When Eric Cantona went ballistic in January 1995, kicking out at a Crystal Palace fan after being sent off at Selhurst Park. It was Norman Davies the Manchester United kitman who had the unenviable job of walking Cantona back to the changing room. He was nicknamed “Vaseline” by the United players after Eric slipped from his grasp and lashing out at the fan. Norman Davies passed away some time ago, yet the story has stuck with me: the kitman is an unsung hero of the team. Never a public figure, not a coach, yet a confidant of the players. First in the dressing room to lay out the kit, be it for training or a game. Then last out of the changing room in preparation to wash the training swag of 30 players who are done for the day and free to go home.
“Yeah you kinda just do the laundry automatically.” Says Nelson Hernandez after training, “This is my first season doing this, so it’s not just the players who are starting the USL season, it is me too.” With that Hernandez grins wide, strokes his beard that would put Mark Pais’s from last year to shame and wanders off to start putting the new USL balls from training back into their bags.
Nelson is a full time intern, 23, and goes to school at Missouri Baptist University for Sports Management along with his colleague Jose Villatoro, 22.
“They have blue slips and green slips.” says Hernandez. Yet I have to cut him short immediately as he’s lost me in the jargon. What’s a slip? “Well,” he continues. “It’s a fabric loop we use to tie all the players gear together. Especially in training. A blue slip will consist of warm weather training gear, a tank top and shorts. A green slip like we use now is primarily cold weather gear. Training t shirt, 3/4 zip long sleeve top, training pants plus compression underwear. Everything a player needs to wear for a training session aside their boots.”
So all they need to do is walk into the dressing room for training and pick a loop in their size and they have all the clothes they’ll need for that days session. “Precisely.”
It all sounds pretty straight forward. However, then I broach the 10 days on the road that kicks off the USL season. Hernandez leads me to the away dressing room at WWT Soccer Park, where preparations are underway for the first and longest road trip the team will take in the Western Conference. Villatoro is already in there, putting out the pregame shirts when I get stopped in my tracks. “Wow they are gorgeous” I proclaim. Hernandez and Villatoro look at me in wonder. They’ve seen the new pregame jerseys before and aren’t new to them. Fans like me are consummate kit guys. We saw the fallout over last years home shirt debut. There will be no fallout over these new pregame jerseys. The club hit a home run. (As I write this, nobody else has seen them. Published after the first game and everyone has now seen them: I’m right, right?)
So with 3 games to start the season on the road, I see them only laying out the kit for each player. A couple of thoughts occur to me. We play in blue and white. LA Galaxy play in white, and OC Blues play in Blue so do we have to take our home and away jerseys with us? “I hope not or this will take six hours instead of three.” Nelson quips. So who determines how all that happens, what kits to take? And with that Nelson points over my shoulder to a harassed Cara Schubbe in the room over from the corridor as she gives one of the new players his clothes for travelling in on the flight to Salt Lake.
Schubbe, 24, used to do this last year in the clubs inaugural season and is well versed in the intricacies that make up such a road trip.
“In USL there is no set home and away jerseys as such. More primary and secondary, although it is the home team who gets to decide what shirts they want to wear. We have to inform the league a week or so in advance what the plan is so there are no mix ups on game day. In an instance like this, most teams are accommodating so we don’t have to travel with more than necessary. if LA Galaxy were to visit a bunch of teams and needed us to play in white to accommodate them we would do so.”
The list of equipment is mind boggling, not just for Nelson and Jose, but for the players too. Travel clothes include 3 polo shirts and travel pants to be worn by players while on the road representing the club. Boots and shinguards naturally belong to the realm of the player. “And any bizarre underwear or compression stuff they want too.” adds Nelson. “They can add whatever they want to their strip by way of extra sliders [underwear / compression gear] but if it isn’t on there it isn’t on me.”
They lay out the kit on the floor. One set for every player traveling in numerical order, this is when my head begins to do somersaults as Schubbe brings in the list of players who made the squad. “Number 5 isn’t going, number 10 and 25 are staying behind.” I begin to do some mental exercises, Taka is 10, Ciesulka was 5 who is that now and who is 25? Then I frown, and involuntary blurt out “25 is Barklage”. I can’t conceal my disappointment in him not traveling.
“Is it?” responds Schubbe looking at me nonplussed. “I just know them by their numbers. Except Jamiel [Hardware] who is number 7. Jamiel doesn’t like socks so I know to put cut off socks with his kit. We get the odd request like that. Makes the days interesting. I know these guys probably more than the coaches do, however with logistics like this you can’t deal with emotions and people. Just stick to numbers.”
I notice they only have 2 kits per player. They will obviously need laundered, and what happens if a player tears or bloodies his shirt?
“We have spares obviously. Number 44 is a blank shirt for players who need an extra shirt during a game for whatever reason. So if you see 44 running around you’ll know he has been in the wars a bit. Of course the kits will need laundered on the road, that’s not me though. I am not traveling, I’m quite looking forward to a break!”
There is nothing more satisfying than looking at a locker room and seeing pristine kit, folded, crisp. Ready to go ready for battle. Everything a player needs to give his all.
The result wasn’t what we wanted. The last minute goal was a kick in the teeth, and Omar’s collapse put a lot of things in perspective. However Cara, Nelson and Jose made sure the lads were given everything they needed, and will need this upcoming season. Respect to the people we don’t see. The people who keep the wheels of the team lubricated out of view of the fans.
The season is a marathon and not a sprint, and this kit is cleaned, packed and on the way to Los Angeles.