Manchester United in blue, Liverpool in green, Coventry in brown? Clive White takes a traditionalist's view of football's kit controversy
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When the Labour leader, Tony Blair, tore a strip off Manchester United and their lucrative replica kit business recently there must have been many who wished he had gone a step further and put the boot into the club for its flagrant disregard for tradition, too. Commercial exploitation in the shape of a their strip is one thing, but what on earth has blue and white got to do with the Red Devils?

It was an open invitation to ridicule which, thankfully, was not passed up. "They're trying to look like us," Tony Gale, of United's Premiership rivals, Blackburn Rovers, said. Others, even more cuttingly, reckoned it was a desperate attempt to pretend they were still in the European Cup - by aping their conquerors, IFK Gothenburg.

Of course the blue and white strip is no more an impostor than the green and yellow it replaced (despite Umbro's insistence that the latter were the club's colours in its earliest days) or, come to that, even the all- black reserve number currently in use at Old Trafford. It seems there is no end these days to the technicolour dream coats in which clubs will adorn their teams on the pretence of being unable to wear their first- choice kit. So much for showing your colours.

When I was a boy, and an avid United supporter, the merest deviation from the regular red, white and black was something to be abhorred. I remember well the feeling of being short-changed when they turned out at the start of one season in the usual red and white shirts but with all-white socks. There was nothing wrong with all-white socks. On the contrary, they had a certain cachet - Real Madrid wore them - but they were not as distinctive as a black stocking topped with red and white. And, crucially, it just wasn't United.

In those days of innocence, when shirt sponsorship was in its infancy, clubs rarely had cause not to wear their full colours. And if they did have to change, every effort was made to retain them in some form, usually in a reverse format. Indeed, for me there was a novelty value in, just occasionally, seeing United in all white fringed with red; shades of my second favourite club, Real.

Some of the reverse kits were extremely attractive. I remember the appeal of Aston Villa's in the 1957 FA Cup final against United: sky blue shirts with a thin claret stripe. Nowadays their change strip is black, green and red, hardly traditional.

Respect for tradition, of course, disappeared long ago. The advent in the Sixties of Don Revie's image-conscious Leeds, replete with sock tabs and "Smiley" badges, along with the ill-conceived revamp of England's kit by Admiral, heralded the relaunch of an industry which has rocketed in value to something like £80m a year today in England alone.

It is a seasonal fashion business and if the English regard it as a commercial rip-off they should spare a thought for the poor Dutch parent: Ajax change their strip every season instead of every two as is the case in England. If that seems excessive, it is because first and second choice kits change alternately (other than when there is a new sponsor and they change again) and because some clubs, such as United, Spurs and Celtic, have three kits.

Many clubs may occasionally play in a third but do not market it, even though the demand is there. When Arsenal played in an emergency third kit recently "the phones didn't stop ringing the next day from fans who wanted it," John Hazell, the club's commercial manager, said. "It's not our policy to produce the third kit for commercial resale. We're aware families are under enough financial pressure without that. I must say, though, I've been here five years and I could count on my fingers the number of complaints I've received about changing kits. Yet I've got files and files of letters from kids suggesting new ones."

Since the sales of shirts in children's sizes, according to the manufacturers, are outstripped by those for adults there does not seem to be much of a case to answer on the commercial side even if Umbro, which has been at the forefront of this shirt revolution, did display a certain cynicism in introducing the third United kit immediately after Christmas.

Umbro, which numbers England, Brazil, Manchester United and Ajax among its clients, claims to be a company run by football fans, and to honour tradition. "We were the people who put England back in a proper white shirt with navy shorts after the Admiral days of funny blue," Peter Draper, the marketing director, said. "We were the people who put Brazil back in a proper gold and green and the right kind of blue shorts. We understand this view which says `don't mess'. Sadly, rather like putting in seats where there was terracing, sometimes you've got to. You have to move on."

Unfortunately the "messing" is not restricted to just change strips. They are nibbling away like moths at the very fabric of tradition. Take Liverpool for example. From a distance, unadulterated red and white. A closer inspection reveals that the shirt sleeves and collar are edged with green. Since when was green an integral part of the Reds?

It is, however, an integral part of Adidas, the makers, which subtly slipped in the green to reflect its own corporate identity.

One could be excused for wondering these days what exactly are the club colours of some teams. They can change more readily than a chameleon, often quite needlessly. Last Saturday's FA Cup tie between Tottenham and Southampton was a case in point. No clash of colours there between Spurs' white shirts and navy blue shorts and the red and white striped shirts and black shorts of Southampton. But what did the Saints turn out in? Turquoise and royal blue.

Philip Don, the referee on that occasion, explained that contrary to popular belief both teams can wear the same coloured shorts. "It's just the predominant colour in the shirts and, obviously, the socks which must not clash," he said. "Unfortunately it's not up to the League what colour a club chooses to play in away from home."

What chance tradition, though, when the ruling body itself ceases to pay it any due, preferring instead to pay homage to its own sponsors. If ever there was change for change's sake it was the switching from black to green for referees - of which most disapprove - when the FA Premier League signed a sponsorship deal with Umbro.

Generally, though, it is the change strip which is most widely open to abuse, the manufacturers experimenting wildly, and often coming up with some truly hideous mutations. Most people have their favourite abomination, including the players. In fact particularly the players, who have to wear them and are rarely consulted as to their preference.

