Growing up, my weekends were defined by two activities. The first was church on a Sunday. The second was rugby on a Saturday.
When your Dad’s a Kiwi, every All Blacks test is an event. There was no time for a lie in, as soon as 8am hit it was time to soak in the pre-game, the haka, and the ensuing battle on the field. I can’t pretend that I watched every minute of every game, but there was something special about those moments when I did catch them. With a team as mythical as the ABs, it was hard not to be entranced.
One of the other consequences of having a rugby-obsessed Kiwi Dad though, was that there was no football team to inherit as a fan. Football was appreciated in the house, but no particular team was followed week to week. It would be years before I would take that all-important step.
Very early on I remember my first football-related item of clothing, courtesy of a local car boot sale. It wasn’t a shirt, that came much later, but rather a pair of bright yellow goalkeeper gloves in that wonderful retro style with strips of rubber along each finger. And, within a striking contrasting orange panel across the body of the gloves was the word “Chelsea”.
I have no idea why I chose the Chelsea gloves, but I was very happy with them. For all I cared though, they might as well have said Spielvereinigung Unterhaching (just imagine the font size if that were the case!), I just wanted to kick a ball at (or more likely over) the fence with my brother.
Things began to change as the school years increased in number. Many friends at school had pinned their colours to the mast months or even years before I’d visited that car boot sale. Some had even been attending cup matches, let alone league games, and many kids were even more than ready to regurgitate the weekend’s Match of the Day conclusions first-thing on a Monday morning.
But I couldn’t join in. I liked football, but I could tell you more about Tana Umaga than I could Thierry Henry. I needed to choose a Premier League side to follow (as charming as the local team Southend United were) if I wanted to fit in. As long as I wasn’t supporting Australia in any way, my Dad was happy. So that left me with a decision to make, and I had my fair share of options.
In the maroon corner were West Ham. Of all the Premier League teams they were the closest in proximity to where I lived in Essex, and given the amount of Hammers fans at school I’d be playing it safe somewhat.
Then there was Manchester United. I was too young to remember the ‘99 Treble, but the glow of that season continued to echo into the early 00s. They were also the incumbent league champions at the time, but I think even at a young age the hipster in me wasn’t keen on the idea of jumping on the most obvious bandwagon.
Arsenal offered perhaps a more shrewd choice. They had an exciting continental squad, and had finished second behind United in the league the previous year. I also had to consider Spurs on account of my Grandma, who was a lifelong fan hailing from Edmonton, North London.
But what about Liverpool? Both my best friend and Uncle supported them, so surprisingly there were more ties with them than other clubs despite the geography. And of course, though they couldn’t boast a recent league title to their name, they were coming off a glorious treble of their own.
During the 01/02 season, I was a relatively low-key fan, with a laminated poster of Gary McAllister lifting the UEFA Cup acting as the sole evidence of my support. Things went up a gear following the 2002 World Cup though.
2002 was the first time I truly soaked in a summer tournament. One of my standout memories of Japan/Korea was the superb Senegalese team who shocked the watching world with an upset win against France. The news that star players Salif Diao and El Hadji Diouf would be bringing their talents to Merseyside was incredibly exciting, and I remember thinking that Diouf in particular was poised to set the league alight.
A 6 goal return the following season barely registered on the scale, but nonetheless my love for Liverpool was solidified that year. They were anything but flawless, but I had reached that wonderful point where the names of most of the first team squad would roll off the tongue. Naturally in the buildup to Christmas 2003, there was only one present on my mind.
For the first time in 10 years I wanted a football shirt. I couldn’t have told you much about the Liverpool kits of the time, except for the fact they were made by Reebok and that they had a funny looking round section at the top. The badge was all that mattered though.
To my amazement, I was surprised not only with the home shirt that year but also the brand new away. I’ll never forget the distinctive flocking of the green Carlsberg sponsor on the away. I hated the feel of it, but it certainly made the shirt stand out. Looking back at the design, there’s something quite modern about the kit, particularly with the stripe detailing on the sides which is only a few shades away from the latest Nike template in 2020.
My brother, who had an all-too brief spell as an Arsenal fan, most certainly got the better end of the deal in hindsight with a set of home and away kits for the ages, but I couldn’t be happier. These were my first football shirts, and they more than lived up to expectations.
It would be a long, long time after that Christmas in 2003 before I knew that I could talk about football shirts for a living. I’d love to know what 10-year-old me would’ve said if someone had told me I’d be doing just that.
I suspect that my reaction would’ve been pretty predictable. This was the best Christmas ever. Who wouldn’t want to talk about that?
Phil Delves is Head of Content at the Football Shirt Collective. @PhilDelves