Dele Alli should listen to more Stevie Wonder. The Tottenham and England attacking midfielder has returned from the World Cup, he tells us, with a new lucky charm, a bracelet given to him by a taxi driver before he went into a St Petersburg clinic for a scan on his thigh after the victory over Tunisia.
Worried that his tournament might be over, he was relieved to discover the muscle strain was slight and, grateful for the talismanic effect of the obviously enchanted bangle, carries the gift with him everywhere, the latest addition, according to the Evening Standard, to "a lengthy list" of pre-match rituals and touchstones. "Superstition ain't the way," the blessed Stevie advised us, but Alli persists with 11-year-old shinpads, a precise eight-minute dip in the ice bath on the eve of a match, a superfluous strip of tape applied to his left knee and now carries the magic trinket – all to ward off misfortune and elicit its opposite in a game of football.
The Standard's judgment of length may, like a frustrated angler's, err on the hyperbolic side yet it does inform us that players' propensity to be as soppy as actors when it comes to a fanciful load of old cobblers continues to flourish. Alli, though, is a mere dabbler compared with the dingbat compulsions of some of the game's more delusional eccentrics.
Take Alan Rough, for instance. The Partick Thistle goalkeeper and first-choice for Scotland at the 1978 and 1982 World Cups began by not shaving before games and before long he was wedded to wearing the same old jersey under his official shirt, white socks, though he should have worn red on international duty, always changing at peg No13 and bouncing the ball a set number of times against the dressing room wall before he went out.
But that was only the start. Once out on the field, a whole new liturgy had to be observed, as he told The Scotsman. "I used to have a hatful of lucky charms to put behind the net," he said. "There was a scabby tennis ball in there, a thistle keyring, a couple of marbles - and when fans chucked more I'd have to put them in the bunnet, too. I liked to blow my nose a lot during games, and ask the time a lot. And I'd always have seven pieces of Wrigley's with me: three for each half and another for the last five minutes when things got exciting." With all that on his mind, is it any wonder he was caught cold by Teofilo Cubillas's magnificent free-kick in Cordoba and Zico's four years later in Seville?
It's a common enough trait in the trade to make one think goalkeepers are singularly peculiar. As the game's ultimate victims of chaos and caprice, they try to find order, a faith in cause and effect taken to extremes. Shay Given had a vial of holy water from Lourdes in his glovebag every time he kept goal, David James was discreet enough only to disclose a tiny part of the "ritual so complex it could fill a page" – refusing to speak to his team-mates, waiting until the lavatories were deserted to spit against the wall above a specific urinal – and even Gordon Banks feared he would be late for the 1966 World Cup semi-final when he discovered he had run out of Beechnut chewing gum and would not countenance a rival offering.
He liked to coat his hands in sugary saliva to help the ball grip, he said, but the fact that he dispatched the trainer, Harold Shepherdson, through the throngs up Wembley Way to a newsagent to fetch some to be given to him in the tunnel before he ran out because only that brand would do suggests it was as much a crutch as an adhesive. Brian Glanville was generally correct in his diagnosis that "goalkeepers are different" but when it comes to this type of fallacy, they're pretty conventional.
Johan Cruyff, a man so rational in principle and argument, would still begin each game he played for Ajax by slapping his goalkeeper Gert Bals in the solar plexus and then gobbing his chewing gum into the opposition's half before kick-off. Eric Cantona put a sachet of salt in his socks, Eusebio always carried a lucky coin in his boot, Eddie Gray a photograph of his wife down one sock, Adrian Mutu wore his undies inside-out while Bobby Moore had to be the last person in the starting XI to put his shorts on and would stand waiting, holding them, until everyone else was dressed.
Purple, associated with death for some Italians, freaked Roberto Mancini out and he refused to allow his players to wear Uefa bibs of that colour when they warmed up to play Ajax in the Champions League, forcing the Manchester City staff to beg their opponents to swap. The former Leeds United owner, Massimo Cellino, was also spooked by purple as well as the No17 but he had nothing on the club's finest manager, Don Revie, who came as close to anyone in football of going the "full Peter Sellers".
The great comic actor was petrified of green and purple, insisted on giving anyone who handed him something sharp a penny, believed that walking between two nuns would bring him good fortune and evolved his litany of tics and rites into a fascination with mysticism, séances and the occult.
The strange thing about Revie's superstitions, his fear of birds that inspired him to banish the owl from the club's badge, his anxiety when John Giles put a pair of boots on a table and particularly his belief in the 'gipsy's curse' haunting Elland Road that he arranged to be exorcised in 1963 was that very little was made of it at the time.
The transformation of his image from eccentric to "nutter" happened much later. As we have seen, this sort of nonsense is not that unusual in football. As late as the mid 1990s Barry Fry, manager of Birmingham City, would cheerfully recount how he had urinated in the four corners of St Andrew's to ward off the evil spirits affecting his club.
Revie too was never self-conscious about it and in 1970 allowed Yorkshire TV to film his pre-match routine, expounding on his habits in the commentary over the footage. "I have the same blue suit on that I've had since the first match of the season," he said, "the same lucky tie, one or two lucky charms in my pocket – I have a spot up here, I walk up to the traffic lights every time, I turn around and walk back to the hotel."
This bizarre promenade and all his little foibles have been held up to ridicule but essentially they were, like Alli's, harmless little rituals that comforted him. It's discernible from his droll voiceover that he, more than anyone, was aware of how daft he appeared. However, he continued to see his little ceremonies as a principal part of his match preparation, refusing to leave anything he might be able to control, however illogical, to chance.
And that's the crux of it. Reason should kill superstition but then football and life have never been entirely rational pursuits. We take our comforts where we can. Now, where are my lucky pants?