Man United accused of churning out `rip-off' strips

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MANCHESTER UNITED fans have accused the club of exploiting their loyalty for cash as its huge merchandising division prepares to launch a new replica kit - the sixth in less than three years.

Long queues are expected outside the United Superstore at Old Trafford when the blue-and-white striped outfit goes on sale this Tuesday. A full set of shirt, shorts and socks will cost fans almost £65: if they want the name and squad number of one of their heroes printed on the back, it will cost even more.

"It's emotional blackmail. They're ripping us off," said supporter Rob Cookson, of Ramsbottom, near Bury. He refuses to buy it, but knows others who will. "There will be parents outside the shop moaning that it's terrible, that the club is taking advantage of their kids. But they'll still get it for them."

United's income from merchandising has soared from £2m to £14m over the past four years. It could do with the money, having just broken the British transfer record to bring Newcastle United striker Andy Cole to Old Trafford for £6m plus another player inexchange.

While small clubs fret over their losses, the marketing of premiership glamour sides, such as Newcastle, Spurs and Arsenal, grows increasingly sophisticated. Last year United had the highest turnover in the league, £43.8m.

Its team still plays in the red shirt made famous by George Best and Bobby Charlton, but they also have a black strip for away games, and were one of the first clubs in the country to use an extra set of colours for cup games.

This yellow-and-green third kit was on sale all over the world for Christmas. But fans were shocked when United ran out against Southampton in a new version of it just six days later after Christmas, rendering thousands of presents obsolete.

"They're exploiting the goodwill of the fans," said Mr Cookson, a printer who shares a £266 league season ticket. "I won't buy my son a new kit when he wants one, because the price is way over the top, and, anyway, I know there'll be another one along in12 months."

United has supporters in Japan, Australia, Malta and the United States. Tickets are scarce even if you can get to the ground, but the success of recent years has created a whole new market of souvenir-hungry fans.

The club has mail-order and wholesale businesses, as well as two shops in Manchester, selling United romper suits, slippers, and even duvet covers with the face of handsome young winger Ryan Giggs on it.

United was beginning to look like "a rather slick hustler willing to squeeze every last penny out of its fans", said Rogan Taylor of the Football Research Unit at Liverpool University.

For Richard Kurt, of the United fanzine Red Issue, the days of signing big, ugly defenders are over. "It's getting to the point where no player will come to Old Trafford unless he's been vetted by the commercial department and is good-looking enough to go on calendars and duvets."

He felt supporters were divided over the merchandising, but if it helped pay for the best new players, he was in favour. "The timing was a very good move. If it means suburban fathers in South-east England shelling out for a new kit in January when they've only just bought one, that's quite amusing." Kurt, who has no children, added: "If you're so enslaved to your children's desires that you're prepared to go out and buy that abomination of a kit, then you deserve what you get, really."

Mark Burton, United's merchandising manager, would not say how much money the club expected to make from sales of the new strip. Nor would he say how well the old version had sold, or how many replica kits were sold in general by the club. "That's classified information," he said. Decisions on when and how to replace strips were made by members of the board and Umbro International, the Manchester-based sportswear company that paid for the right to make and market United's strip.

Umbro has produced six new strips since it signed a contract with United in August 1992.Simon Marsh, Umbro promotions manager, said a press release about the latest strip was not put out until after Christmas. Fans knew the designs were changed every twoyears, he said. "People have got to give the consumer a little bit more credit than they do. Any child who had purchased the yellow-and-green kit would probably have outgrown it by now."