Even grown-ups dress like their heroes now – Part 2

The story of replica football shirt industry, by Dr. Chris Stride

By the early 1970s the replica football shirt business was an established but small scale industry, with its products targeted solely at children. As detailed in part 1, replica shirts had limited appeal due to their lack of authenticity and exclusivity. Any clothing manufacturer could create and market the shirt of any club, and several clubs wore identical strips. Clubs’ contracts with kit suppliers were purely for the team kit as opposed to any official replica market, and it was not unknown to switch manufacturers mid-season. Boasting that you had the real Liverpool shirt wasn’t going to guarantee playground bragging rights if it was simply a plain red top!

Bert Patrick, owner of Leicester-based clothing manufacturers Cook and Hurst, had used the company’s men’s underwear brand, Admiral Sportswear, to enter the child-replica-kit market in the late 1960s. Patrick saw an opportunity to enhance the value of the replica shirt – both in terms of how a child would value it, and how much he could sell it for – by making it an official club product. Taking advantage of a recently introduced copyright law, in late 1973 Admiral struck a deal with Leeds United, then the top team in England, in which they would pay Leeds £10000 pounds for the right to be the exclusive designers and producers of the Leeds away kit. The kit design would be copyrighted, hence Admiral would be the only company who could sell it. By adding some frills and the Admiral logo to a previously plain design, it would be clear to both the child wearing it – and their jealous schoolfriends – that they had the real shirt.

This innovation transformed the replica shirt industry overnight. The new Admiral-produced Leeds shirt was a big seller to schoolboy fans, and Admiral quickly set about signing up other clubs, and the England national team. Umbro and Bukta quickly joined the race for contracts, as did a flurry of new manufacturers, and German sportswear giants Adidas. By 1977/78 season, 84 of the 92 English football league clubs displayed a manufacturer’s logo on their shirts. As well as transforming the profitability of the replica business, kit design was also changed. There was now a clear advantage in making shirts as distinctive as possible: stripes, sashes, chevrons and a range of other shapes and patterns were used to create club specific kits. Manufacturers even added sleeve trim incorporating their logos. For the child who wanted – and the parents who could afford – the complete look, team tracksuits also became available.

Late 1970s Umbro advert – the ‘dress like your heroes, play like your heroes advertising’ to children persisted. Image courtesy of Umbro.

However, for at least another decade following this revolution, kit production and promotion was still limited to children, and the kit was usually marketed as something to play in, rather than wear in the street. Bert Patrick and his rivals still viewed replica-focused kit production as appealing solely to boys: though in his autobiography, he mentioned that “we were beginning to see a future market…. for mums and dads as well”, little was done to progress this. This was despite some evidence that young adults might consider wearing replica shirts on the terraces, albeit only on special occasions. Photos from the 1974 FA Cup final show groups of Newcastle United fans squeezed into youth size replicas – the largest then available. Similar scenes were captured in 1976 as Manchester United met Southampton at Wembley, again the shirt appears a size or two on the small side. The first photographic evidence of adult size replicas comes in 1977, with Umbro supplying Liverpool fans at the European Cup final, and Scotland fans at the home international. Liverpool club shop catalogues of the late 70s mention replica team shirts, though they are far from highlighted.

Above: Liverpool supporters wearing replica shirts at the 1977 European Cup final.

Whilst manufacturers were producing larger sizes in small numbers, this was mainly to cater for the larger than average youth/mid-teen. Why did the replica shirt industry decide not to target an adult market until the late 1980s? Firstly, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, an adult choosing to wear a replica shirt was still seen as a little strange by most fans. The annual England vs Scotland matches were, and cup finals still are special occasions in the football calendar, with a long tradition of fancy dress, be it giant top hats or more flamboyant outfits – so a replica worn at Wembley would likewise be seen as one off fancy dress, and hence an acceptable exception. This is likely why the first sightings were at these big games. Otherwise though, as well as the traditional male aversion to bright colours and flashy designs, the feeling still persisted amongst many older fans that wearing the team kit meant that you reckoned yourself good enough to be on the pitch. And, ironically, the popularity of child replica kits had further cast replica shirts as a child’s thing, therefore an adult wearing one would be perceived as childish.

Above: Wolves club shop catalogue, 1980: Adult replica kit sizes now available, but it’s still dressing-gown for mum, jumper for dad, kit for son!

Nevertheless studying crowd photographs of the era reveals the odd fan wearing a shirt at run-of-the-mill league games by the early 1980s. Club programmes and shop catalogues also show that many clubs began offering small and medium adult sizes of replica shirt alongside child sizes. The 1982 World Cup saw the England strip sold in adult fit for the first time, and clearly visible on England fans in Spain. The market for these shirts was almost exclusively young adults, who had grown up with replica shirts in their wardrobe and didn’t view wearing them in the same way as their parents might. However this small group of early adopters did not inspire manufacturers or clubs to target them in terms of production or promotion. Football was sinking into crisis, with attendances dropping to their lowest levels for many decades, hooliganism rife inside and outside grounds, and spectator facilities deteriorating from neglected to dangerous, subsequently leading to the mid-80s tragedies of Bradford and Heysel. Against this backdrop, football shirts were not an obvious option to promote as either match or general adult leisurewear. Wearing one to a game made you an obvious target for opposition fans and the police, and football’s wider reputation made the football shirt a badge of ill-repute, not honour.

Above: The 1982 World Cup in Spain increased the recognition of the football shirt as adult leisurewear – but scenes like this probably did little to boost sales to the wider public!

These problems also hindered attempts to expand football merchandising, which struggled to attract investment given the game’s bad reputation and sense that it was in decline. Many clubs didn’t even have their own club shop, relying on a local sports outfitter or a supporters club hut to sell their promotional items, which were largely low value items such as scarves, bobble hats and key rings.

Above: Before the Megastore – a supporter’s shop near Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane, 1982.

This lack of infrastructure – and the absence of any big high street sports chains – made selling replica football shirts beyond a small group of local fans impossible, and discouraged manufacturers from producing for and promoting them to an adult market. Spurs Chairman Irving Scholar tagged sports retail at this time as one of the last remaining “cottage industries”, and noted the “colossal task of getting payment from so many small single-unit retailers”.  As Martin Prothero of Umbro recalls, “I think the negativity around the sport commercially then was such that nobody really wanted to try and do anything different to be honest. It was almost a question of running to stand still.” Thus most of the 1980s came and went, with numbers of shirt wearing adult fans increasing only very gradually, an accumulation of a decade of late teens and young adults who had been growing up with replicas as children, and loved football enough to stick with it in its darkest years.

Dr Chris Stride is an applied statistician and peripatetic statistics trainer/consultant with an interest in sport history, who is based at the University of Sheffield, UK.

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