While the 1970s had seen clubs retain the same design of football kit for around five years on average, the early 80s saw the emergence of a two year lifespan for most kits. Sponsorship deals also became more common, with logos appearing on the shirts of clubs at all levels of English football.

Hitachi were Liverpool’s first shirt sponsor, and one of the first to feature in the Football League. Shirt courtesy of Classic Football Shirts.

Admiral were no longer the dominant force and after facing increasing competition in the replica kit market, their share of sponsored clubs in the English leagues declined. By 1980 they had financially overstretched, and faced liquidation. Many of their remaining teams had no choice but to agree deals with their competitors like adidas, Umbro and newcomers Le Coq Sportif.

England were one of the few teams that remained on Admiral’s books, and they released one of their most memorable kits of all-time. The bold splashes of colour were achieved with sublimation printing direct to the fabric, rather than stitching several differently coloured panels together, as had been the case for most of their previous shirts. Again, the traditionalists who longed for the simple plain white shirts of the past were critical of the design, but it was instantly popular with supporters and is still highly regarded today. It was also one of the first replica shirts made available in adult sizes.

Admiral’s 1980-83 England home shirt. Courtesy of the Manchester United Museum

By 1982, most teams were wearing polyester shirts instead of the traditional cotton. This allowed for bolder designs to be incorporated into the fabric. This was not only achieved by printing, but also by machine weaving and heating in ways that could not have been done previously.

In 1983 shirt sponsors were finally allowed to be worn for televised matches, although at a reduced size (officially 32 square inches). Until this point, televised matches had been cancelled or fines had been issued to clubs who had worn sponsors on their shirts for televised games.

Belgium’s 1983-86 home shirt made a uniquely individual impression at the 1984 Euros. Courtesy of Jesse Rabbeljee @shirtsofcult_by_houseofcult

Hummel and Denmark teamed up for the ground-breaking ‘Danish Dynamite’ shirt at the 1986 World Cup. Gone was the nation’s familiar all-red jersey, replaced by a flamboyant halved design, known fondly as the ‘carnival suit’. Originally paired with matching halved shorts these were ditched prior to the tournament’s start. Denmark looked the part and the shirt was a pioneer in bold design but at the time the shirt dramatically divided opinion.

Following the earlier examples of Admiral and adidas, there had been an explosion of activity in the football kit manufacturing world, and by the 1986/87 season, there were 16 different manufacturers providing kit for the top two divisions of the Football League. The following season was the first in which all League teams had shirt sponsorship deals, and by 1988 these deals were worth a combined £12m for the top flight clubs. Lower division sides in stark contrast earned considerably less, mainly due to their lack of television coverage.

The end of the decade saw increasingly complex designs emerge, as intricate all-over body prints were introduced, with adidas taking the lead. Some of the most iconic kit designs of all time made their debut during the 1988 European Championships. Famous examples were West Germany’s famous geometric tricolour ribbon home shirt (see our In Focus article for more) and the Netherlands’ gradient-speckled tiles of triangles and rhombuses. That design was not immediately met with acclaim – the Netherlands players are said to have compared it to fish scales – but it was a popular choice, worn by various other sides including East Germany and the Soviet Union, in a variety of colourways.

Read part 7 – the 1990s – here

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