After Admiral's deal to supply Leeds, the shirt really hit the fan

Olivia Blair ON SATURDAY
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The Independent Online
No apologies for mentioning Stockport County again, for reasons other than giant-killing exploits. Watching them this week, I was reminded of the time during the Falklands War when they considered changing their strip as it resembled the Argentinian national strip. They eventually rejected the idea, but at least it was a worthwhile consideration - which is more than can be said for most.

Take Sunderland, who are abandoning this season's brand new strip for a new look in 1997-98; in their defence (which is shaky at the best of times) they claim the change is to complement their new ground. Rubbish: it's just another case of manufacturers jumping on football's ever-quickening bandwagon, which would be all well and good if they occasionally thought before they jumped.

Money isn't so much the issue here - shelling out pounds 70 for a new strip every other season is bad enough - as getting value for money; pounds 70 might not burn a big hole in the average fan's pocket if it bought something other than a "mishmash in polyester with gut-wrenching graphics" - as style magazine The Face once memorably described football shirts.

These days the immortal line: "For those of you watching in black and white, Spurs are in yellow", would be more along the lines of "Spurs are in the yellow-with-blue-sleeves-and-white-trim-with-manufacturer's-logo- and-emblem-on-the-sleeve-and-sponsor's-name-emblazoned-across-the-chest". Over the top maybe, but you get the point: modern shirt design has become as complicated as this season's fixture list.

Back in the old days it was simple. Leeds played in white, Liverpool in red, Chelsea in blue, QPR wore hoops, Bristol Rovers quarters. No pinstripes, jacquard weaves, shoulder flashes, drawstrings or buttons. Development was to necklines: lace-ups in the 1930s, V-necks in the 1940s, crew-necks in the 1960s. But in 1973 Admiral paved the way for manufacturers with their deal to supply Leeds - that classic all-white strip has never been the same since, with "Thistle Hotels" taking precedence over the club crest - and the shirt really hit the fan.

Granted, the retro look has been making a comeback in recent years, exemplified in Liverpool's current home strip; Everton's salmon and navy away strip (based on an 1880s design); Newcastle's current away strip (which harks back to the club's origins); and Manchester United's green and yellow strip (worn by Newton Heath in 1892 - even if Umbro did get the colours the wrong way round).

But there have still been some howlers. Ipswich's strip looks like it's been dipped in bleach, Nottingham Forest's like something the cat, rather than Umbro, brought in. And of course there was the England away strip, designed by Umbro to "look good with jeans". We know that today's strip designs cater for the consumer as much as the club, but that really was stretching the point. And the colour - a murky shade of battleship grey (they preferred "indigo blue") was the final straw. England's away strip has traditionally been St George's red (except for the nasty blue early 1990s version, and in 1973 when Bobby Moore looked out of sorts in yellow). Thank goodness consumer power has moved Umbro to reintroduce the red away strip in May.

But away strips have always been something of a grey area. Fifa's criterion is that they should avoid clashing with any home strip in that division, which means clubs experiment with increasingly diverse combinations to obtain a design that's unique - and fits the bill. Last season, West Brom wore a Brazilian-style yellow and sky blue away strip, with, says Mike Campion, MD of manufacturers Patrick UK, "a distinctly Brazilian look. Unfortunately, the team played in a distinctly un-Brazilian way". Ditto Crystal Palace and Coventry who both sported Brazilian-style strips which were binned almost before they'd made their debuts.

The arbitrary nature of away strips struck me at Fratton Park last weekend where Reading wore a red and white away strip, with blue and white striped socks; a token gesture to the Royals' traditional colours which just made the look uncoordinated. Arsenal themselves are bringing out a second away strip in the summer, another yellow and blue one to replace the two-tone blue strip, which always seemed more suited to White Hart Lane than Highbury anyway.

But then some clubs have more scope than others, as Spurs' marketing manager, Kay Lyons, explains: "I don't think Arsenal would get as much stick having blue in a strip as we would having red. Even a touch of red in a Spurs kit would make the fans see red."

Spurs' strip is manufactured by Pony, who canvas fans' opinions for their designs. Let's hope that Admiral, soon to return to the marketplace through the leisurewear company Hay & Robertson (who also market pyjamas and underwear bearing the FA crest), do likewise and stay clear of those strips made infamous by England of the early 1980s.

English clubs aren't alone in perpetrating crimes against football fashion. Aberdeen have abandoned their classic red strip in favour of a shirt interwoven with irregular shades of black and topped off with shoulder pads, while Celtic's away strip is a luminous yellow-and-brown striped number suggesting a spurious hands-across-the-water link with Borussia Dortmund. And in Brazil, Nike have committed the ultimate act of heresy by putting thick green stripes down that classic gold sleeve. Brazil's national press have likened the move to sticking a sponsor's name on the national flag. Unsurprisingly, the president of the Brazilian Football Confederation has defended it - the deal is worth around $100m (pounds 62.5m) over 10 years.

Some people, however, obviously appreciate gaudy shirts. Summarising for the Leeds against Crystal Palace Cup tie, David Pleat observed: "What a splendid encounter between two teams in brightly coloured shirts." And this was Radio Five Live.