• Well Done Michael He's 13

The Magic Of Kits

For the young footballer, the shirt they choose is like choosing a superpower. When I was at my peak, aged 9-13, churning the surface of the green on our estate for hours at a time, playing until it was dark, the choice of shirt to wear was as important as life got. A ‘Cantona -7’ allowed popping the collar, strutting around our estate and trying to chip the keeper from anywhere on the green. A Brazilian ‘Ronaldo 9’ could make any player an explosive force. A Juventus ‘Inzaghi’ meant scoring rebounds and goal hanging expertly, and an inexplicably purchased Croatian ‘Boban -10’ lent a mysterious quality, where a player could hover anywhere on the pitch, playing disguised passes and through balls to teammates who were never quite on the same wavelength. My brother wore a ‘Keane – 16’ and as if the kit had magical powers, he stubbornly refused to wear anything else, tackled hard and took his ball home whenever he lost. One can only hope that kids of today credit their kits with the same powers. A Ronaldo or Messi, inspiring a kid to housing estate greatness, a ‘Hazard’ provoking a bizarre running style and falling on their arse any time somebody comes near them. The less said about the kid in the Suarez shirt, the better. Let’s leave that to the child psychologists.

An iconic Brazil shirt with Ronaldo 9 pressed onto the back.

While our powers of imagination probably wane as we age, the magic of the shirt remains.

As predictable as the swallows, every spring our social media platforms are filled with ‘leaked kits’ and speculation. Adults, with actual lives, spend time discussing the new design, comparing it to classics from the past. There are those who will buy their club’s new shirt every July, 50 hard-earned quid plus printing of the name on the back. In another camp, you have those who feel they’ve outgrown buying the shirt, that no self-respecting adult would get a name printed on the back (much less the mortal sin of their OWN name). But even these cynics can’t help but have their curiosity piqued by their club’s new kit. The one that marks the start of another season and all the promise that goes with it. The new kit represents the dream that this will finally be the season when a title is won, promotion is earned, Europe is reached, or in the case of Stoke fans, that maybe, just maybe, this will be the season they won’t be bored to tears.

What football fan out there can say, that even as adults, they haven’t pored over pictures of international kits in advance of a World Cup or European Championship tournament, giving hours of consideration as to what would make the better purchase – Germany away or Czech Republic home?

Heading to the sports shop, new Nike, Adidas and Puma shirts overflowing on the racks, the smell of the polyester fabric in the air, so spoiled for choice that a panic buy leads to shelling out for the Nigerian third strip. That decision determining your outfit for summer days spent watching football with friends, evoking an irrational loyalty to the international team of a country you’ve never been to.

If the complexities of the world of football kits seem to so far have been overstated, then spend some time with any amateur club. Join their WhatsApp group, while votes are taken about the choice of new kit. Witness intense debate about design (chevron, stripes or plain?), colour (traditional or time for something new?) and shirt sleeves, (long, short or a mix of both?). Ever played with a player who always insists on wearing a particular number? Yeah, me too. At any amateur game, watch the players and see if there is a common thread between those who wear their shirts untucked, fully tucked or half tucked. Sleeves rolled up or sleeves hooked inside fingers à la Jesper Blomqvist. Then go beyond the shirt. Has anybody been cavalier enough to play with their socks rolled down, shin pads exposed, like a peak Rui Costa, or for the contemporary fan, Jack Grealish? Anybody been brave enough to don a pair of black gloves, dare I say it, or a snood? Don’t even get me started on the choice of boots, that’s an entire other blog.

The growth of the replica shirt business has been phenomenal, the need to own a new shirt a compulsion that has captured fans all over the world.

Bert Patrick’s Admiral first designed Leeds United’s away kit in 1973, paving the way for the replica shirt business. According to a Sheffield University study led by Dr Chris Stride, two Newcastle fans picture in the barcode strip at the 1974 FA Cup final may have been early trendsetters, in days when the shirt and tie was still a match going standard. Since these early days, the business of replica shirts has become a multi-billion pound one. In less than three decades fans went from wearing something close to a homemade tribute to their side, to turning up to play football with kids wearing shirts from Buenos Aires to Bologna, Ayr United to Accra Hearts of Oak. The purchase of a new shirt remains one of the few true indulgences of the football fan. Rejoicing in that fresh smell you know won’t last, then pulling it on and wearing it proudly for the first time.

Let’s finish with a nod to some classics that should have you scrambling for your vintage shirt supplier. Maradona at Napoli, 1984, sky blue with Mars emblazoned across the front. Batistuta at Fiorentina, 1998, purple, garish Nintendo logo, iconic number 9. Argentina, 1986, a kit so stylish that even modern-day Diego would probably look alright packed into it. The Netherlands shirt of 1988, epitomising everything perfect about Dutch design. A couple of wildcards by way of Belgium’s nan’s- curtains-inspired 1984 offering, or New York Cosmos’ Ralph Lauren designed fashion statement of 1979. Or for those of you who have spent lockdown doing bicep curls with a bag of books, how about the infamous sleeveless Cameroon shirt of 2002?

In 1998/99, top flight Italian side Fiorentina had a shirt sponsorship deal with gaming giants Nintendo.

Speaking of lockdown, when it’s all over, and you’re back on your familiar grass pitches or astroturf, unfit and sweating through a game of 7 a side, take a breather and look at the kits on show. See if you can spot the guys who have chosen one with the hope that it might just give them a hint of a superpower. I’ll bet you an Ajax 1995 home shirt that you can.

Neil Tully

Sports Writer

Well Done Michael He's 13

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