As if finishing bottom of their group in the 1986 Mexico World Cup finals was not humiliating enough, Scotland's players had to be seen doing so in an unflattering outfit which consisted of a thick blue band around the area of their genitals. "It didn't do those fellas with big backsides much of a favour," recalled Gordon Strachan, the recently retired Leeds and Scotland midfielder. "Some of the strips are a mess; they don't even look like a football kit.

"Do you remember that awful Coventry one? In a chocolate brown with black and white curvy stripes down it. Then there was one at Dundee with a broad white band down the front flanked in blue. They looked like 11 penguins running around. The one thing about strips these days, I must admit, is that they're being used as a fashion accessory and not just as a strip, so I suppose you could say they're serving two purposes for the price of one."

Umbro, the perpetrators of that little Scotland number, claimed that those shorts were a best seller. "It was absolutely pasted in the Scottish media but the Jocks bought it in their thousands," Draper said. "It was very popular beachwear." Strictly for beach bums.

Having a sponsor's name emblazoned across the chest, of course, does not exactly help appearance. Designer clothes may be all the vogue nowadays but Auto Windscreens or Walker Crisps do not have quite the same ring as, say, Giorgio Armani. It can hardly have done much for the self-esteem of Brighton's players a few seasons back when, as if turning out in a white and pink patterned check was not bad enough, they had to do so with the word NOBO written on their chest in large capital letters. Mind you, their supermarket carrier bag look (blue and white stripes on shirts and shorts, la Tesco's) was hardly an improvement. And the FA rules on clothing are supposed to prohibit "anything regarded as distasteful".

One wonders just what comes over some designers and how on earth they manage to impose their ideas upon clubs. What, for instance, was Umbro's pitch when selling Chelsea their second kit? "We have got this nice grey look for you".

"It's just a case of sitting down with a pen and colouring pad and thinking what can I do to make it interesting and different," Barry Griffin, the UK sales manager of the Japanese company Asics, said. "The current United strip has got the names of 101 United players past and present woven into it. I mean who would have thought of that? Certainly not the club."

"If you think some of the designs of manufacturers leave something to be desired you should see what high fashion experts came up with a while back when people such as Jesper Curran were asked to design a football shirt,'' Draper said. "You've never seen such a joke in all your life."

It has not all been in the worst possible taste, however. The return to the old-fashioned style of baggy shorts and shirts has been well received. The pacesetters Blackburn are the trendsetters in that respect, and yet remain very traditional. The Italians may still prefer their shorts like knickers, according to Griffin, whose Asics are Blackburn's kit suppliers, but the likes of Gale welcome the loose-fit look. "You can't see the little bulges around your midriff," he explained.

Some Arsenal fans are convinced their team look slow and cumbersome in their new Nike kit, with its hooped red and white socks; others say it is because they are slow and cumbersome. A few seasons ago Crystal Palace, at the behest of Ian Wright and Mark Bright, opted for the Brazilian kit as their second choice, though it has to be said nothing much appears to have rubbed off. Likewise some years ago Newcastle tried a variation on Brazil's colours in order to make Mirandinha feel at home. He went back to Brazil.

Some designers might glean a few ideas from Desmond Morris's book The Soccer Tribe in which he sees a definite advantage in wearing certain colours. "There is a strong chance that, if the body is clad in vividly bold and contrasting colours, like a giant stinging insect, it will be more threatening than if it is adorned in baby blue or some soft pastel shade," he wrote. "Given this thought, it might seem logical to expect a predominance of reds, yellows and oranges among the Tribal Colours, instead of the reds, blues and whites."

Nike says it send its designers on what the company calls "inspirational tours'" where they talk to everyone from the chairman to the tea lady before fixing upon a design. "A lot of people have lucky colours. For example, Arsenal have always been lucky in yellow," Jim Pearson, of Nike, said. "It took a lot of persuasion for them to change to blue and teal as their second kit. Personally, I think talent comes into it somewhere down the line, or lack thereof."

Though British goalkeepers are generally more flamboyant in their dress sense these days none has gone as far yet as the peacock-like Mexican Jorge Campos. His multi-coloured jerseys, replicated throughout Mexico, are probably more designed to dazzle his bank manager than opposing forwards.

Peter Shilton once tried a white polo neck jersey in an attempt to make himself appear even larger in goal, but he quickly discarded it once opposing teams started taking it as a sign of surrender. Conversely, Everton's Neville Southall has opted for black in the belief that it enables him to blend in with the crowd behind the goal and thereby take strikers by surprise. For a while last season, and in the early part of this, he certainly seemed invisible at times.

To those of my generation even the material the modern kit is made of does not look particularly inviting. Surely these synthetics are not as cool as good old cotton. "A load of nonsense," Draper said. "Cotton just holds the sweat. The modern man-made fibres move the moisture from the inside to the outside of the garment and allows it to move away normally. It's also more robust when it comes to retaining shape and size.

"It's a part injury-preventive, too. That's why athletes are using Lycras. Nothing sillier than Linford Christie moving down the running track three years ago, but no decent athlete would be seen without it now. On that basis, potentially, it's not a long way off footballers wearing the same because it is a performance garment."

Football fans in ballet tights. I'd like to see the manufacturers try to market that one for public consumption.