Three Lions, a Pitch and a Wardrobe | David Collins

South Wales Football Writer David Collins draws on a lifetime obsession with football kits to describe some of his favourite shirts of all time. Many of these, he says, have seen him through Lockdown, where Home Working has put added pressure on a wardrobe well stocked with retro football gear. 

Some of these shirts feature in that wardrobe, he says. Some, David strenuously points out, do not. 

If a time traveler from the 60s or 70s fast forwarded to today’s dayglo world of surround sound tv, year round football and something called an iPad, there are many features he would fail to recognise: Why is the goalie wearing pink? Why is the ref asking a guy watching tele about offside? Who are MK Dons?? 

But, on the whole, I think they might still recognise the kits. They would know that Sunderland are the ones in red & white stripes, Italy are in blue and Wolves still wear Old Gold. If they somehow landed at the 2020 FA cup semi finals, they might think (a) why is this game taking place on a Sunday teatime, yet (b)….yeh that’s Chelsea in blue, United in red. Setting aside the odd calamity here and there, football kits have generally remained the same. The best ones stay in your heart, the worst, stay in your wardrobe. And we all have our favourites…….. 

1. 1966 and all that. 
To many football historians, football, at least in its modern form, didn’t really exist that much before 1966. Alf Ramsey’s Wingless Wonders heralded a new dawn in football milestones; Carnaby Street FC, colour TV, pop star footballers. To some, it is the most important date in football history. To some, it is the only date in football history. 

Football watching seemed very different back then. As a small child, I remember the events with mild affection. As England led 2-1, I recall my Mother saying “they could still score,” (which they did). I thought nothing as to why World Cup Willie wore a Union Jack waistcoat rather than the cross of St George. The linesman was Russian. Azerbywhere?? 

So England romped to victory. That kit. That shirt, entered football folklore. 

I have emerged from that childlike cocoon to take my place in an adult world now. It is a less hospitable land. Yet even l recognise a fashion icon when I see it. One single colour. One single number. Three Lions on the shirt. Jules Rimet still gleaming. A simple shirt for an essentially simple game. If football ever really “comes home,” this is where it would call home. A shirt that changed the course of football history? Probably……. 

 2. And if, you know your History…… 

So, here we are then. I’m 7 years old. I didn’t really know who I supported, or even why. Years later, why, would seem more important than who. At the time though, I giggled at Nobby dancing and thought little more of it. 

Yet for some reason, I was also always drawn to Celtic. I can’t explain why, yet it remains the side of the divide on which I stand, even to this day. Unlike the rest of the Lisbon Lions, I was not born within 30 miles of Glasgow and despite the Collins name tag, I can find limited trace of Irish ancestry in my genes so far, though I continue to look. 

Yet, to today’s schoolboys, the status of Celtic back then might be hard to explain. In 1967 they won all the Scottish domestic trophies and became the first team from the UK to win the European Cup. They had “Jinking” Jimmy Johnston on the wing and the exotically named Bobby Lennox up front. European finals, unbelievable crowds and, the famous hoops. 

Some kits you know, are more than just kits. Liverpool’s imposing red ensemble; the almost sacred stripes of Newcastle United…..and the hoops. 

Football shirts of the time were iconic, yet ultimately, on the plain side. Everton won the league in 1970 wearing blue, even the cuffs were blue. Dirty Leeds wore clean white. That was it. But the bright hoops of Celtic seemed to bring the Green Fields of Erin home to my grey streets of Splott. I knew of few other teams who played in hoops. Numbers on the shorts added to the mystique. In 2020, the Bhoys still turn out in those famous hoops. This bhoy has become a man, but even to this day, it remains one of my favourite shirts. 

3. “Oh that was sheer delightful football…..” 

I remember these words with glee. My somewhat detached interest in the 66 World Cup had been replaced by the full on attentions which only an 11 year old brings to the game. The 1970 World Cup introduced the global game. Matches played in blazing heat, unpronounceable surnames and players who could make the ball talk. 

The greatest team of all time, led by the greatest player of all time, wearing the greatest kit of all time. Pele and the Brazilians did things on a football pitch that we had never seen before. He shot from the halfway line. Was that even allowed? Rivelino “bent” the ball using the outside of his boot. What the…..??

1970 had arrived with a bang. Ken Wolstenholme described the 4th goal against Italy as “sheer delightful football.” Was the 60s all over? It is now. An iconic image as the 70s bids farewell to the 60s. Years later I bought one of those Brazil tops for £2 in a car boot sale. I suspect the one in Bobby Moore’s hand may be worth slightly more. 

4. Recognise your age, it’s a Teenage Rampage 

Adolescence was very kind to me. I was exactly the right age for Glam Rock, learned to play football in platform shoes and rode the obligatory Chopper bike. Puberty saw me drooling over Lyndsey de Paul, while the macho culture gave me Rod Stewart. I had a feather cut and a crombie. Posters on the wall.

