Farewell to Umbro: End of an era for Three Lions
The company has provided shirts for the most iconic England moments of the last 60 years – but not for much longer. Sam Wallace details how a declining national institution was eased out by Nike
In the impressive, light-filled atrium of the new football centre at St George's Park, 150 mannequin torsos, each wearing an Umbro-designed jersey, hang on the walls to commemorate the Football Association's 150th anniversary next year. Some are adorned with classic Umbro strips, others feature famous moments, or great characters, from the history of the England team.
Within a few weeks, they will all be taken down. In a corporate putsch, Nike is to replace Umbro as the kit supplier to the national team and the old British brand, created 88 years ago in the back room of a pub in Wilmslow in Cheshire, has been politely instructed to step aside to make room for its all-conquering American parent company.
A British sporting institution, Umbro is fighting for its survival. Nike announced its intention to sell it in May and its most likely future is as a brand sold on licence. Instead of it being controlled by its creative hub, and in spite of all the experience and know-how in its UK headquarters, manufacturers will pay to sell products under the Umbro brand, eking out the last value from a company that has lost so many of its assets.
Created by the Humphrey brothers, Harold and Wallace, in 1924, Umbro has a remarkable history. Over the years it has made the kits of Brazil in their World Cup-winning year of 1962, Celtic in 1967, Liverpool in 1977, Manchester United in 1999 and, most famous of all, England in 1966. The brand is most closely associated with the England team, who began wearing Umbro kits in 1954, and have done so since then in all but 10 years from 1974 to 1984.
Duncan Edwards made his England debut in an Umbro shirt. Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in one. Terry Butcher bled on one. Paul Gascoigne cried in one. David Beckham was sent off in one. Now, it is the Swoosh which will adorn the shirt, and the first Nike message was evident in the hall where Prince William opened St George's Park on Tuesday, boldly proclaiming, "English football. The future".
But what of its past? Umbro's decline has at its root a complicated set of factors. Its acquisition by Nike for £377m in 2008 was not a success. Sources close to the company say that Nike tried to impose its own manufacturing and sales logistics on the much smaller, niche company. Traditionally, Umbro had to be more tactical when negotiating smaller product orders with factories and developing close relationships with retailers.
Nike, a company so big it needs to do little more than ask a retailer what quantity it wants of a product, found Umbro a different kind of beast. Nike's record in acquiring smaller brands has been mixed. Bauer, an ice hockey concern, was bought and then sold. There has been more success with Converse. But it was not only the relationship with the parent company that affected Umbro.
Between 2004 and 2006 Umbro sold approximately three million replica England home and away shirts. In 2009 it negotiated a nine-year kit deal with the FA but by then the popularity of England shirts had tailed off badly with the failure to qualify for Euro 2008. Competition between Sports Direct and JJB Sports that had forced the price of replica shirts down eased. The worsening economic situation played a part.
Umbro was left with an expensive contract with the FA, thought to be around £20m a year, that it could not make pay. It is this deal that Nike has taken over, without any protest on the FA's part, and from next year the England team will begin the changeover to Nike shirts.
The powerhouses of global sports brands, Nike and Adidas, can afford to write off a loss on a kit deal as a marketing expense. Nike had originally focused on what the commercial men call "performance" products and bought Umbro in order to break into the "football lifestyle" or "fanware" market. The two businesses were not meant to overlap, but gradually Nike has filleted Umbro of its greatest assets.
The other jewel in Umbro's crown, the shirt contract with Manchester City, will also pass to Nike next season. Those who notice such things point out that the Umbro pitch-side branding at the Etihad stadium has already switched to Nike. Joe Hart, one of the few star names who still wear Umbro boots, will surely be in Nike soon. Darren Bent, Andy Carroll and Michael Owen remain Umbro endorsees. John Terry's deal ran out in June, although he still wears Umbro boots.
A brand that once made the kits of some of the biggest clubs and international teams in the world, not to mention pioneering the first children's replica kits, will, next year have just Nottingham Forest, Huddersfield Town and Blackburn Rovers on its English roster.
Umbro's headquarters in Cheadle, south of Manchester and just a few miles from the Humphreys' hometown of Wilmslow, is the workplace of around 200 employees where the company took on extra office space when it was acquired by Nike. It was described by one source recently as a "ghost town" as Umbro workers wait to learn the future of their brand.
In a globalised world, does it matter that England will no longer wear a shirt manufactured by a company that, at very least, has its roots in English soil? France, after all, wear Nike, not Le Coq Sportif. The big national teams of Spain, Brazil, Argentina, the Netherlands have been signed by either Adidas or Nike. Nevertheless, it would be hard to imagine Germany wearing anything other than German brands Adidas or Puma.
No one can deny Umbro its place in football heritage, from the 1994 World Cup-winning Brazil team's shirt to the boots Roberto Carlos was wearing when he scored that famous free-kick for his country against France in 1997. It permeated popular culture too: Liam Gallagher wore one of Umbro's loud touchline overcoats, in City colours, to perform on Top of the Pops in 1995.
At the 1966 World Cup finals, 15 out of 16 teams wore Umbro-manufactured kits. In recent years, it has become collateral in the battle for global supremacy between Nike and Adidas. The company still hopes there will be a place for it in the market but it has lost the great prize of the England team shirt and history suggests it will never regain it.
Admiral's time at the helm
England's period in the wilderness during the 1970s coincided with the kit being made by Admiral, who, with the help of new manager Don Revie, secured a deal with the FA in 1974. They created the first commercially available England kit to feature a logo but it failed to grace a World Cup till 1982 and the FA reverted to Umbro in 1984.
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