryland to become player/coach at Crystal Palace Baltimore, a transatlantic off-shoot of the London club. Even as a young player movement in his boots was a major irritant and if you’ve played the game at any level you will immediately know what is being inferred here. A player changes direction or plants his foot with suddenness and while the boot stays put the foot – to use Jim’s own analogy – becomes a raft in a swimming pool. For all of us it is an annoyance but to Jim it was infinitely more. A long-standing complaint revealed an untapped source of curiosity that soon became obsession.
First came the idea: A sock made of non-slip material that essentially locks together foot and boot thus eradicating movement. It’s worth remembering that at this point the then 35 year old was merely seeking to scratch a personal itch so to that end the solution was surely achievable? If Jim were British and raised on Blue Peter you would assume double-sided sticky tape would have sprung to mind and maybe it did in his crude early prototypes that starkly illustrated one of life’s crueller truths – often the simplest answers are the hardest to fathom. So Jim did what any novice inventor would do: He googled, then googled some more, becoming more and more convinced that he was really onto something. His compulsion led him to sock mills in Alabama and earnest dialogue with scientists and “melting stuff” on his front porch so as not to get fumes in the house. It resulted in countless hours of running and cutting on pitches and makeshift pitches, all the time seeking the feedback of his team-mates as they trialled yarns and elastication, at times coming so close only to discover the sock lost all adhesiveness when wet.
Trial followed error and error followed trial until finally around 2011 – after working without wages for seven months at Baltimore as the club prepared for its imminent extinction and with exorbitant patent fees and household bills racking up to scary heights – Jim had it: a product, an invention, a material that has become one of the most important innovations in sportswear technology in living memory. When Hollywood eventually come calling and one of the Affleck brothers plays him and they reach this juncture it will no doubt be filmed as a Eureka moment, presumably with Ben or Casey in the midst of despair and looking to the starry heavens. In reality it emerged piecemeal through years of perseverance, stubborn-minded investigation, and spirit-crushing set-backs.
Through random happenstance much-needed partners were secured but it’s fair to say finances were still tight, if not prohibitive, which required guerrilla marketing and every available resource to be maximised to prevent the Trusox tale from becoming a what-might-have-been anecdote told at dinner parties. Jim had plenty of contacts in the game and had already shown ample belief and a desire to graft for his dream so the next twelve months were spent dividing his time flying to England and persuading kit men to pass his socks onto the players then driving around Maryland’s sports shops saying ‘Look, see those rectangles above the boot of Adebayor? That’s these socks and Premier League players are wearing them. Will you take fifty?’
Within the inner sanctums of Premier League dressing rooms meantime the benefits to wearing the sock spread like wildfire. Victor Moses was a fan and recommended them to team-mates. QPR’s Shaun Derry raved about them over lunch to Jim on an early visit to our shores. By the time Rangers’ next game came around Jamie Mackie and Clint Hill were wearing them too. Jim found himself well acquainted with the M1 as kit men began ordering them in droves. In the north-west Luis Suarez lit up Anfield week after week and all the time with the distinctive patches showing above his boots. We can only speculate on the conversation that took place but shortly after his close friend Steven Gerrard followed suit. Sales shot up and interest was piqued.
This was in the heady days, before the sporting giants became aware of what was going on; before they began calling up Trusox employees and declaring they were going to be put out of business; before the kit men were fined and threatened with their jobs; before the players were leaned on, warned, fined, then ultimately instructed to obscure the sock beneath taping and their own sponsored brand. This was before one of the said sportswear giants brought out their own version of the sock, a version that, according to Jim’s patent attorney, already means he is owed millions in recompense.
2/ It would be somewhat disingenuous to suggest that Jamie Vardy propelled himself from lower league obscurity to international stardom through the wearing of a sock. It would be a similar stretch to claim that the fabric that encased his feet should take the bulk of the credit for Luis Suarez’s explosion to prominence at Liverpool and beyond, or that it magically transformed Gareth Bale from being a White Hart Lane ‘jinx’ (Spurs lost in the Welshman’s first 24 appearances for the club) to a global superstar residing on the same plateau as Ronaldo and Messi.
