Playing Kit

Primary Colours
Richard Foster looks at the close attachment fans have to their club’s colours and how playing kit has evolved over the last 125 years.

The start of any Football League season will see a plethora of new kits on display that are usually welcomed, but occasionally ridiculed by supporters.  Fans share a strong sense of identity with their team's colours, which many will proudly wear, creating the familiar sight of a sea of replica shirts as the backdrop to so many matches across the country. The kit provides a spiritual umbilical cord between fans and their teams, and so any adaptation, whether large or small, will be scrutinised to the nth degree. 

Radical changes are not a modern phenomenon and an appetite for rapid evolution and transformation of team kits can be traced back to the very beginning of league football in the late 19th century as clubs chopped and changed with regularity. Indeed the first kit manufacturer, Bukta, was founded in 1879 some years before the League was established and benefited from the capricious nature of team colours.

During the 1870s, design of kits was dominated by the major public schools and universities, which had spawned the game. Blackburn Rovers’ original shirts were emblazoned with a Maltese Cross that was derived from Shrewsbury School where two of the club founders were educated. Whilst their legendary blue and white halves shirts were adapted from Malvern College’s strip, with light blue replacing green in deference to strong connections with Cambridge University.

Striped kits were generally the norm in Victorian times, however, Aston Villa bucked the trend in 1891 with a novel combination of claret jerseys with blue sleeves and distinctive neck band. Dave Moor, doyen of the encyclopedic Historical Football Kits web site, describes this as “the first truly iconic football shirt and was widely copied”.

In those early days, it was not just conventional primary colours that held sway, surprisingly pink was a popular choice, with Everton, Portsmouth and Burnley all wearing shirts with a salmon hue of one sort or another. So when Everton re-introduced pink as their away kit in 2010 and were roundly castigated for such a lapse in taste, many of those critics would not have appreciated the historical relevance behind this choice.

Innovations in kit design have been tried and tested throughout the League’s history and there are numerous examples of brave and bold steps taken by clubs since 1888. For example, in the 1950s Wolves were famously involved in playing friendly matches against strong European teams such as Spartak Moscow and Real Madrid.  As these games took place under floodlights, Wolves experimented with brand new fluorescent shirts that showed up better under artificial lights.

Such forward thinking was also in evidence when visionary Arsenal manager, Herbert Chapman introduced the concept of shirt numbers in 1928. However, it took over a decade before the authorities felt ready to implement the idea across the league, finally granting approval in 1939. Chapman would undoubtedly afford himself a wry smile if he could have seen the way a multi-billion pound industry has since developed out of the sale of replica shirts considering the League’s grudging acceptance of simple shirt numbering.

Replica kits are now big business with massive sums being paid for exclusive rights to supply clubs, especially those with a global presence. Liverpool’s recent deal with US firm Warrior is reputedly worth a basic £150 million over six years.

When the personalisation of shirts was introduced during the first season of the Premier League, the potential for personality-driven shirt sales was born. Such an opportunity has been exploited to the full by a teenager, who signed professional terms for Manchester United during that season.  As a prime example of the power of his commercial clout, LA Galaxy sold 250,000 Beckham shirts even before his arrival in the States in 2007.

The origins of the replica sales industry lie in the emergence of Leicester-based sportswear firm Admiral and their groundbreaking deal with Leeds in 1973, which saw them become the first club to wear visibly branded kit. Don Revie was instrumental in making the transition to Admiral and after he left Leeds the following year to take up the England job, the national team were soon added to the Admiral roster. The sense of momentum behind the Admiral logo was irresistible with the likes of Manchester United and West Ham soon following suit. Having a vanguard of well-known, high profile teams on board, Admiral were spearheading the replica revolution.

Kevin Keegan wearing Admiral's England kit of 1978

At the same time as Revie started managing Leeds, Jimmy Hill took the reins at Coventry and one of his first moves as manager was to introduce a symbolic new kit of all sky blue, an integral part of his “Sky Blue Revolution”. Although we have grown accustomed to shirts and shorts being the same colour, Hill’s idea was considered innovative at the time. Other clubs soon caught on to the look with Liverpool and Chelsea, for example, changing to their now familiar strips.

The mid 1970s were especially significant in the history of kit evolution as this was when synthetic materials took over from cotton, thus enabling mass production upon which the replica industry was founded. Although the first non-cotton strips were tried out way back in the 1950s with Bolton Wanderers pioneering a new style of glossy shirts, made of rayon, in the 1953 FA Cup Final, it was to be another 20 years or so before cotton was replaced for good.

The 1970s also saw the protracted and rather complicated birth of sponsorship. The unlikely pioneers were non-league Kettering Town, who under their newly-appointed chief executive former Wolves player Derek Dougan, had set up an arrangement with Kettering Tyres in 1976 for “a four figure deal”. This was to prove the most short-lived of sponsorships as the FA immediately raised objections, ordering the club to remove the offending words. Dougan’s response was as cheeky as it was ingenious, re-jigging the shirt so it read Kettering T, and claiming it simply stood for Town. The FA were not amused and threatened Kettering with a £1,000 fine, which put an end to the matter.

By the following year, the FA had relented and shirt sponsorship was to be allowed. Although Derby signed the first deal with Saab in 1978 they only wore the sponsored shirts for a pre-season photo shoot but never in the heat of competitive action. After a couple of false starts, it was left to Liverpool to finally break the mould with Hitachi in 1979.  But it was not until 1983 that any sponsored shirts were granted the privilege of being shown on television. Nowadays headlines are made if there is no sponsor adorning the shirt, as it seems so incongruous.

On reflection, there are some kits that it would have been advisable to keep away from the limelight such as Admiral’s chocolate brown Coventry City away kit from 1979, which somehow has turned into a kitsch classic. Indeed the club reintroduced a special one-off version to celebrate their 125th anniversary at the end of 2008/09 season.

This is not an isolated example as there has been a collection of similarly outrageous kits, mainly congregated around the early 1990s, which have left a legacy of lurid eyesores. For example, Birmingham’s ‘paint box’ style which, according to Historical Football Kits, “featured yellow, navy and green splashes all over plain blue shirts and shorts”. The description alone is enough to make one feel queasy. Possibly the ultimate in over-ambitious designs was Hull’s tiger print outfit that has understandably topped numerous polls of the worst kits ever.

Twenty years on from this period of explosive and elaborate experimentation, simplicity is now very much back in vogue. Gone are the splashes of colour and complex patterns that were initially encouraged by the increasing usage of synthetic materials. Just as with high street fashion, there are recurring cycles of popularity, which lead to continuous evolution and dramatic change, regardless of the rationale.

Whichever way clubs approach the issue, very few subjects stir the emotions or attract as much attention as the choice of a team’s kit, inspiring endless debate and animated discussion. With its dynamic history and rich heritage, kit has always been, and will remain, a fundamental feature of following a club.