In Focus – Malcolm Allison, Kit Innovator

Malcolm Allison was as flamboyant a character as English football has ever seen. He’s not only remembered for his successes alongside Joe Mercer at Manchester City in the late 60s and early 70s, or for the distinctive fedora he wore during his days at Crystal Palace. He was also an innovator in kit design and made bold and enduring changes to the strips of both of those clubs.

In 1968, the Allison and Mercer partnership had steered a Manchester City side – who only two seasons earlier had been in the Second Division – to a top flight Football League title. With that honour came qualification to the European Cup, the most prestigious international club competition.

In the pot alongside City for the draw were luminary teams such as Real Madrid, Ajax, Benfica and AC Milan, who had won not only the Serie A title, but had lifted the European Cup Winners’ Cup in the previous season. City drew Turkish side Fenerbahce, with the first leg at their home ground, Maine Road. A highly disappointing no score draw left everything to play for in Istanbul.

For this crucial match, City wore their standard sky blue home kit against the yellow of Fenerbahce It started well for the English side, who took the lead through Tony Coleman. By the full-time whistle it was a very different story though, with the Turkish side winning 2-1. City had surprisingly fallen at the first hurdle.

It may have been this loss which provided the impetus for Allison to do a little remodeling at City. Just days later, away at Everton, City made a dramatic change to their appearance. They ran out onto the Goodison Park pitch in an imposing combination of red and black striped shirts, black shorts and black socks. A slight twist on the classic colours of would-be European rivals, AC Milan.

The colours were not immediately accepted by supporters, who couldn’t have helped being averse to a prominently red kit due to its associations with local rivals, United. A 2-0 loss to Everton that day did little to change their minds, but there was some precedent of City wearing both black and red in their earlier history. Allison, however, was not to be deterred in ploughing ahead with his vision for the side in these bold new colours.

City had progressed to the fifth round of the FA Cup, where they faced Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park, a ground that they’d had little fortune in previous years. Their luck dramatically changed that day, as City won 4-1 in their red and black stripes, qualifying for the next round, at home against Tottenham Hotspur.

After beating Spurs, a narrow win (while wearing the striped shirts) against Everton in the semis sealed a place in the final for the first time since 1956. If the fans were starting to be won over by their new change strip by that point, then seeing their players lifting the famous trophy at Wembley, bedecked in red and black stripes, was surely the clincher.

Manchester City’s 1969 FA Cup final shirt. Courtesy of Umbro.

City went on to win both the League Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup the following season and wore their ‘lucky stripes’ in both finals. This was City’s most successful period in their history up until recent years, and as a result, the colours have remained popular with supporters. Red and black stripes have been resurrected and reimagined (memorably as a checker-board pattern in the late ’80s) for City’s change kits regularly since their 1969 debut.

Above: City v West Brom in the 1970 League Cup final. Both sides wore their change kits.

Allison took over as City manager in 1971 and continued to develop the club’s image on the pitch. His next statement in kit design was introduced soon afterwards – the sash.

Sashed kits were not a common sight at English grounds at that time. Most football fans had probably first encountered them watching Peru v Brazil in the 1970 World Cup on TV. It’s possible this is where Malcolm Allison found his inspiration for City’s new change kits – blue with a white and red sash, and white with a blue and white sash. Further experimentation was seen in the 1972 Charity Shield, as City wore their shirt numbers on both sleeves.

At the Palace

A bad run of form curtailed Allison’s spell as City manager, but soon Crystal Palace acquired his services, and it appears he was allowed a free reign with their image. For the 1973-74 season a new club crest was introduced, a visual representation of the club’s new nickname – the Eagles – and their old claret, blue and white kits were replaced with striking red and blue.

Above: Allison with his new-look Crystal Palace side in 1973. The use of the sleeve numbers continued at his new club, while the socks are identical to those worn by Manchester City in the 1972 Charity Shield.

Palace’s kits had been subject to huge changes throughout their history, and had dabbled with these colours in the past – red and blue stripes were registered as home shirts in the 1937-38 season – but it’s doubtful that Allison would have been aware of this. More likely, he was simply keen to stamp his mark on the club.

Above: Palace’s first away kit of the Allison era was eerily familiar

The Eagles also began to wear shirt numbers on their sleeves, although sometimes these were replaced by club crests. Allison also gave each player a unique nickname, which not only featured in the matchday programme, but on their tracksuits as they took to the pitch. By 1975, they settled on a single crest in the centre of the chest, but bigger changes were to follow.

The crest on a c1974 Crystal Palace shirt. Image courtesy of Umbro.

Although Allison resigned as Palace manager in May 1976, by the start of the following campaign, the Eagles had switched to white shirts with blue and red sashes as their first choice kit. They had previously made appearances in these colours in away matches under Allison’s tenure in the dugout, and it appears that he was again responsible for introducing this design, almost identical to what he’d brought to Manchester City.

No doubt the kit etched itself into the minds of Palace supporters and their opponents during the club’s FA Cup run, as the then-Third Division side wore the sashed shirts in wins at Chelsea and Sunderland. Despite a loss to Southampton in the semi-final, it seems the sash came to be regarded as their ‘lucky’ shirt.

Initially this kit was made by Umbro, whose logo appeared on the sash, while the club crest appeared on the right breast of the shirt – the opposite to how you’d expect these details to be arranged for a modern shirt. In 1977 Palace were one of many clubs to sign kit deals with Admiral, so the Leicestershire company’s logos replaced the Umbro double diamond and taping was added to the sleeves. Several variations of this shirt were worn until 1980, when financial problems led to many Admiral sponsored teams seeking alternative arrangements. Admiral’s loss was adidas’s gain, and the Eagles wore the German brand’s three stripes on the sleeves of their sashed shirts for three further seasons.

For two months during the 1980-81 season Allison temporarily returned to the managerial hotseat in SE25, although in this short time he made no further alterations to their kit. The changes he had made during his first spell at Selhust Park however have endured to the present day. Palace have continued to wear blue and red home strips almost ever since Allison first introduced them almost 50 years ago. On the rare occasion that they haven’t, they’ve worn his sash design instead.

Malcolm Allison’s managerial career may not have added much in the way of silverware to the Crystal Palace trophy cabinet, but he left a colourful legacy on the shoulders of their players.

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