The art of the football shirt

Part canvas, part sandwich board, club kits don’t always work – but their designs can be addictive

28 October 2017

9:00 AM

28 October 2017

9:00 AM

The early 1970s was football’s brute era of Passchendaele pitches and Stalingrad tactics. The gnarled ruffians of Leeds United — wee hatchet man Billy Bremner, the graceful assassin Johnny Giles, Norman ‘Bites Yer Legs’ Hunter — embodied the age. Not that you’d guess this from the badge on the club’s shirt: the letters LU were styled into a grinning emoji in goofy yellow.

In 1973, the club kit (pristine white, which they had changed to a decade earlier to mimic the lordly Real Madrid) was designed by Admiral, the company that dreamed up the wallet-emptying concept of the replica shirt. Admiral went in for hectic piping and busy collars. They soon got the contract to dress up England’s team as they hoofed and tripped from one catastrophe to another. I became a student of their output when, in the mid-1970s, I attended a boarding school where a prepubescent craze caught on for sending off to Admiral for their catalogues. Fat A4 envelopes duly arrived by the sackload — also from Umbro, Adidas and even Slazenger — until the headmaster declared a ban on our crack-like addiction to sportswear porn.

The craziest Admiral kit of all belonged to Wales, featuring a dragon-red shirt down which symmetrical stripes of leek-green on a bed of daffodil-yellow curled in from the armpit towards the nipple before plunging south. The badge, conventionally placed over the heart, was shunted across to the solar plexus. It was a lunatic design lent international prominence by Wales’s qualification for the European Championships in 1976. I remember nervelessly daubing the stripes on to the all-red of a Liverpool Subbuteo squad I had no use for.

The random daftness of these Admiral kits are celebrated anew in The Football Shirts Book. This pub chat in book form enacts that rare footballing feat of creating a space for itself in an overcrowded area. Its author Neal Heard is the platonic ideal of a fan: a middle-aged ten-year-old who parades arcane scholarship while inviting others to do likewise.

The classic shirts are all here: Brazil’s green and gold, the thick red stripe of Ajax, Italy’s azzurro, the green and white hoops of Celtic, the talismanic red of England in 1966, and so on. But this is not a book content to play the obvious pass. Subtitled The Connoisseur’s Guide, it features rarities and oddities: the gawping Aztec mask that cropped up on Mexico’s green shirt at a World Cup; the Blyth Spartans shirt charitably sponsored by Viz magazine (whose editors were fans); the rainbow stripe that in 2015 appeared on the burgundy shirts of LGBT-supporting Guadalajara of the Spanish third division.

A football shirt is part canvas, part advertising hoarding, part sandwich board, and always a marketing opportunity, though not one that works every time. In a fundraising drive, Stockport County issued a new shirt in the pale-blue and white stripes of Argentina; the next year General Galtieri invaded the Falklands. Fiorentina, known as the Viola Club for their gorgeous purple, once trotted out with a shirt accidentally smothered in swastikas.

Accidents have tended to be mainly aesthetic. In the 1980s designs suffered an infestation of cubist chevrons, surreal zigzags and barcodes. Many an away kit might resemble an early-generation videogame, or an analogue TV on the blink. If a shirt makes you feel ill, there’s always next season. Nowadays clubs tinker with designs every year to keep the tills ringing, while players all pursue personalised deals to wear boot brands in Halloween red, Avatar blue or Croesus gold. Once upon a time this caused a clash, I was fascinated to discover. Adidas secured the right to kit out every team at the 1974 World Cup, which conflicted with the deal struck by Puma with the world’s greatest player, Johan Cruyff. Dutch footballers being famously argumentative, Cruyff got his way and wore two stripes on his kit instead of Adidas’s trademark three. A two-stripe Dutch orange shirt is now a collector’s item.

There’s nothing here on shorts, socks or keepers’ colours (the green and pleasant jersey of yore). But there’s plenty of nuggety nerdery in this blokes’ homage to yesteryear, which looks exactly and deliberately like a 1970s football almanack. The most pleasing designs, as often as not, are by the Mancunian company Umbro (est. 1924) or the French company Le coq sportif (est. 1882). And yet when the author organised a vote to find the public’s top five favourite shirts, among the usual suspects voted one of the top five on was Wales’s by Admiral (1976–79). It’s the Munch’s ‘Scream’ of football shirts.

The Football Shirts Book: The Connoisseur’s Guide by Neal Heard is published by Ebury Press.

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