Stripped of their dignity: King cotton gives way to nipple-rubbing polyester, and designs are ever more garish. Roger Tredre mourns the passing of the classic soccer shirt

May 1971: Arsenal versus Liverpool in a sweltering FA Cup Final. The game is in extra time and Liverpool, worn down by the heat, are perspiring uncontrollably in their long-sleeved nylon shirts. But Arsenal are wearing short-sleeved Umbro cotton jersey shirts which absorb the moisture more effectively. Striker Charlie George blasts the ball into the back of the net from 20 yards. Arsenal win the Cup, and a historic double. A triumph for Arsenal - or for cotton?

Wendy Baker, a fashion knitwear student at the Royal College of Art, has recently completed a thesis on football strips, focusing on the development of the Arsenal and Manchester United kits. She concludes that footballers get a raw deal: nipple rub is a common complaint, and many find their 100 per cent polyester shirts so uncomfortable that they wear T-shirts underneath. Their fans get a raw deal too, being expected to fork out up to pounds 50 a season for the latest kit - a ploy that keeps the souvenir shops busy and club commercial managers happy.

Ms Baker believes the use of polyester is the most disappointing feature of modern football strips, but she is also critical of garish, overcomplicated designs. 'I can't believe how dreadful the new Manchester United strips are,' she says. 'They are badly designed rubbish.' She grows nostalgic and recalls the Manchester United kit of the Sixties, worn by George Best, Denis Law, Bobby Charlton et al: plain red with a round neck trimmed in white, worn with white shorts and red socks.

Things went wrong in the early Eighties, says Ms Baker, when Adidas won United's contract. Over the seasons, Adidas designers added heavy white stripes on the sleeves, new logos, vertical and horizontal shadow stripes, abstract patterns, even a pattern repeat of the letters M U F C. This season's kit is designed by Umbro, of whom Ms Baker is no less critical.

The companies who design and make football strips feel aggrieved at the criticism. Martin Prothero of Umbro (which supplies 11 of the 22 teams in the Premier League) says the complicated designs prevent counterfeiting. He points out, too, that the company does make shirts in polyester-cotton when necessary - England wore poly-cotton in the last World Cup.

Shirts were never going to be the same from the moment sponsors started splashing their names across them. Manchester United players support a team called Sharp. Arsenal support JVC.

Arkwright, a Leeds-based company which sells replicas of Fifties, Sixties and Seventies shirts in 100 per cent cotton, bangs the drum for the good old days. Helen Weatherhead, a director of the company, says: 'The new strips feel cheap and nasty and look cheap and nasty. The fans are being ripped off and the players all complain. Why hasn't there been a revolution on the terraces or in the dressing rooms?'

Arkwright's 'authentic footy shirts' include the black and white stripes of Newcastle United 'as worn by Bobby Moncur and Malcolm Macdonald' and the old gold with black collar and cuffs of Wolves 'as worn by Derek Dougan'. Ms Weatherhead says the cotton shirts of the Seventies (before the move to cheaper polyester) are among the best-sellers, particularly the gloriously simple Leeds United all-white strip. Another favourite is a West Ham shirt of the Thirties with a lace-up collar. Ironically, Aston Villa are wearing much the same shirt this season, although the collar is imitation lace-up.

Andy Lyons, co-editor of When Saturday Comes, the football fanzine, thinks the imitation lace-up shirts look ridiculous. 'The designers think they are being hip, but they're not. These shirts are bad approximations of what might have been worn several decades ago.'

He is also critical of the regular seasonal changes in club kits. 'The football shirt changes are symbolic of football clubs' attitudes to their supporters. They treat them as a bottomless source of income.'

Yet even the worst designed kits have a charm of their own. Nick Hornby, author of Fever Pitch, a book about the highs and lows of being an Arsenal fan, points out that the new Arsenal away shirt, designed by Adidas, is a runaway best-seller (they are selling in their thousands at Highbury). He is philosophical. 'Fans enjoy allying themselves with the unspeakable. It's the least desirable garment I've ever seen. And I'm seriously contemplating getting one.'

The Arkwright mail order catalogue is available on 0532 428003. Modern replica kits are available from Sportscene on 0782 566950/562875. Fever Pitch: A Fan's Life by Nick Hornby is published by Gollancz at pounds 13.99.

(Photographs omitted)

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