Football has changed dramatically over the years from a politely contested fixture between two sides to matches that can start riots across a city because of the intense rivalry. Players have adapted from jogging towards the goal with the ball at their feet to turning opposition defenders inside out with pace and trickery before firing the ball into the top corner. Like all sports, it has changed and it has done so for the better without a doubt, and along with the game changing itself, certain aspects have also developed.
We’ve seen the introduction of goal line technology in the 2013/14 season which will hopefully help to prevent officials from making the wrong decisions, but one change that has been going almost unnoticed over the years is the evolution of the kits worn by the players out on the pitch. To many people, they’re just clothes worn to distinguish between the two sides, but to the teams they are a sense of identity and that’s why the fans spend so much money purchasing replica kits from stores like Newitts.com or the club’s official store, to show their support even away from the stadium on match day.
In the early days of the game, when the likes of Sheffield FC (recognized as the world’s oldest football club) would play Hallam or Notts County, there were no kits as such. Players would turn up for matches wearing whatever they could find, even cricket whites, and then wearing distinctive hats or scarves over the top so that they could stand out from the opposition team. In fact, it was Sheffield FC who first coined the idea of players wearing kits by stating in their own club rule book that “each player must provide himself with a red and dark blue flannel cap, one colour to be worn by each side”, meaning that they could give one coloured hat to the opposition to ensure it was blues versus reds at all times.
It was only when the FA Cup began in the 1871-72 season that kits really began to be created with the rules of the competition stating that each team must wear a distinctive kit. The colours chosen were often associated with the public schools and sports clubs that they grew from, or historical relevance.
From simple coloured kits soon came designed strips featuring hoops or stripes, around the time that the tops became known as ‘shirts’. Newton Heath – now known as Manchester United – were one of the first to adopt the ‘quartered’ style of kit in the 1890s, with the likes of Bristol Rovers still wearing the style today, and Blackburn Rovers wearing ‘halves’. In 1890, we saw the introduction of another rule regarding kits, whereby clubs had to register their own colours to avoid any clashes occurring. This would eventually become the basis of what we know today as the ‘away’ kit where a club will wear a completely different strip when they play against another club that wears similar colours (this was brought into effect in 1921).
As we began to move through the 1900s, kits began to become more stylish with the likes of Manchester United adopting the ‘V’ style around the neck. It was 1909 before goalkeepers were required to wear a different kit, with the Football League wanting clear indications as to just who was in goal to avoid confusion for watching supporters, opposition players and the match officials.
During the next few decades there was very little innovation in terms of kit design, but more manufacturers did appear on the scene with the Humphrey Brothers Clothing company – now known as Umbro – becoming one of the most popular.
Arsenal were one of the first to break the mould in terms of shirt design, by adding contrasting white sleeves to their red shirts in the 1932-33 season. This, and the exposure of British clubs to European competition, prompted designers to look into new styles of kits altogether, with clubs realizing that their European counterparts were wearing much more stylish, lightweight, comfortable kits and this may benefit them going forward. Kits soon featured v-neck collars rather than the traditional shirt collar, short sleeves and lightweight cotton shorts.
By the 1980s and 90s, clubs were reaching their centenaries and celebrated by releasing commemorative shirts to mark the occasion. This is now seen as routine by many English clubs, who will ditch their traditional styles – even for one season – in favour of a modern version of the shirt they wore 100 years ago.
By the late 90s and early 2000s, clubs had taken to selling replica versions of their shirts to supporters, complete with names and numbers printed on the back. This soon became the most valuable marketing strategy for clubs to enhance their status in the local area – and beyond – and the all important bank balance that would let them spend more money on the top players in the game.
Today clubs will change their strips every couple of years – or even every year – because of the size of the market looking to purchase replica versions. Even the slightest changes to the shirt, such as a black collar, makes a difference and fans will still buy them to show their insatiable support for their club.