For one thing Trusox have been worn by two-thirds of the footballers representing their countries at this summer’s Euros. As already alluded to, unless you’re blessed with the keenest of eyes you probably haven’t noticed as they are usually harmonised at the ankle with the upper part of a sock from whichever major sportswear manufacturer is sponsoring that team or player. Or to put another way the sportswear giants take all the photogenic glory while Trusox does the legwork. But returning to the original point: two thirds of the continent’s elite have been wearing Trusox at the tournament and some of the players have been disappointing. Yes we’re looking at you England.
Yet countering that are the very same facts. Gareth Bale did start wearing Trusox directly in sync with his breakout year. As did Suarez. As did Vardy. And while some of the England squad have worn them a significantly higher proportion of the Italy, Iceland and Wales squads have too, three sides who have, by anyone’s estimation, over-achieved this summer. So there does appear to be an undeniable correlation between improved performance – in some instances a quantum leap in form and confidence – and a player wearing the revolutionary footwear.
Then there’s the raft of anecdotal evidence to further support Trusox’s pedigree. Ahead of the 2014 World Cup final Jerome Boateng approached Cherneski and complained that if he wore the socks he would be fined. Jim replied, ‘You have a decision. Do you want to please your sponsors or do you want to play well?’ Boateng wore the socks prominently and enjoyed an outstanding game, a continuation of an outstanding tournament that capped an outstanding upward trajectory in a career that once divided opinion.
Then how do you explain the desperate clamour for new socks from the Italians ahead of their recent last 16 clash with Spain at Euro 2016? Or the Bayern Munich players insisting Jim is allowed through the training ground gates to deliver the latest batch?
Modern-day footballers are so detached from the public they are in many ways a mystery but if there’s one thing we know about them it is this – they do not go out of their way to annoy their sponsors. They cede to interviews they would rather not do and perform like circus monkeys in adverts and all to keep their sponsors happy and the money flowing in. So why do they jeopardise this mutually profitable harmony over innocuous fabric if not because they greatly improve their game?
Yet speak to Cherneski and he diplomatically plays down this aspect, instead concentrating his zeal on the safety benefits. He shows us pictures of Jack Wilshere – a player not unfamiliar with the treatment table – with his foot slid virtually out of his boot during a straightforward turn and to quote directly from the Set Pieces article linked in the introduction – “These socks benefit the players and we’ve had orthopaedic doctors saying the players are safer. They prevent injuries and corporate greed is stopping that happening. If you’re an amateur player you’re allowed to wear them and be safer but not if you’re a professional. That’s like the NFL saying no to a helmet that’s been proven to stop concussions because they’re not being paid millions of dollars.”
3/ At the mention of ‘corporate greed’ it is here we enter murkier waters. Jim tells of a meeting with a very well-known sportswear giant in 2010 to discuss the selling of his patent. Despite refusing to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) two pages of notes were eagerly scribbled down only for the keen interest to evaporate at the meeting’s close.
“You have to admit this could be one of your biggest sellers,” Jim proffered.
“That’s true,” came the reply. “If we haven’t already invented it.”
Five years later the company released a remarkably similar version and essentially claimed precisely that, including in their promotional bumph an erroneous boast of a lightbulb moment during its development.
Contradicting this somewhat was that same company’s earlier $40m offer to Jim for Trusox’s intellectual property. He responded that a figure of $500m would be more realistic considering that no-one knows as yet to what extent the non-slip material might transform sport at large (It is not only in football that Trusox has made an impact – Joe Root wears them at the stumps while baseball legend Miguel Cabrera was so impressed with the product he recently insisted they made a shoe for him). Following protracted negotiation a significant down-payment and a royalty was provisionally agreed upon. We’ll let Jim pick up the story –
“They agreed to the royalty but the way they wrote it back was really slippery. The way it was written was that even if they changed it a little bit they don’t pay me. I didn’t spend $300,000 on our IP just to let them take it but their response was priceless – ‘Well do you want to be suing people your whole life? That sounds pretty miserable to us’.”
