The story of replica football shirt industry, by Dr. Chris Stride
In the mid-1980s, English football reached its lowest ebb, with the riots at Luton, the Bradford City fire and the Heysel Stadium disaster just the most prominent and tragic moments amongst an incessant drip of negative stories. Author Nick Hornby recounts the huge gaps opening up on the terraces in 1986, when crowds were at their smallest since before World War I. Many clubs and police forces, ground down by a decade of hooliganism, had resorted to treating all fans as hooligans, penning them behind steel fences and using heavy handed tactics to suppress potential trouble.
However, the 1980s football ground was also a much free-er place in many ways than today’s glossy all-seater stadiums. Those fans who continued to attend could mingle on the terraces, and gather with likeminded souls, whether they were there to shout, chant, or grumble. These informal groupings included the young adult fans who crowded together behind the goals, but had no desire for a punch up. Having grown up in 1970s, for many their childhoods would have featured both replica shirts – and a sense of rebellion against previous generations that found an outlet in the punk and new wave music scenes. With football supporters increasingly demonised by the media and even their own clubs, some of these younger fans began to fight back against this stereotyping – most noticeably by producing fanzines similar to those written by music fans. Unashamedly political and predominantly left-wing, often railing against the football authorities, the government and even their own clubs, football fanzines exploded in popularity in the late 1980s. The scene created by these fanzine writers and sellers, and others who began to organise independent supporters associations, was the first indication that football culture might be able to change from within, at the very same time as the government were lining up draconian plans to forcibly reform it from above.
Football fanzines in turn created a connection back to the edges of the music scene, marking football fans as not quite the philistines they had been presumed to be. By 1989 the New Musical Express, a barometer of cool amongst the youth demographic, was declaring that “football was hip again”. And so, by association, was the replica football shirt, which began to appeal to more young fans beyond the hardcore, and even young adults who might only count themselves as peripheral fans of football. Counting shirts in crowd photos shows the first big rise in numbers comes in the late 1980s. For the first time clubs and manufacturers began to see the potential of this market. Production, promotion and availability of adult sizes slowly increased, with kit adverts beginning to feature older teenage and even young adult fans, rather than just child models.
Music in turn cross-pollinated with football via the replica shirt. The burgeoning scene developing around a new style of electronic music broadly categorised as rave or acid house: dance-infused guitar bands, warehouse parties, and a dress code characterised by loose-fitting, brightly coloured shirts, and even looser flared jeans. Advances in fabric technology had been driving shirt design onward from the blocks of bright colour and branded trim that characterised the late 1970s. By the late 1980s, a full palette of colours including neon shades was available, and printing complex patterned fabrics was also viable. Shirt design in this era was increasingly guided by a desire to utilise this new technology, particularly on change kits, in which fans would be less concerned about experimentation with traditional colours. Umbro manager Kevin Offer notes that “we went through a period of trying to make it as whizzbang as possible and we had the equipment and the technology to be able to print those sort of prints onto shirts. So everyone was doing it… especially the away kit, we had license to do what we wanted.” With the adult-replica-shirt market still in its infancy and older adult fans, who might have had more restrained tastes, not yet considered as customers, the shirts of this era tended to vary from bold and bright to lurid, and were increasingly patterned. The vibrant patterning and bright colours chimed with many of the rave scene’s design aesthetics and fashions.
Improved policing within grounds, notably CCTV which enabled the troublemakers to be easily identified and removed, also began to detoxify the atmosphere inside stadiums, and the crowds began to return. In fact football support took a carnivalesque twist, with the appearance of inflatables on the terraces. This revival was punctured briefly by the Hillsborough disaster, but then reinvigorated by the 1990 World Cup, as England reached the semi-finals in thrilling fashion, roared on by thousands of supporters in Italy and millions at home. Football’s – and the football shirt’s transition – into the centre of mainstream culture was exemplified by the England team’s chart-topping tournament song, ‘World in Motion’. It was recorded with the band New Order, who were credible with both the indie-guitar and dance cognoscenti, yet also consistently achieved chart positions with their radio-friendly pop hooks and wider appeal. The band appeared in the World in Motion video wearing England replica shirts, and a month of TV coverage of the tournament regularly featuring crowd shots of the many replica-clad England fans.
New Order, bringing the replica shirt to the masses
Football’s recovery in late 1980s and early 1990s – often reimagined as a Premier League inspired process – was primarily a fan-led weaving together of disparate strands of English youth culture to raise football’s and, by association, the replica football shirt’s, social and cultural capital. By 1991 this phenomenon had peaked, although the replica shirt retained a degree of ‘indie credibility’, most notably when Oasis wore Manchester City shirts in their first major photo shoot. Nevertheless, even if the replica shirt’s moment in pop fashion’s fickle spotlight had passed, its journey to ubiquity was underway.
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. Read more of his writing about replica kits here.