Tuesday, 28 June 2011


It all started to go wrong towards the latter half of 1989. Strange detail started to permeate the shirts of England’s old First Division: white triangular expressionistic flecks on Liverpool’s Candy sponsored jersey; a terrible zigzag effect making a mess of Manchester City’s; a strange bark-like pattern upon Everton’s, and a similar geometric mash-up staining Chelsea’s. At least they still fitted.
          Meanwhile on the continent, the football shirt had reached its zenith, Italy at the epicentre of it all. AC Milan and Internazionale were exploiting stripes in a manner rarely bettered, with away kits that were possibly even smarter still, the Scudetto finishing off Inter’s very nicely.
           Juventus’s black and white striped Kappa jersey sported nothing more than two stars – denoting in excess of 20 Serie A championship victories – their sponsor’s name, Upim, in white, and the Kappa logo in black (they later got away with changing this to green on what was essentially the same strip).
        Perhaps the best effort of all came from Maradona’s Napoli: an azure blue collared shirt that would not have looked out of place on a 60's Mod or an 80's Casual, sponsored rather pleasingly by the confectioner Mars.
          In Spain, Barcelona were strutting around in a contender for the best football shirt of all time, an almost skin-tight affair which Gary Lineker was lucky enough to sport for the entire three years he spent employed by the Catalan Giants. Indeed, all across the globe football teams were emerging from their tunnels turned out in exemplary fashion, no matter who their kit manufacturer.
          In fairness, English clubs too had contributed to this wealth of taste. Adidas and Umbro had dominated the market for years, collectively refining a classic template that would flatter the most incongruous of club colours: simple collars, minimal trim, pared down club crests adorning sensibly sized kits that flattered the physique. Back then, of course, it was not unusual for football teams to wear the same kit for as many as three consecutive seasons, and so any changes to the formula came gradually. Tottenham and Arsenal, for example, were assured sartorial clemency until the summer of 1990, protected from those bizarre experiments that were introduced to Liverpool and Manchester a year earlier.
          It was during Italia 90 that it suddenly became evident that those strange goings-on in England were more than a mere aberration. However, the English national team emerged from the tournament relatively unscathed in this respect. Sure, there was a spot of striped, triangular buttoned-up tomfoolery playing about the collar, but the shirt in question fitted okay and the colour scheme remained as it should (we’ll forget the third kit ever happened). Indeed, the better teams that qualified for that World Cup got off lightly, a slight loosening of fit the worst crime to befit the shirts of the hosts Italy, Argentina, Brazil, Holland and West Germany. Instead, it was in the kits of teams like Romania, Columbia, the USA, Cameroon and Czechoslovakia (all manufactured by Adidas, incidentally), that one could see sewn the prophecy of the football shirt gone mad – excessively silky fabrics, ultra wide V-neck collars and thick, misplaced stripes.

In 1991 Liverpool invested in a sartorial atrocity that was to set the tone for football kit design for almost an entire decade. Totally lacking in any shape, Adidas elected to drape three white lines over the right shoulder and attach a strange excuse for a collar about three inches wide. But things were about to get much worse. In 1992, Umbro put together a ‘third kit’ for Manchester United that might reasonably be considered the worst shirt to have ever graced a football pitch. A mess of blue and black, it was wisely dropped after just one season. But it was too late, the revolution was gathering momentum.
          Even Italian kits were starting to suffer, looking like bad replica shirts bought down cheap weekend markets. Come the World Cup of 1994, there didn’t appear to be a team that wasn’t affected, although, ironically, the shirt that England would have worn, had they qualified, just about passed muster. Alas, the upturn in England’s fortunes that Terry Venables’ appointment as manager soon brought about seemed to have quite the opposite effect on the quality of shirt they were forced to wear during his tenure – those four goals England put past Holland deserved better. Jesus Christ, what a shower of nonsense that top was: a badge the size of a crusader’s shield slapped bang in its midst; sky-blue trim finishing an oddly distended V-necked collar, and Umbro written in a type-face one might normally expect to find on the front of a lorry.
          It would be 2005 before England could again wear a shirt to be vaguely proud of, and even then it was marred by a stupid variation of the St George’s Cross playing about the right shoulder. (What is it about the right shoulder?) Studying the various shirts that were being made in and around this time convinces me that 2005 – or thereabouts – was the moment that kit manufactures revived themselves from their nineties induced torpor and started making clothes that actually fitted again. Amongst the faux technological advancements, the micro-fibres and the re-branded crests, football kits were starting to resemble the sort of thing you put on to play football, as opposed to something one might wear to a Happy Mondays concert.

