James Saban fulfils one of the most underrated and misunderstood roles in football – organising the team’s equipment.
It’s easy to think of James’ role as providing fresh shirts for matchday and packing a few spares for emergencies. But he and his colleagues across the league are the unsung heroes of the league. The detailed level of planning comes through in the small details we often neglect as fans.
In an interview for Blowing Bubbles, James spoke of the vast levels of organisation and planning required to kit players out for a game of Premier League football. ‘We take four sets of shirts for each player; some might carry a bit more if the player prefers long sleeves.
‘Or if the player can’t decide if they are one size or another size, we make sure both sizes are ready for each player’s preference. Minimum we carry four: one for the first half, one for the second half. ‘We have a ‘blood bag’ which sits on the bench with myself. If an emergency, like a head injury requires a change, the kit is just there ready. It’s just there as and when required.’
James has been with the club for 12 years, coming in under Tony Carr and fully taking over match-day responsibilities with the move to London Stadium. When asked about how much football has changed over the past decade, James responded: ‘It’s changed a lot. I wouldn’t say that you’re at the players’ beck and call, but you’ve got to think of things that you wouldn’t usually think of.
‘We carry a hairdryer with us. Not just for the players after the game, but if the boots are wet. Things like that. Silly little things – I carry hair bands, we carry inner soles for each player.’ Sadly, he didn’t reveal which players need hairbands, maybe it’s a hangover from the Andy Carroll era.
The level of equipment and planning is amplified on away trips: ‘We carry a lot of kit daily – it’s like moving house on an away game! You haven’t got the assurance of running to grab something from your locker, what you pack is what you take.’ Using the example of West Ham’s October trip to Goodison Park, we learned about this planning, as well as what goes into the festive period.
‘For the Everton game, those shirts were auctioned for Children in Need, then after that we had the Poppy shirt. ‘Coming to the busy period of Christmas, where normal businesses shut around 20th December, I have to make sure my stock of numbers, letters are sorted – anything that I may need from Adidas or Nike is in place, to see me through the games.
‘Most businesses aren’t going to open until early January, so I’ve got to make sure that boots and little things are all catered for.’ There’s a lot more to James than laying out kits and giving them a wash before the next session.
‘Basically, to make sure all the first team players, coaching staff have got everything they need day-to-day. Whether that be training sessions, matches, practice games, it could be anything they throw at us. ‘Every training day I’m in from 6am, getting things ready for every training day. Right down to the different socks that each player likes, some are low-maintenance, some are high-maintenance.’
At the highest level of professional sport, we like to talk about those small details that make a big difference, like those missed VAR decisions that come back to haunt teams down the line. James’ unsung role at West Ham keeps the players happy and comfortable.
‘If a player doesn’t shout my name on a matchday, then I feel like I’ve done everything I could have done to make sure the boys are well-prepared. It’s only a small part, but it’s also a big part.’ One example of this is the ‘boot-steaming’ process in place for players ahead of each training session and game.
‘An hour or 45 minutes before training games, we put the players’ boots in. Not all players need it or want it, but it just makes the boot a lot softer, so when they slide their feet in, it’s a lot easier for them.
‘A lot of them might have niggling toe problems or something like that. It’s basically like a kettle, that’s the only way to describe it!’ James is a crucial yet underrated part of the dressing room.
‘We are in the changing room from the moment we arrive on matchday. I’ll be in there when the manager is giving his final instructions and when the captain is saying his part. We are there in the background, just tidying up, in case they need you.’
He goes into the spare equipment required for the duration of the match itself, carried in the cheerfully named ‘blood bag’. ‘We have spare stuff in there like studs, stud keys, cigarette lighters, for players to burn the end of their laces. They don’t like the long laces, so they’ll cut it down. It’s all down to what they prefer.’
Like so many roles in the country at the moment, James’ team has been massively affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. ‘It’s changed lots of things for me. At the minute, for example, we’re not washing the boys’ training kit – they’re all taking it home themselves to wash.
‘It’s in the new rules that they have to come in already changed, ready to literally step out onto the pitch, so that’s one thing we don’t have to worry about, but it’s just a case of us being on hand for them really.
‘During lockdown the boys had to do a medical screening over two days, so once we knew when they were going to be there, it was a case of getting two sets of kit bagged up – two t-shirts, two pair of shorts, the socks they all wear, a couple of sweaters, a pair of bottoms – ready for them to take as they did the medical screening. They turned up and all the kit was there available to them.’
Training sessions have become almost unrecognisable to what came before. ‘We’ve got two containers of disinfectant at the side of the pitch. There are four members of staff so between them and myself, we’re just liaising with the coaches so that when a section of training is finished, we can wipe it down, spray it down and then move onto the next part.
‘It’s the same with the balls – the balls get washed in between sessions if there are two sessions going on each day.’ It was fascinating hearing James and learning more about the logistics involved at the club.
It’s easy to take the little things for granted when watching football, it’s rare to consider the people involved in making sure the players are comfortable and wearing the right gear for their demands. In a sport where the smallest thing can make a huge difference, James Saban is the unsung hero of the West Ham backroom staff.