The history behind a selection of iconic kits
Leeds United (1961)
In the summer of 1961, Don Revie, the youthful new player-manager of second-tier nonentities Leeds United, began to make his presence felt. He introduced a new training regime, which replaced interminable laps of a muddy field with interminable inter-squad athletic competitions. On a muddy field. Still, all good team-building fun, although it was the top of a slippery slope which, 10 years and innumerable runners-up spots later, would see the squad spending pre-match evenings locked in their B&B playing carpet bowls in uncomfortable bri-nylon shirts and bad moods.
Revie also raised the minimum basic wage of the entire first-team squad, albeit with the addition of a complicated bonus mechanism designed by Heath Robinson. Naturally, this sent the notoriously tight Jack Charlton into an abacus frenzy. Unimpressed that he could only earn his full bonus if Leeds effectively trebled their average attendance, he handed in a transfer request. Liverpool and Manchester United were both interested in his services and for a while it looked like Big Jack would join his brother Bobby at Old Trafford. But the transfer fell through, causing the hot-faced defender to cross the Pennines, powered solely by steam emerging at jet speed from his lugs, and give Matt Busby a blistering bollocking in his own office. Once he'd said his piece to a bamboozled Busby — Bobby and his teammates wondering how on earth he'd had the nerve — Jack returned to Elland Road, sheepishly signed a new contract and began a little chippy sulk about money which would last the next 35 years or so.
Anyway, we digress. Point being, Revie's new schemes had either gone down well or caused ructions. Yet arguably the most tumultuous decision he made — to change Leeds' strip of blue and gold to all white in homage to the all-conquering Real Madrid side of the time — was met with stunning levels of indifference. For Revie, master psychologist and motivator, asking his charges to follow in the footsteps of Alfredo di Stéfano, Francisco Gento and Ferenc Puskás was to fling the gauntlet down and pique their professional pride. The Leeds crowd — perhaps mindful that, in 42 years of trying, their club had achieved the square root of nowt and therefore had little in the way of heritage or tradition to preserve — shrugged their shoulders apathetically and opted to see how things developed. Imagine the fuss were someone to try this on now.
The experiment began brilliantly. Leeds won their opening game of the 61-62 campaign, 1-0 against Charlton Athletic, and followed that victory with another three days later, 3-1 at Brighton & Hove Albion. Revie's side were top of the Second Division table. On the following Saturday, however, they were skelped 5-0 by Bill Shankly's emerging Liverpool at Anfield, a result which punctured confidence. Soon, Revie's sartorial posturing looked less like chutzpah and more like suicidal hubris. Leeds lost six of their next eight games; by the end of September, they found themselves one place off the bottom.
Leeds would escape relegation to the Third Division by the skin of their teeth, then win promotion to the First two seasons later, after which the Real Madrid comparison suddenly didn't look so fanciful. Anyone who remembers Spanish football before the days of tiki-taka will be mindful of the Iberian penchant for marrying exquisite skill with bar-room thuggery. So, Leeds United, basically. Well done, Spain! Well done, Don! Well done, everyone!
United's shirts stayed basically the same for the entire Revie era, save a sock tag here, a smiley badge there. Those gauche 70s additions get the worst press, though the strangest element during the Revie years was the crest that adorned the shirt during the second half of the 1960s: a dangerously out-of-condition owl, presumably seconds away from a heart attack, perched unsteadily on a log. That the superstitious Revie allowed the fat feathery oaf on his team's shirts is beyond comprehension, given he was scared of birds. "What are they doing there?" the twitchy non-twitcher once spluttered to a family friend, upon spotting a picture of a bird on their wall. "You don't have birds in your house! You don't have birds anywhere!" The picture remained, Revie's pals perhaps mindful that the Leeds manager had become obsessed by a malcontent peacock supposedly hovering around Elland Road determined to unleash karmic bother. Revie also had some sort of problem with ornamental elephants, but we're getting a bit spooked ourselves now, so it's probably time to move on.
Revie's all-encompassing managerial style was nothing new; Herbert Chapman had pioneered the whirling dervish act at The Arsenal a good three decades previously. Royal Arsenal had formed in 1886, and plumped for red as their colours, for the simple reason that two of the team happened to have crimson shirts, which meant they'd only need another nine to get going. Without two brass bearings to rub together — the regal monicker was nothing if not aspirational — the club were reduced to begging for kit. Nottingham Forest kindly obliged, sending the new boys a full set of uniforms, along with a ball. Arsenal repaid Forest 29 years later — in what remains their last match outside the top tier of English football — by whipping them 7-0 in an April 1915 Second Division game before negotiating their way out of the division.