The 1970s also ushered in a range of football “mavericks.” The clean cut heroes of 66 were slowly eased aside by heavy fringed naughty boys. They wore their shirts outside their shorts and taunted defenders with their flicks and tricks. Osgood, Bowles, Frank Worthington. And one who, well the best of the lot. George Best conducted me through my teens with a swagger. A blond in every bar and a trick in every turn. With a supporting cast of other long haired legends, he turned on the lights as 70s culture exploded all around me. 

Manchester United, back then, my team of choice, responded to this Brand New Age in style. Their classic 60s red shirts, though appealing, began to look as dated as Bobby’s combover. United glanced back at history, discovered black socks and decorated their famous tops with a quintessential 70s collar – the first time United had worn a collar since 1955. The era of replica shirts as fashion items was still some 20 years off, yet this did not prevent me gleefully unwrapping the bright new top one Christmas morning. My 1960s hob nail football boots gave way to “George Best Stylo Matchmakers.” My best friend had the side lace up version. I think they were purple. Mama, we were all crazee now. 

5. Wales, Wales. Heartache and Hope. 

In case you are unaware, I am Welsh. I support Cardiff City and the Welsh national team. This does not make for an easy life. I will spare you my tales of missed penalties, dubious handballs and a lifetime’s wasted Saturdays watching half remembered teams do battle. Endless relegation battles. That saves us much time. 

The Welsh FA are not known for their innovation. Or at least, not in 1975 they weren’t. Yet, amazingly, their remarkable decision around that time to switch from a somewhat dull red jersey to an ultra 70s dream kit marked the dawning of modern times in the life of a Wales fan. It is hard to describe to the uninitiated, yet featured a bright red Admiral shirt with, well, yellow and green tramlines down each side. The tramlines continued into the shorts. Red for the Welsh dragon, yellow for a daffodil, green to represent the leek. Honest. 

I was hooked. I bought (wait for it…) the top, the matching shorts and the 1970s matching scarf, which I still wear. We made a red, yellow and green banner, which accompanied us to Anfield for a dreadful night watching Joe Jordan punch the Scots to glory in 1977. The banner was on poles, in keeping with the fashion of the day. 

Welsh fans retain affection for that kit even now. It is hard to explain why. Perhaps a longing for a mis spent youth? Perhaps memories of former heroes. Or maybe, we’ll, maybe it’s just a GREAT kit? 

6. Mambo Italiano 

I have always enjoyed Italian football. I like the structure, order and discipline of their game. Being Italian of course, I also like the way they dress. 

Italian kits have always had a classy feel to them. Amidst my wide eyed schoolboy adoration of that 1970 Brazilian outfit, it’s easy to overlook the classic simplicity of the Azzuri top in that famous final. Simple yet stylish. Would not look out of place in today’s replica shirt market. 

The club kits demonstrate a similar panache. Simple stripes, elegant designs and an eye for tradition. What’s not to like?

I love these classic stripes of the Milanese clubs but my favourite is probably Juventus. There is just something about black & white stripes, don’t you think? If our time traveller had stopped off at the 1985 European Cup Final, he would doubtless have recognised without too much trouble that it was Juve v Liverpool. Though he might not have recognised the crowd scenes from his own version of the Beautiful Game. 

The Old Lady, turned out in a classic ensemble that night. Simple stripes with accessories of plain shorts & socks and a neat badge. La Bianconerri had worn the stripes since 1903. 1985 and she was looking good. Some 35 years later, the look has not still dated a bit. That’s Italians for you, eh? 

7. You’re supposed to be at home? 

I’m going off piste for my next choice. 

One of my pet hates is away kits. Or rather, change kits. 

Why do teams do this? My twitter feed is littered with my moans about teams changing from blue to avoid a clash with yellow. Brentford wore, well, I think you’d call it brown, against white shirted Swansea City recently. Manchester City seem to wear a different kit each time I see them. Leeds are unrecognisable almost every time they leave Elland Road. Spurs wore green a few years ago. Even my own Cardiff City have introduced away kits featuring orange, white, electric green and a kind of grey-tinged-with light blue. Why? Show me where orange features in the history of Cardiff City. And don’t get me started on third kits. 

Look, I get it that teams need a change kit. Everton play Leicester City and yeh, something has to give. But every away game? 

That wide eyed 11 year old we met earlier, could have probably made a decent stab at identifying teams by their away kit alone. West Ham wore a beautiful light blue top, decorated with two claret hoops. Nice. Proper West Ham colours. Arsenal always wore yellow & blue as a second kit. Good enough to win the F.A. Cup in 1971 and the league itself nearly 20 years later. I like Arsenal, partly for this reason. 

But my gold star for away kits goes to, West Bromwich Albion. Their home kit is striking enough (it’s that navy & white stripe thing again) but the away, sorry, “change” kit is, and as far I can recall, seems to have been so for many years, yellow & green stripes! I love it. I have no inkling as to the association between the Baggies and these unlikely colours, but I know it’s West Brom. If Albion played, Juventus in Turin, I would know which was which. I could not say that watching Brentford out there. 

