Much like my recent attempt at bowling with the Editor of Northern Soul, I failed miserably at ‘guess the football shirt from the 1891/2 season’ at the National Football Museum’s new exhibition. It’s possible that my avowed sporting prowess is all in my head.
The National Football Museum, based in Manchester city centre, has amassed more than 200 shirts for Strip! How football got shirty, shining the spotlight on the not so humble football shirt, the official uniform of Premier League millionaires and pub teams up and down the country. Collaborating with shirt designers, manufacturers and collectors as well as raiding its own hoards, the museum has put together a fascinating display.
The exhibition includes women’s shirts which is especially timely with the success of many women’s teams putting their male equivalents to shame. Earlier this year, the USA Women’s home jersey became the No. 1 soccer jersey (men’s or women’s) ever sold on the Nike website in one season.
Nothing much had changed in the world of football shirts for around 100 years until some humiliating defeats for England in the mid 1950s. The Football Association felt that something had to change. Taking inspiration from the Europeans who had beaten them so convincingly, the equipment, training methods and the kit were changed to inspire a revolution in English football. Sleeker designs without a collar were adopted and it could be argued that the pinnacle of this change saw England lift the World Cup in 1966.
Exhibition curator Jon Sutton wanted to look more closely at what influenced shirt design, what technologies were being adopted and how football shirts become fashion items, rather than what was most popular and obvious (that’ll be the reason the Arsenal 2003/4 squad-signed Invincibles shirt didn’t make it out of storage, but I might be biased). There is also a section on failures, none more famous in Manchester than the grey United ‘invisible’ shirt which the players wore and promptly changed at half-time against Southampton in 1996, claiming the team couldn’t actually see each other on the pitch.
Some standout shirts remind me of the iconic players who wore them. Cantona in the dark United shirt, collar turned up, arrogantly surveying the pitch; cup final shirts with Ruud Gullit for the Netherlands in 1988 and Jurgen Klinsman in 1990. Of course, as a Gooner I own all four Arsenal shirts on display. Meanwhile, Sutton’s favourite is the Maradona Napoli shirt.
For the exhibition, the National Football Museum has commissioned its own shirt. Designed by artist Stanley Chow and in keeping with the modern trend for sustainability in shirts, it is made from a 50 per cent bamboo mix. And it’s available as a limited edition in the museum shop.
Images by Chris Payne