Forest, remember, had even given them a ball.
Chapman arrived in 1925, whereupon he famously invented tactics, floodlights, clocks and the London Underground. He also enjoyed fiddling around with the team kit. Numbering was his first obsession. On the opening day of the 1928-29 season, Arsenal ran out at Hillsborough with numbers on their backs. The players, along with those of Sheffield Wednesday, were numbered 1-22. Meanwhile at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea and Swansea Town were gadding about in similarly numerical style. The experiment brought Chelsea more luck than Arsenal — they won 4-0, while the Gunners lost 3-2 — but Chapman stuck with the idea. (Albeit with the reserve team, as the Football League had decreed that club colours should not be desecrated with fripperies such as numbers. The past is another country, for sure, and it's a place where they know a thing or two about clear, crisp design.)
Chapman, who soon had Arsenal running around with an art-deco-inspired AFC crest on their tit ends, was constantly on the lookout for new ideas. In 1933, the Daily Mail cartoonist Tom Webster had suggested to the Chelsea boss David Calderhead that the club's blue strip would look more distinctive with white sleeves. Calderhead dismissed the suggestion out of hand. Webster recycled his brainwave for the consumption of Chapman, mentioning it one day as the two played golf. Within weeks, Arsenal were running out against Liverpool sporting their dandy new look. Whether Chapman's latest wheeze was considered a good idea at the time is not recorded, but we can take a guess. All-red Arsenal, the league leaders, had beaten Blackburn Rovers 8-0 in the previous match, but went 1-0 down to Liverpool at Highbury on that famous sleeve-altering Saturday of March 4. Their next three matches, everyone flailing around with their fancy new arms, resulted in a draw at Leicester, a loss at home to Wolves and defeat at Newcastle.
Despite their capitulation, they somehow remained on top — the "lucky Arsenal" nickname existed for a reason; their closest challengers Sheffield Wednesday had been similarly inept, although Aston Villa were haring up on the rails. Somewhat relieved, Chapman's white-sleeved heroes quickly got their act together, and whipped both of their rivals in consecutive Highbury maulings: a 5-0 win over Villa and a 4-2 humping of Wednesday. The first of a hat-trick of titles was in the bag. By the end of the 1930s, Arsenal were the most famous team in the country, their white sleeves an indisputable part of football's first recognisable brand.
Thirty-odd years later, Arsenal were a mid-table shower. Counter-intuitively, the club decided to hark back to the barren pre-Chapman era in search of success, and in 1965 got shot of the white sleeves. Billy Wright's red-shirted rabble were nearly relegated, the manager was sacked, and after two embarrassing seasons the white sleeves were re-introduced (along with blue and white socks, which had also been a feature between the 1930s and 1960s, but let's not confuse the issue further).
You don't need to be an expert in symbolism to spot the harbinger at the opening ceremony of the IV Campeonato Mundial de Futebol. Before the hosts and hot favourites Brazil took the field for the first game of the 1950 World Cup in Rio, they were greeted onto the field by a 21-gun salute. Trouble was, the finishing touches had only been put to the Maracanã stadium about 10 minutes before the curtain went up — presumably by Eric Sykes and Tommy Cooper — and so the reverberations caused by the ceremonial jazz sent thousands of boluses of wet concrete raining down onto the crowd below. Five thousand pigeons were also released into the sky, presumably in lieu of doves, although the organisers may as well have given a very big crow some stage time. Or perhaps released a pack of black dogs onto the field. It wasn't going to end happily, is the general thrust of this paragraph.
And so, three weeks later, the sky followed the concrete by falling in on Brazil's head, the Selecão beaten in what was effectively the final by the eventual winners (and frankly the better team) Uruguay. While the likes of Obdulio Varela, Alcides Ghiggia and Juan Schiaffino cavorted around the Maracanã building site in celebration, Brazil's fans reacted stoically to defeat: they sobbed hysterically; they treated their poor goalkeeper as a pariah for the rest of his life; they occasionally committed suicide. But one reaction was less understandable: the defeat was partly blamed on Brazil's white kit with blue trim, a design which wasn't considered patriotic enough, bearing little resemblance as it did to the Brazilian flag.
