Some people are born into families of serious football fans and spend their early years toddling around the terraces. To these folk, football kits are part of the fabric of their lives from almost the very beginning, and something must be all too easy to take for granted.
For others, like myself, a first kit might be linked to a single memorable moment, and from there on out, kits are something you can’t help but take notice of.
As a kid, football was not really a part of my life. My mum and sister liked dancing, my dad went fishing at weekends. He stopped going to football matches before I remember, partly due to the rise of hooliganism, and partly due to having a young family. I don’t even remember watching football on TV, and (possibly as a result of never watching it) I stunk at football when we played it in PE lessons. I used to dread it.
All that started to change in the summer of 1990. I was 10 years old, England reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in Italy, and we watched the match at home on TV. I recognised the shirt they were wearing, as it was being worn in increasing numbers by people around town, and cheap knock-off versions of it were a common sight on the local market stalls.
After the match, despite England’s loss, it seemed to become even more popular – more and more people could be spotted proudly wearing their replica version in the street.
The same summer, adidas released their latest Manchester United away kit, which was also very popular in the town I lived in, about 7 miles east of the city, It confused me with its colour scheme though, as from a distance, the royal blue and white pattern appeared as a light, sky blue, and even a kid like me who didn’t follow football knew that wasn’t a United colour!
After the World Cup, I found myself dreading those PE football games on the school field a bit less, and I even figured out how to make a good tackle. I’d plant myself on the right wing and sweep a well-timed leg in front of Chris Mason – St John’s Juniors answer to Paul Gascoigne – with no small amount of fear, and maybe 10% of the time, I’d come out of it with the ball. Then it was just a case of hopelessly toe-poking it literally anywhere else, and I was every bit as good as Paul Parker in my eyes.
A year later, I’d started secondary school, and found I was genuinely getting into playing football. Most of my new school mates supported Manchester United, the same team my dad had followed in his youth, along with one half of his family (as is common in Manchester, the family was split – half red, half blue), so there was no choice in the matter of who I would support.
There were a fair amount of Liverpool fans in school at that time, a result of their dominance since the late 70s, and a smaller number of City fans. These club allegiances weren’t always a visual thing though, because of the horrible school uniform – black pants, blue shirt and a black blazer. That meant that the only time you got to see your school mates in their own clothes was on a school trip or non-uniform day, and when the kids got to choose what they wore, they chose football shirts.
This was what I chose to wear – the 1993 Manchester United away kit. No other team had a kit like it (well, except for QPR, but nobody supported them at school), and if you dared to pop your collar like Cantona, you were the epitome of cool. Or at least as cool as a year 8 kid could be on a school trip to a St Helens glass factory.
I think the shirt cost about £30, which was easily the most I’d ever spent on an item of clothing at that point. On top of this, I wanted a name and number on the back. Back then, that meant either taking a bus to the club shop at Old Trafford and paying £1 per letter and £5 per number for the player of your choice to be applied to your shirt, or buying a pack of iron-on material that you had to cut to shape yourself from your local Allsports for £10.
The name of my favourite player was Andrei Kanchelskis. He wore the number 14 jersey, which meant that a trip to the club shop would have cost £21 plus bus fare. So that was out of the question. Also, the letters they heat-pressed onto shirts at Old Trafford weren’t even the same as the players wore, so I thought I could do a better job myself with a pencil, some scissors and an iron… and a permanent marker to draw the Umbro logos onto the bottom of the numbers. Because, to me, that was what was most important. After I’d bought a pair of Premier League arm patches, the total cost of the shirt was about £45, which is easily the most I’ve ever spent on a single item of clothing!
To make that investment seem like better value for money, I wore it frequently. So frequently that the collar started to turn grey, bobbles and runs appeared in the material and the bright yellow sponsors logo lost its colour. The only solution to this was to buy a new shirt. By the time United replaced it in 1995, I’d worn that one out too.
I didn’t buy the replacement, the infamous ‘invisible’ grey kit, partly due to taking an instant dislike of the design, but mainly due to having replaced the black and yellow of this classic United kit with the black and yellow of a Nirvana smiley face t-shirt.
After 1995, the next United shirt I purchased was a gorgeous, original 1958 FA Cup final shirt. Made by Umbro, in their finest ‘Tangeru’ cotton, it had a ‘Styled by Matt Busby’ label, but no number on the back. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, sportswear retailers would put these shirts in window displays around the weekend of the cup final. They were never for sale, and after the match they were handed back to the suppliers.
This shirt eventually found its way into the hands of a sportswear exporter, who would come home with all sorts of manufacturers samples and freebies. The 1958 shirt was one of them, which came in a lot from Umbro. As an avid Arsenal supporter, the United connection held no interest and so the shirt was left in storage for the best part of 50 years. In 2007, the shirt was put on ebay, and I was the lucky winning bidder. In fact, I was especially lucky, as it cost me less than that ’93 away shirt.
That purchase brought back the interest in kits that I had when I was ironing the hand-cut yellow letters onto the back of my old away shirt, and I started researching and writing about them, as well as recreating the designs as graphics in Illustrator and Photoshop. This eventually turned into a bigger project, which became a website, unitedkits.com.
Shortly after working on the website, the National Football Museum moved to Manchester and I was lucky enough to get a job there as a museum assistant. Since then, I’ve had a number of roles at the museum and been a part of some really interesting and exciting projects, but nothing has been as close to my heart as Strip!, which I have designed, co-written and helped to curate.
With the inclusion of that unforgettable black Manchester United away shirt in our Icons display, it feels like my kit story has come full circle.