I am looking in the barbershop’s old-fashioned mirror and, unusually, I like what I see. I twist my head one way and another.
“Show me the back,” I say. I don’t know about you, but whenever I catch a glimpse of the back of my head I get a weird sense of my own mortality – it just looks like a good place for someone to plant a hammer. Looking at it in the mirror within a mirror, I see only the rear view of a very well-groomed stranger. It’s hard to believe this haircut – one I have long admired from afar – is actually on my head.
I must have first noticed it at some point in the middle of last season. I don’t often risk an opinion when I’m watching football with my children, but I suddenly found I could not hold my tongue.
“Who’s that?” I said, pointing at the screen.
“Scott Parker,” my son said. “Midfielder.”
Some of the other players on the pitch had similar haircuts; not as good as Parker’s, but they were definitely aiming for the same thing: short at the back and sides, long on top and slicked back neatly, with a sharply delineated parting. If it was new, there was nothing remotely modern about it. These guys all resembled 1940s matinee idols.
By the start of this season, the look was ubiquitous. If you watch a match now, it’s not unusual for half a dozen players from each team to be sporting the same haircut, along with the referee and one of the linesmen. Strangely for such a popular hairstyle, it doesn’t appear to have a name. It is undoubtedly the look of the moment, but if you type “footballer’s hair” into Google, you will mostly be greeted with pictures of eccentric misjudgments from seasons past.
Maybe it’s because the haircut has too many subtle variations to warrant an umbrella term. Joey Barton maintains a severe quasi-mohawk. Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud piles the quiff portion into a tsunami-style wave. Jack Wilshere keeps his as neat as a box hedge. In a realm where capricious changes of style and novelty haircuts are common, this sober look has proved unusually durable. Even David Beckham, whose hairstyle should always be described using the words “at the time of going to press”, has done little more than tinker round the edges with his.
And why not? It’s cool, but also sort of square. It looks great, even after 90 minutes of running around. And it’s a haircut that seems to suit almost everybody – not just footballers. Brad Pitt has sported a version somewhere between a pompadour and what is sometimes known as a “high and tight”. Savile Row tailor and Great British Sewing Bee judge Patrick Grant teams it with a beard to great effect. If relatively young men can carry off this classic, middle-aged dad-style haircut, why couldn’t an actual middle-aged dad do the same?
I am not in the habit of taking pictures of footballers into the hairdressers and saying, “Make me look like this”, but I gather it’s not at all an unusual thing to do.
“I’ve had this one quite a few times,” says Tom from Tommy Gun’s barbershop in Soho. He’s looking at a photograph of Beckham in a white T-shirt, his great-but-nameless haircut accessorised with sunglasses and a week’s worth of stubble. “Sometimes when people come in for the haircut, they want the lifestyle that goes with it.”
Not me, I tell him. I just want the look. He examines the other pictures in my collection: Giroud, another Beckham, Zayn Malik from One Direction. “I don’t know how that one got in there,” I say.
Tom sits me in the chair and considers my present hairstyle, which is a bit of a mess, a product of pure neglect. “How often do you get it cut?” he says.
“Quarterly,” I say. I tell him that Kelly and Hayley, who used to work at my local hairdressers before it closed, come to the house four Saturdays a year to my cut my entire family’s hair for a job lot price. I’m not sure he believes me.
Tom doesn’t have a name for the footballers’ haircut either, and we both agree that “short back and sides” doesn’t come anywhere near capturing its essence. He does have a theory about its origins, though. “Someone told me it started in the 50s, as an army thing,” he says. According to this narrative, the contrast between the close-cropped sides and the longer top was effectively a division of assets: everything visible belonged to the army, and was maintained according to regulations; everything under the hat belonged to the owner of the head. Essentially it’s the look Elvis ended up with after the army barber finished with him.
Tom says that while the haircut suits everybody, not everybody has hair to suit the cut. It doesn’t really work with curly or ungovernably coarse hair. If the hair is too fine, on the other hand, then the tapered sides cannot be cut too short or they’ll just stick straight out. This, apparently, is my problem.
“We’re going to have to be a bit careful,” Tom says.
My chief concern is not my hair, but my hairline. It’s in retreat – every year there is less hair to comb and more face to wash – and I’m worried that a high and tight haircut will make me look like a stovepipe. I wish I hadn’t included that photograph of Giroud in my dossier. He skews the whole thing towards the vertical.
The most striking thing about the haircut is the severity, and the lowness, of the side parting. Tom draws a line along my scalp not far above my ear, right about where a bald man would start his combover. The hair below this line is closely shorn; above, it stays long.
“Maybe you should draw an arrow on my forehead, so I can find it again,” I say. It will, Tom assures me, be pretty apparent when he’s done.
After 20 minutes I relax a little. We are past that midway point where the haircut looks even more alarming than what you came in with. Tom and I chat about hair. He tells me he once had that Nick Clegg in the chair. “Actually I cut his hair twice, just before the election,” he says. Clegg kept the new style for about a week, before he defaulted to his ordinary politician’s hair, much as David Cameron has done after periodic rug rethinks.
“I call it the Eton sweep,” says Tom, “because they all end up parting it at the same point.” Even that has a name, I think.
My football hair is blow-dried to the desired height, and the sides are pasted down with a little wax. I look in the mirror again. What can I say? It’s alarming how charming I feel.
When I walk into the house, my middle son is the first person to catch sight of me. “Whoa,” he says, tipping back on his heels slightly. He walks all round me, scrutinising my head.
“That’s not bad, actually,” he says. He wants to say something unpleasant, but can’t think of anything. The father may be flawed, but the hair is faultless. This must happen to Scott Parker a lot.
I soon discover that if the look is effortlessly cool, it’s not exactly effortless. When I wake up the next morning, I realise that looking like a stovepipe should have been the least of my worries. After a night’s sleep, the top of my head looks like a sculpture of a campfire done in hair. I run it under the tap for a bit to extinguish it, then I find a brush and start searching for the elusive parting. Luckily, the sides are still a bit waxy from the previous day. I really should blow-dry the top into position, but we don’t own a hairdryer.
Don’t get me wrong: I am exceedingly pleased with my haircut and, by extension, with myself, but I’m used to maintenance-free hair. Whenever Kelly sits me down in the kitchen on haircut Saturday and says, “So what are we doing?” I just tell her to cut it short enough that I never have to bother about it. It’s not so much a look as a solution.
While I mean to maintain my Scott Parker hair for as long as possible, I know in my heart I will eventually default to my own personal version of the Eton sweep. At least I’ll know what to call it.