It was hard to spot Brazil's logic. At the time, only two countries had lifted the World Cup: Uruguay and Italy, with two wins apiece. But the sky blue of La Celeste Olimpica isn't anything like the cobalt stripes of the Uruguayan flag. And hold those Pantone charts up to the light for as long as you like, but you'll be a while trying to match the azzurro of the azzurri with all that blue on the Italian tricolore. Still, despite a hit-rate of zero from four, anything was worth a punt and Brazil were feeling desperate.
And so a newspaper competition was held to design a new kit (Brazil playing in blue until they could sort something permanent out). The contest was won by the 19-year-old designer Aldyr García Schlee, who concocted the heady mix of yellow shirts with green trim, powder blue shorts and white socks. He lived near the Uruguayan border and — so sweet for a Brazilian icon — supported Uruguay because he was that kind of awkward bugger. Schlee's kit got its first run out in a World Cup qualifier against Chile, Baltazar scoring Brazil's first goal in it, sealing a 1-0 win. The same player also notched Brazil's first World Cup finals goal in the new outfit, the opener in a 5-0 rout of Mexico at the 1954 tournament. West Germany went on to win that year's trophy, sporting a predominantly white affair that had little to do with the German flag. So, then, that running total of World Cup wins by countries draped in the colours of their flag: 0/5.
As we all know, Brazil went on to romp the 1958 World Cup ... wearing blue away shirts purchased in haste from a Stockholm outfitter, the badges cut off their home kit (which clashed with the hosts and fellow finalists Sweden) and sewn onto their new ones.
To be fair, 12 years later the new outfit would finally come into its own, Brazil's shimmering yellow the dominant note of the first World Cup broadcast in glorious technicolor. The strip would stay essentially the same, more or less, for the next 20 years, a time period during which Brazil showcased some of the most delightful football ever played. At which point the likes of Umbro and Nike started pricking around with needless embellishments and so despite subsequently winning two World Cups, Brazil impressed absolutely nobody. And that's including everyone back in Brazil.
Vittorio Pozzo was, according to the historians who dug around, categorically not a fascist. But that didn't stop him annexing the sovereign state of Eejitry in 1938. During that year's World Cup in France, Pozzo made a right show of himself, acting the full toolbox by squeezing his side into the most provocative football kit of all time.
Before Italy's first-round game against Norway, a sizable proportion of the 18,000-strong crowd — including many Italians who had left the country in protest at Mussolini's rule — had demonstrated against Il Duce and against the sweep of fascism across mainland Europe in general. Pozzo reacted by ordering his players to give the fascist salute during the Italian national anthem, then throwing similar shapes himself. Claiming to be apolitical, Pozzo reasoned that as a patriot, he would celebrate whichever Italy existed in the present and if it was currently a fascist state, so be it. And this a man portrayed as a deep thinker, too.
In the quarter-final against the hosts, Pozzo went one better. Having lost a toss to hosts France, they had to find an alternative to their blue shirts. They usually changed into white, but just to be awkward, Pozzo sent his men out in a black strip instead, a one-off look designed purely to rile. It did that. The Parisian crowd of nearly 60,000 couldn't fail to notice the provocative symbolism and duly went ballistic. Sad to say, they were soon subdued when, on nine minutes, the French keeper Laurent Di Lorto went up to claim a simple long punt forward, only to punch the ball straight into his own net before chasing gormlessly after it and clattering nose-first into the post. After which, defeat for France was inevitable.
It was undoubtedly the World Cup's greatest-ever display of slapstick humour. Yet nearly all of its silent-movie charm was lost, coming as it did during the World Cup's grimmest and most soul-crushing match of all. Pozzo went on to become the first — and still the only — manager to win two World Cups, Italy retaining the trophy they'd won in 1934. Hats off to him for that, then, but only with a very begrudging tip of the brim.
Kettering Town (1976)
From political posturing to corporate shilling. In January 1976, the erstwhile Wolverhampton Wanderers striker Derek Dougan, chief executive of Kettering Town of the Southern League, struck a £4,000 sponsorship deal with the local automotive repair concern Kettering Tyres. On the 24th of that month, the team ran out against Bath City with the company's name plastered across their bosom. Sure enough, the Football Association came down on the club like a pyramid of Pirelli and told them to desist, as the slogan contravened a 1972 ban on sponsors.
