Football: Grey stokes a shirty business

Andrew Baker reports on a dilemma in store for United's bargain hunters
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The Independent Online
The Manchester United Megastore, a retail barn behind the Stretford End at Old Trafford, was as busy as ever last week. Fans browsed among the mementoes, wondering if their lives could be complete without a United razor, calculator or clock. They stocked up on United fruit drops and peppermints, and dreamed of spending pounds 29.99 to sleep with Ryan Giggs - or his image on a duvet cover. But one item was proving stubborn to shift: the rack of grey shirts just inside the entrance to the shop, generously discounted from pounds 36.99 to pounds 14.99.

Plenty of fans approached the rack, picked up the shirts, thought about the price, and put them back with derisive grins. One toddler, proud of the bargain he thought he'd found, showed his little grey shirt to his grandmother. "Oh, no, son," she admonished him, snatching it away. "You don't want one of those."

Since it has been reported that some fans have been incinerating similar items, the Megastore may be a little optimistic in expecting to flog the shirts at pounds 14.99. The grey shirt, the jinx strip, in which United never won and which they dramatically abandoned at half-time, 3-0 down against Southampton last week - the only place you'll find people willing to pay good money for that strip is St James' Park.

This is a matter of some regret for Umbro, who manufacture Manchester United's kit - and that of many other top clubs and national sides - in a factory in Wythenshawe, 15 minutes' drive from Old Trafford. The corridors leading to the executive offices are lined with signed FA Cup final commemorative shirts. These are mostly red, and they will never now be joined by a grey example.

"Unfortunately," Simon Marsh, Umbro's promotions manager, pronounced, "circumstances have prevented a two-year sales cycle for the grey kit." Circumstances such as three first-half goals for Southampton. Mr Marsh is an earnest man with intense, dark eyes, rather like Ray Wilkins only with more hair. He winces at the memory of last weekend's events. "The phones started ringing as soon as we heard what was going on, and they carried on ringing all day Sunday. On Monday eight of us met here at 7am to decide what to do."

It all sounds like a lot of fuss over something as mundane as a shirt. But for Umbro, whose corporate "Vision Statement" declares that by the World Cup in 2002, the company must be "The Global Leader in Branded Soccer product on and off the field, dominating in Key Soccer Countries", football shirts are rather important.

It takes 18 months to produce a new shirt for Manchester United. Initial consultations with the club and market research, particularly into the sensitive matter of colours, produce a brief for Umbro's 30-strong design team. What sort of influences do they then draw on? "All sorts of things," Simon Marsh said. "They get inspiration and design elements from the world of fashion, from automotive design, but also - and this is very important - from the heritage of the club. The green and yellow away strip we designed for Manchester United was based on the colours of the team that the club grew out of, Newton Heath Railway. We did a similar exercise for Everton, producing a salmon and navy strip based on the colours of their founding club, St Domingo." And what were the creative influences affecting Manchester United's grey strip? "Well, that was a combination of what we've done in the past and what we want to do in the future."

Marsh was quick to point out that United's home strip will always retain the traditional elements of red shirt with white and black shorts and socks - no marketing man in his right mind would interfere with a brand like that. But the away kits, he explained, "give us a little bit of licence to explore other areas".

And a licence, many cash-strapped fans feel, to print money. Much of the outrage generated by the demise of the grey strip came from parents who were unhappy at the prospect of shelling out on yet more replica kit for their offspring. Umbro moved swiftly to ensure that discounts would calm things down. But there remains the recurring charge that changing the away kit every two years is exploiting a monopoly over the fans' affections.

"If you buy a kit for a four-year-old he'll have grown out of it in two years," Marsh said. "And anyway, how many toys or computer games last two years? And the kits are washed and worn, washed and worn. The kids wear them in bed. Believe me, I know what the parents are going through. I've got a four-year-old son myself, and he pesters the living daylights out of me."

Picture the scene chez Marsh: "I've got lots of shirts for you son - lots. Guess what colour they are . . ."

Fantasy Football Shirt: Three top designers present their own Old Trafford creations

Joe Casely-Hayford

This radical design anticipates "reactive" fabrics that will respond to the mood of the crowd.

Fashion statement: "If the crowd are unhappy the kit will transform into the colours of the opposition."

Carlo Brandelli, Squire

A classic with a twist, adding a silver lining to United's beloved red and black.

Fashion statement: "Modern, simple, clean, future, sharp, George Best . . ."

Chris Bailey, Jigsaw

Jigsaw for Men's sassy style appeals to many Premiership players for off-duty wear. For working days, the Jigsaw strip is typically bright and upbeat.

Fashion statement: "United colours of United."