“My attorneys told me beforehand how it will play out and it’s been exactly that way. First they’ll be friendly, then they’ll make an offer and you’ll say no to it, then they’ll string you out and wait until the point where you’re just really tired before making a significant offer that’s not big enough. Finally they get threatening and say ‘Make sure your client takes this offer or we’ll bury them’.”
Then there’s those kit men mentioned earlier who no longer return Jim’s calls for fear of punishment from their employers at the behest of the sportswear giants who sponsor them. This has resulted in the bizarre situation of Gareth Bale – presently the most expensive footballer on the planet – taking his Trusox socks home with him to wash after training and Arjen Robben being instructed by his sponsors on how to harmonise the lower part of his Trusox with their branded pair. It seems the latest strategy to nullify Trusox’s rise to prominence is an admission of defeat of sorts – if you can’t beat them, hide them in plain view. During a recent contract negotiation between a Chelsea goalkeeper and his club meanwhile the player was reportedly perplexed and angry at how often the socks came up in discussion.
It is perhaps important here to play devil’s advocate. It can sometimes be too convenient to paint these sportswear giants as the villains of the piece and it’s of course worthy of note that they too began from humble beginnings. After building up their brand over several decades to the point where they are behemoths of their industry they then – perfectly legitimately – lavish great fortunes on affiliating themselves with clubs and players. Don’t they then have every right to be aggrieved when a player from that club or an individual sponsored by them doesn’t fully showcase the products they are being paid a fortune to promote?
Well, yes, that would be pertinent, were it not for the fact that Trusox do not form part of the official kit. They are a performance aid, a product that therefore can be compared directly to a shinpad. Do shinpad manufacturers encounter similar obstacles? We would guess not.
And that certainly doesn’t excuse their attempts to pulls up the drawbridge and endeavour for a closed shop, a string of instances that is akin to hiding the ball under your jumper and walking home with it, declaring that the game is over. Meanwhile the goings on in France this summer further blur the lines of fairness in enterprise and marketing. The Cutter has seen an email from a worldwide known photography agency ‘requesting’ that Trusox refrain from using images of Euro 2016 on their social media feeds. This is in spite of Trusox having an agreement with said agency. The agency freely admit that they were contacted by UEFA themselves who made the objection following a complaint from ‘an official partner’ of the tournament. This repressment extends to the pitch too. Moments before the opening whistle to the most important match of his life against Belgium last Thursday Ashley Williams was clearly unhappy to be instructed by the referee to conceal the Trusox rectangles that were visible above his boot while an Icelandic substitution was held up in their quarter final against France for the same purpose (see video here). Wales are sponsored by Adidas – the official partner in question – but Iceland are not. Both teams reportedly have an agreement for their players to wear Trusox if they wish.
I am willing to throw my hands up here and admit that the legality of this is beyond me. Indeed the sum total of my knowledge regarding legal ethics in the sports world or otherwise extends solely to watching all seven seasons of The Good Wife. What I do know, as a Welshman experiencing a lifetime’s ambition of seeing my small nation take on the continent’s elite, is that I really do not care what socks my captain wears for battle. What I do care about is that my captain is distracted seconds before that battle enforced by a UEFA match official to tape up his lower legs.
So the sportswear giants’ futile game of wac-a-mole continues, attempting to suppress the inevitable rise of a rival company that doesn’t need to resort to extravagant payment for the players to wear its wares and a rival individual who began from a position of ignorance, debt and a far-fetched dream who went on to create a truly revolutionary product. Jim Cherneski gained a skeleton key to every professional dressing room across the world but is no longer reliant on word of player from team-mate to team-mate as sales soar from a multitude of amateur players curious as to the benefits of this strange patched sock.
Act three then of this Hollywood film plays out before our very eyes. You’ll just have to look very closely – above the boot, below the tape – to see it.