The FA were, needless to say, brazenly ignoring the fact they were trousering large sums of cash from the sportswear firm Admiral, whose name now adorned the pure white shirts of England. The former boss Alf Ramsey had resisted the move to plaster the national strip with "fancy badges" and was sometimes seen rubbing the garment against his cheek while wailing "isn't it beautiful?" into the dark night. But his replacement Don Revie had ushered Admiral in gladly and the sacred shirt was now covered in logos.
Such hypocrisy from the FA inspired Dougan to fight the good fight for Kettering. He claimed the game's rulers were talking out of their sassholes and that the 1972 ban had not been set down in black and white. Consequently, he sent his team out with the slogan "Kettering T" on their shirts instead. Risibly, he argued that the T stood for Town and not Tyres, though everybody knew full well that the move was really a stiff two-fingered salute to The Man. Sadly, little Kettering didn't have the resources to keep fighting. When the FA got tough and threatened the cash-strapped club with a massive £1,000 fine, Dougan reluctantly removed the offending words from his side's strip.
But the climate was changing and within 18 months the FA had caved into pressure from clubs desirous of making a few quid by whoring themselves out. "This could all have been settled 12 months ago," insisted the FA secretary Ted Croker, "had Kettering broached the subject in the proper way." Dougan nevertheless claimed a moral victory, albeit a bittersweet one. "I only wish now that I was the guy negotiating for Liverpool or Manchester United," he sighed. Liverpool had no need to call on the Doog, as in 1979 they became the first English league club to run out with a sponsor's name — Hitachi — on their shirts and £50,000 in their pockets. (Derby County had struck an earlier deal with Saab; the players never ran out for a competitive match in the shirts but did get to drive about in the cars.)
Coventry City (1978)
Received wisdoms in soccer are invariably wrong. Take the word soccer, for example, which sends crashing bores into a fundamentalist flat spin, as they rant on about the creeping Americanisation of the game. It's a ridiculous argument that holds no water. Soccer is a jolly-hockey-sticks contraction of Association Football, following the etymological style of rugger, and is said to have been coined by Charles Wreford-Brown, a Bristolian educated at Charterhouse and Oxford who went on to play football for Corinthians and cricket for Gloucestershire, before becoming a big cheese at the FA. It's hard to know how much more Anglicised the word's originator could have been, save invading a small African country and haughtily wandering around it wearing a linen suit. So come on, people, it's time to reclaim this most English of words. At least until everyone overuses it and subsequently gets bored.
Barely less tedious is the unthinking fan's stock answer to the question, "Will you put down that Kasabian CD and name the worst kit in the history of football?" Almost always, the Coventry City away kit of the late 1970s, produced by Admiral, is the first to be mentioned. Exactly how this state of affairs came to be is unclear. The kit's a masterpiece: distinctive, memorable, redolent of its era and with a vertical flash to flatter the obese.
It's because it's brown, isn't it? But what's really strange is, Coventry have trotted out some proper tailored travesties in their time since Jimmy Hill changed the club colours to sky blue in 1961. The Micky Quinn psychedeXXXLic blue-and-white razzle of the early nineties. The understated Peter Kay glamour of the 1987 cup final Granada-Bingo-logos-sewn-on-at-the-last-minute kit. The blue-and-white version of Denmark's World Cup 86 Carnival Suit. The Kettering-inspired T for Talbot strip, Hill circumventing league and BBC sponsorship regulations by incorporating the logo of the shite car manufacturer into the team get-up. All kind of terrible, really, but at least the club were trying to push the envelope and they were nothing if not memorable.
The watershed for Coventry seems to have come with an attempt to introduce a new badge in 2005. A dreadful effort featuring a strutting, trumpeting elephant, it was shouted down by the Coventry faithful, and in many ways rightly so. But you do wonder. Exactly how bad would it have been had this egregious animal been elevated to the shirt? The old logo could always have been reinstated a year or so later. A similar conservative attitude back in the early days of Hill and Coventry would still be running around in plain white shirts, and look at the state of Leeds, England and Real Madrid these days.
Since then, Coventry's kits have been exquisitely tasteful, and just a little boring. A terrible state of affairs and one which Eight Bells is happy stridently to bemoan, despite clear inconsistencies with the argument we put forward in the previous section regarding Brazil. Hey, we're only human, a charming mass of contradictions and idiosyncrasies made flesh.