8. Selling your Soul? 

We are almost up to date now as we gaze in wonder at football through an 80s and 90s Looking Glass.

Sky TV, the Premier League, the Champions League – even if you finish 4th . Football virtually sold itself to the highest bidder as the big clubs grew bigger and bigger. Fergie Time and Franchises. Replica shirts replaced rattles & rosettes. Sponsors logos adorned even the most humble of kits. 

Perhaps my earliest memory of the Shirt Sponsor’s art, came in Cardiff City’s first ever game in the 4th Division. (Now “League 2.”) City v Rochdale. Mighty Rochdale, I recall, were sponsored by a local garden centre. A giant watering can sat proudly on the players chests, bringing the All in One Garden Centre to the attention of the South Wales public. Jeez….. 

Of course, the High & Mighty had no need of such local commercial contacts. Giants of the business world peeled open their cheque books so that Kenny Dalglish could advertise Hitachi. “Commodore” adorned a garish Croatia style Chelsea away shirt. Lee Sharpe, of Manchester United carried his name on the front and back of his shirt, a feat also later achieved by Leicester City’s Andy King. 

It may surprise you that, on the whole, I don’t have a huge problem with shirt sponsorship. If done tastefully, it can add to the image, even the mystique of a shirt. I don’t think “Visit Malaysia” lends much to the current Cardiff City top, though given our recent experiences in Cardiff over kits & colours, let’s not go there. 

My favourite example of tasteful sponsorship is probably Arsenal. Or, as Don Howe always called them, The Arsenal. Their JVC logo adorned that famous red & white top during some very successful years indeed. JVC became synonymous with the club, to the extent that it simply became part of the kit. Arsenal and tradition, once more go hand in hand. 

JVC are preserved forever now of course, thanks to Tony Adams’ statue at The Emirates. Years from now, 11 year old boys will have no knowledge of JVC, let alone the video recorders they used to make. They will recognise it as Arsenal though, and meet up outside the statue for games against teams from across the planet, as a World League moves ever closer. JVC certainly got their money’s worth, eh? 

9. Blackpool Rocks 

Of course, football didn’t really start in 1966. There were many, many famous games before that milestone – England 3 Hungary 6, Real Madrid 7 Eintracht Frankfurt 3, the White Horse Cup Final, 1927 even! 

One of the most memorable games from the black & white era was the famous FA Cup Final of 1953. The so called “Matthews Final,” when tiny Stanley Matthews had mesmerised the Bolton Wanderers defence with a dexterity seldom seen before – or since. This was the 8 th Wembley final after the war, when much of Britain still experienced harsh times. 

I love that Blackpool kit. I have always liked the “rugby style” shirts with their plain badges and single colour shirts. I like the simplicity. Imagine how those 11 guys must have looked as they ran out in their bright tangerine tops. A rare treat for a nation starved of colour for so long.

10. The Choice of Champions 

My final selection, captures all that is good in football tops. It also reflects the astute marketing of the modern game. 

Many men of my age, or a few years younger, support Liverpool. They never miss a game in front of the tele or up the local pub. I do not support Liverpool. 

But, I can see the appeal. They probably have the the same reminisces of John Barnes, Ian Rush and King Kenny, as I have for George Best. They have a Liver Bird tattoo and will doubtless have You’ll Never Walk Alone at their funeral. 

Liverpool, respect their tradition. They have a connection to their fans which is the envy of many. They also know a cash opportunity when they see one. Thus, Mo Salah et all, took the field this year, in a pinstripe jersey which carried echoes of their 1984 European triumph. The Anfield men know, that modern money does not come from 11 year olds, it is the 50 plus generation. XL and upwards. What better way to capture this grey pound than a retro top. Classic Liverpool red, echoes of the 80s, when Liverpool were dominant. It is an iconic shirt which men in grey suits will no have no doubt snapped up. And do you know……it actually looks like a proper football shirt. A worthy addition to any self-respecting, sofa based Scouser. 

Final Thoughts 

I know, I know…..he is a grumpy old man stuck in the 70s. Where is the Barca top? The Peru red stripe or the brown Coventry City Away kit? All worthy winners. 

Football kits are part of the culture and colour of the game. I love it when Wolves run out in Old Gold, I like it when Swansea wear All White, it’s hard to be unmoved by the Navy Blue of Bonnie Scotland….and all I want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague away kit. 

I enjoy the quirky touches – the red band introduced by Jack Charlton at Middlesbrough in homage to his beloved Leeds I believe, the dubious kits of the 90s, the ultra-cool maroon & blue worn by Newcastle – complete with Grandad collar. 

Sometimes the bad kits become as collectable as the good uns. Obscure kits, even more so. I learned recently for example that Loch Ness FC have launched an away kit featuring a Nessie Logo emblazoned down the front. I simply have to have one. Problem is….I don’t know anyone who has actually seen it??

This piece was kindly written for @TFHBs by David Collins - you can follow him on Twitter here - @DavidCollins29a

©The Football History Boys, 2020


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