A crucial player behind the scenes, the role of a kit man is always something of great interest. We caught up with West Ham's very own James Saban to get a look at what his life is like at a club so rich in character.
Lets start at the beginning, can you tell us how you get into a role like this?
"The old kit man here at the time, Steve Rigby, he was an old family friend. I had done little bit of work experience with him at Orient. I had helped the physio out and that sort of thing. He got appointed here after he left Charlton when Curbs was here. So I joined because they needed someone to help with the academy at the time, so I started there and I was there for around three years with Tony Carr. From there I’ve gradually been promoted to the first team. I’ve been here 9-10 years now, so it’s been a little while."
You must have so much to do, how far does your remit stretch?
"Basically, I have to make sure everything is ready on a day to day basis here at the training ground for the boys. I look after the kit and equipment for all all the staff and first team players through to match days. I have to make sure everyone has everything they need. Down to the shorts and sock sizes, I’ve got to make sure they’ve got at least 2-3 sets of shirts each, make sure they’re all printed up correctly based on the Premier League guide rules and all the things like that. Packing the players boots for games, I have to go around before we travel to each game and check with the players about the boots they want to wear. If you do that 25 times it’s a lot to take in but it’s one of those things that has to be done. We’ve got a boot steamer and stretcher that gets used before and after every training session to make sure everything is comfortable so it’s a hands on job that covers seven days a week. In a good way, it can be quite full on."
You’re cleaning the boots, at some clubs that’s a job for the academy players - that’s not the case at West Ham then?
"Since I’ve been here, that’s not happened. I think it was stopped a good few years ago now. It’s good for me to do it because it helps me know who is wearing what during the week so that on matchday, I already know what the player will want. Every matchday, each player will take 3-4 pairs of boots for a game so there’s a lot of kit to handle."
Were you a West Ham fan before you joined the club?
"Growing up, yeah. I couldn’t go to many games because my dad used to work Saturday’s but I’ve always supported West Ham. It can be surreal because I get to see what fans don’t normally get to see on a match day and during the week. All most fans will see is the boys running out at five to three but I’m lucky to live with what goes on behind the scenes. Especially if it’s on a Friday and the boys are training until half eight or nine in the evening. There’s a whole other side that a lot don’t see. A lot goes into the 90 minutes of a match day."
It’s not what you’d call a normal nine to five is it?
"No not at all. It’s six or seven days a week, Christmas day, the whole Christmas period and it’s something you have to give up a lot of time for. You can get overtaken by the job which is good because it keeps you busy but it’s full on. I love it though."
It obviously takes a strong level of trust to get inside the changing room, do you find it easy to build rapport with players?
"Yeah, I do. You try to make every new player that comes in as welcome as possible. You want them to feel part of the club and open them up and make sure they know that if they need anything, we’re here to help. Whether it’s ordering something specific or just helping them out, I just want them to feel at home and build a good relationship that way. I’ve known a lot of the boys here for a long while and I like to think they know what I do and can trust me."
You must have to store a lot of requests kit wise in your head, how do you manage all of various different needs players may have?
"It’s all about routine. You soon realise what a particular player does and doesn’t like, what they choose to wear. In our kit room, we stock several shirt for each player. New pairs of socks and things like that. Every player has their own locker with various sizes they may require, there’s no one size fits all in the way we do things. We cater for each player and the things we like. Right down to the shin pads. It’s one of those where you’re constantly learning as you go along. You’ve got to be organised with what you’re doing."
You will have been through a few different brands in the time you’ve been here. Is it a big change when you start working with a new brand?
"It is because you kind of have to order everything in from scratch. Down to the kit bags and all that sort of things, it’s an overhaul. From coats to socks, there’s a lot of ordering of products and things like that. More admin but once it’s in you get to work from there. We’ve already ordered everything for next year so we’re well ahead of time. So long as it comes in on time, it’s all good. For me, it’s important that the kit is looking at it’s best throughout the season. So it’s important to think about it like that. Our kit is being used every day so we tend to update the teams and backroom staff kit during the season too. I want to make sure everyone is looking as neat as possible. At the end of the day, the training kit, matchday kit and all the other stuff represents what the club is about."
What makes West Ham a special club for you? It’s obviously going through a lot of change right now.
"It’s about the environment for me. I come into work and everyone is friendly. There’s no egos or anything like that here. Everyone will talk to you whatever level they sit at in the club - we all have common ground in trying to make sure we’re all performing the best we can. We all have the same goal. I think everyone that works here probably lives within a 20 mile radius so they all have that connection to the club. It’s a great place to come in to every day."
You travel high and low with the team - what’s it like on the road?
"Well we fill the van up that is loaded with everything we need. Boots to shin pads to massage towels and medical equipment, we take it all. We take a bike with us too for warm ups and warm downs before and after games for the players so there’s a lot to remember and we don’t leave a stone unturned when it comes to kit. We try and take everything we can think of."
What about when a new manager comes in - does that mean a lot of change for you and your role?
"I guess so because you have to learn what the new manager would like. It’s not happened for a little while now and I hope it doesn’t happen anytime soon. I’ve got a good relationship with the manager here now so long may that continue."
You must have seen some pretty incredible things from where you take in a game. Are there any memories that stand out most?
"I think it has to be the last game at the Boelyn. The whole night, even though the kick off was delayed, the whole night was special. Inside the stadium, outside the stadium, before and after the game it was incredible. The old players that were there, joined by old faces that you don’t see all that often, all coming together to bid farewell to the ground. It is a memory that will stick with me for a long, long while."
How would you describe that atmosphere inside the changing room that people don’t get to see?
"It is electric to say the least. I don’t think with that game against United you could have written a greater script for just how amazing it can be. 2-1 down with minutes to go. It was electric in every sense."
Obviously every club has kit staff, do you find yourselves building relationships with other people at other clubs who have similar roles?
"Yeah you do get along with them. When we go to other grounds, they always make us feel welcome and from time to time we’ll borrow stuff off them. It’s like an unwritten rule really, to help each other out. We all talk to one another and all get along. We’re all in the same boat - we work a lot of hours, travel up and down the country so yeah there’s a level of understanding there that few people will have in common. We all know what the other is going through."
Being in the Premier League, you obviously get to go to some amazing places but with the cups as well, you go to some very different places. Have you found that you need to think on your feet a lot of the time?
"Yeah definitely. Obviously every changing room is different. Some are smaller, some are bigger, some are perfect. You have to adapt to the environment that you’re in. It is very much what it is. You’ve just got to get on with it. If you haven’t got much space then you go down to the bare essentials and work differently. It all comes with experience. You have to create as much space as possible for the manager and coaching staff to work in. Same for the physios and masseurs. You’ve got to be on hand but keep quiet almost - try and go unnoticed then you know you’ve done a good job. So long as no one is shouting your name out at ten to three, we know we’re alright. All those stadiums I’ve never been to, I enjoy going to. Like Bournemouth last season, I really enjoyed that. I hadn’t been to The Emirates before last season either and I enjoyed that. If you go somewhere like Chelsea that is in the middle of the city, it’s an adventure just trying to get there with London traffic but they’re all good to see."
When you finally get a day off and you sit down with mates and compare jobs, it must be almost impossible for anyone to relate to?
"Yeah, you could say that. I can definitely say that I get a lot of job satisfaction with what I do. I go home and I think, “yep, this is a great place to work”. I talk to the manager, talk to the likes of Julian Dicks and Chris Woods - they’re people I watched as I was growing up. They’re colleagues and friends so it’s special to me personally."
Photography by Rob Low for SoccerBible.