Manchester United (1980)
For a club synonymous with the evil machinations of the merchandiser, it's interesting to note in retrospect how long Manchester United took to get their branding sorted out. Derby County embraced the ram in 1946, West Ham proudly displayed their hammers in 1950 and Liverpool put a liver bird on their chest in 1955, for example, but United didn't sew a badge onto their strip until 1972. How important crests are, of course, is a moot point. Paradoxically, two plain, bog-standard red shirts are as synonymous with the club as any of their later multi-logoed efforts, and neither had so much as a single brand signifier on them. Is it possible to picture a 1950s-style low v-necked shirt, red with white collar, without thinking of the Busby Babes? And which player first springs to mind wearing a plain red T with rounded white collar? Well, Mr Sugden from Kes, obviously. But the point stands, and Law, Best and Charlton aren't far behind in the memory banks anyway. Unmistakably United and not a badge in sight.
But innocence will pass you by. In 1980, Adidas took over the contract to make United's kit from Admiral, and immediately got the needle and thread out to faff about with the club crest, adding a pair of boots — complete with Adidas trefoil — above the upper scroll. It would be nice to think somebody in the United marketing department spotted the boots a few years later, leading to a scene where they wafted the shirt in a rumbled Adidas wonk's face, screaming "what the effing fuck is this supposed to be?" But the boots simply stayed perched atop Bryan Robson's nips for the duration of the Adidas contract and were quietly removed when Umbro took over production of United's shirts in the early 1990s. It's hard to imagine any brand manager at any club, least of all the biggest in the land, allowing such liberties to be taken now. More's the pity.
As we've already seen with Nottingham Forest wannabes Arsenal, many clubs owe their colour schemes to another. Dundee United, to start a random round-up, are nicknamed the Tangerines, though their shirts are actually the "burnt orange" of the mid-60s North American Soccer League outfit Dallas Tornadoes. In an identity switcheroo worthy of proper psychological analysis, United were the Tornadoes, having played under the Dallas monicker in the NASL during the summer on a busman's holiday. United enjoyed the experience so much they decided to dump their regular Scottish League garb of white with black trim in 1969 in favour of the stuff they had been wearing on vacation.
Blackpool made a similar move back in 1923, opting to start turning out in the colours of the Netherlands after a club director refereed a game between Holland and Belgium, and fell in love with the kit. However, despite this obvious Dutch influence, you're never to refer to the shirts as oranje; only tangerine will suffice.
Moving swiftly on from matters orange, Celtic nicked their colour scheme off Hibs.
Dinamo Moscow wear white and blue, so the romantic notion goes, in a nod to air and water, elements essential to life. However the truth is much less windswept and panoramic: the club had been set up by Harry Charnock, who ran a nearby mill, and he had kitted out the side in the same garb as his heroes from back home, Blackburn Rovers. Rovers also influenced an early version of the Tottenham Hotspur kit, before the faddy north Londoners opted to fashion themselves on Preston North End instead.
Barcelona are often said to have taken their blue and red shirts from Basel, their founder Hans Kamper being both Swiss and a former player of the club. However it transpires that Barca's early English star, Arthur Witty, chose the get-up, a nod to his old school, the Merchant Taylors' in Crosby.
Southampton and Sunderland are falling over each other to claim to be the inspiration for Athletic Bilbao's change from blue-and-white stripes to a red-and-white effort, although more likely is the fact that red-and-white-striped material was cheaper, such cloth being produced in high quantities to cover mattresses. (Atlético Madrid made the same swap, and are known as Los Colchoneros, the mattress-makers.)
Having nicked Forest's red scheme, Arsenal at least had the good grace to pass it on, influencing Ajax, Sparta Prague, and Sporting Braga, the latter going so far as to use the nickname Os Arsenalistas.
And we end with Juventus, who dumped their salmon pink tops in favour of black-and-white striped ones, after their English star John Savage sorted them out some gratis kit from Notts County in 1903. By way of thanks, Juve asked County to play in an exhibition match to open their new Juventus Arena stadium last September. County ummed and aahed, complaining that they had big fixtures against Walsall and Exeter coming up. But they eventually reluctantly agreed, and popped over to poop Juve's party, holding the Italian giants to a 1-1 draw. They got four points from the Walsall and Exeter games, before you ask.