Last season Arsenal wore a shirt worthy of the 1970s, the era that provided its inspiration, in fact.  The year before Everton sported a top that paid homage to their 1983-1985 outfit, and probably the best they've had the pleasure of wearing since 1989. Clubs everywhere have been looking to the past, realising, perhaps, that the simplicity of the bygone era is all you really need. How long this fashion lingers remains to be seen, but I hope it sticks around for a while yet.
          Rather than end on a negative note by listing some of the more diabolical kits to have graced a pitch, I instead leave you with a list of some of the finest. My inclusions will confuse those who do not understand what constitutes a great football shirt, whilst hopefully delighting those who do.

Top Ten All Time Greatest Ever Football Kits (in no particular order)

Brazil: 1980s

You can take your pick form a number of Brazilian shirts, but 1982 just about edges it over both 1970 and 1986. Is there a finer footballing image than the sight of a bearded Socrates resplendent in yellow, blue and white? I'm not sure there is.

Internazionale Away: 1988-1991

As if the home effort wasn't breathtaking enough, the Germans at Uhlsport came up with this beauty. Emblazoned first with Inter’s short-lived Serpent logo during their victorious Serie A campaign of 1988-89, the Scudetto to commemorate the aforementioned triumph for 1989-90, before returning to Inter’s now familiar original signature (pictured above) for the 1990-91 season, it is a football shirt of rare simplicity.

England: 1984 -1987

Forget 1966 – get up close to that and it will remind anyone of a certain age of their unforgiving PE fatigues – 1986 is where it’s at. The qualifying version was best because it had elasticated sleeves that matched the V-neck. At that year’s World Cup itself England wore an airtex version with loose sleeves to aid with the climate, but still with the same dark navy blue shorts.

Barcelona: 1982 – 1989

Enough said.

The Netherlands: 1978 - 1988

The Netherlands had been wearing quality kits for years when in 1988 a geometric risk was forced upon them. Oddly, it worked, and in retrospect we can see this shirt as a harbinger of the experimentation that was to come – it’s no coincidence that Adidas was responsible. (West) Germany got to wear a green iteration as their away strip, and the Soviet Union a red one for their home. As good as this shirt was, it's probably a close second to the classic orange tops of the late seventies and early eighties (pictured above).

Ajax/Arsenal: 1970s

Both these teams looked great in the 1970s and 80s, only for them to fall foul of the 1990s football shirt apocalypse. Arsenal showed admirable signs of recovery last season, wearing what was probably the best English shirt of 2010/2011. It remains to be seen whether this proves to a mere flash in fashion’s pan. Meanwhile, the spectre of Johan Cruyff in his Ajax pomp poses a serious threat to Socrates’ reputation as one of the coolest footballers that ever was.

Everton: 1983 – 1985

 (Courtesy: Liverpool Echo)

Never before has the traditional blue shirt/white short combo worked so well – it’s the predominance of white that does it. This was the heyday of the British football strip with Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal all making worthwhile contributions to the trend. Everton edge it, though, for their subtle reworking of the colour blue – these things matter.

Napoli: 1986 – 1992

(Courtesy: E-Sport)

To be honest, you could pick any number of Italian kits from this era – Fiorentina, Torino, Juventus, AC Milan – but there’s something about Maradona that pushes this kit into a higher realm. Regardless of what you think of the man, he was a colossus.

Vasco de Gama: 1988

White with a black diagonal sash, a huge red ‘Order of Christ’ cross acting as the club’s badge, and – on the classic Adidas 1988 contribution that has forced its inclusion here, at least – Coca Cola writ large across the back. Actually, Brazilian club shirts are generally of a very high standard, and it wouldn’t be hard to make a case for Flamengo’s inclusion in my top ten too.

France: 1980s

(Courtesy: E-Sport)

It’s 1986: France are 1-0 down to Brazil and it’s approaching half time, when suddenly Michel Platini pounces upon a deflected Rochetaeu cross, side foots it into the net before peeling away to celebrate his equaliser - on his birthday, no less. I swear he’s wearing a St. Christopher around his neck, but photographic evidence proves inconclusive. It’s another fine French shirt he’s wearing, but take your pick: Mexico 86, Espania 82, Euro 84… Be it made by Le Coq Sportif or Adidas, as they invariably have been, it’s a kit with a fine pedigree.