In a consumer age where new club kits are released annually, Ian Plenderleith takes a look at the good, the bad and the pointless websites dedicated to the humble football shirt

It's a weary old truth that one of the greatest frauds of the modern game perpetrated against the averagely stupid fan is the annually redesigned replica kit. This used to be a topic of certain outrage among supporters and consumer bodies alike, but now it has become just another accepted sector of the fat-packed pie-chart labelled “Revenue Streams”. Rather than refuse to buy it, we peer at the new design like daytripping pensioners in a souvenir shop. Oh look, the collar’s done a V this year, and there’s a funny squiggle on the sleeve. And have we gone a more embarrassed shade of red as well? No problem, it’ll hide my shame as I fork out another 40-plus quid.

I own too many Lincoln City shirts that I never, ever wear to act like someone who knows better, so consider me firmly in the “averagely stupid fan” demographic. But I was struck by my own gormless propensity to buy what is little more than a flimsy, over-priced dishcloth when I came across a new website called Greatest Kit Ever. Want to join this important debate and discover what exactly is the greatest kit ever? Come on, it’s not like there’s anything else on the political or economic front worth debating right now.

Except this isn’t really the site to discuss the issue of which is the greatest kit ever. “Using our random kit vs kit engine we can generate 1,000s of kit battles a day for you to choose which football kits you think are the greatest of all time,” says the excited front page instruction. But if you’re a fan of the Boca Juniors away shirt from 1967, or even the Accrington Stanley home design from last season, forget it. This is about the greatest shirt ever in the Barclays Premier League. Go to the table of the top 50 best shirts ever, and you’ll find no fewer than five Liverpool home tops in the top 11, despite the fact that they’re all red and they all say Carlsberg on the front and pretty much look identical.

True enough, if I wanted something more scientific then I could design my own survey, but thankfully the Greatest Kit Ever website rammed it home to me just how little we should care. It’s a poor relative of True Colours, a football kit history website documenting shirts from 1980 to the present day. And although that’s a little bit like writing a history of pop music starting with the release of Kajagoogoo’s Too Shy, the site is a much more intelligent exploration of shirt design than its kit vs kit engine-generated ugly sister. That’s the problem with the web’s rampant democracy – even good sites end up feeling obliged to canvass popular opinion in the name of pointless surveys. True Colours thrives on a combination of measured analysis and warm nostalgia to explain, for example, the sporting cultural context of Scotland’s horrific “Hampden” kit in the early 1990s (another one that disgraces my wardrobe).

Football Shirt Culture illustrates how kit design has become excessively fetishised, while acting like an informal industry watchdog that’s not afraid to bare its teeth. It’s basically a news blog announcing the latest designs, and loves to beat the official launches with a pre-embargo scoop.

“The New Scotland Away Top has been revealed accidentally after it went on sale in a sports shop,” piped a hot-off-the-wire blog entry in late July. Shockingly, the new yellow shirt was not supposed to be on sale until August 18, but one of the shirts had got mixed in with some goalie tops. Seeing a picture of the actual jersey was always going to be a bit of an anti-climax after this calamitous retail blunder. It’s pretty much the current Scotland home shirt, except it’s yellow.

But this blog is bolstered by its comments section, where dozens of posters weigh in with their views, and not just about the kits – even the featherweight topic of football colours leads to slanging matches on the slightest of provocations. “Nice and simple,” remarks one user on the Shrewsbury Town 125th anniversary special edition shirt. “You’ve adequately described yourself there,” snipes the next respondent. Good grief, sir, was that really necessary? Meanwhile, the launch of the 2010-11 Nottingham Forest shirts, accompanied by a picture of the players posing by the Brian Clough statue, prompts a Derby fan to come in and kick things off (“hesaramhesaramhesaram” – possibly the rare example of a football chant picked up at Friday prayers). There are several more screens of challenging back and forth (the new shirt “could have used a white collar or white trim on the sleeves”), until user Len rounds off the debate with the observation “It’s just a red T-shirt”.

Len, I like what you have to say. It’s just a red T-shirt, useful for identifying the players of Nottingham Forest FC as they play against, say, the amber T-shirted players of Hull City FC. Always red, always amber. The only true colours you need.

Then again, that may just be a Luddite refusal to acknowledge that the design of football shirts has become an issue of annual importance to fans – another marker signifying an end to the close season. Perhaps buying the super-priced, marginally retuned fabric ritualistically heightens our sense of belonging to the institutions we love. Pre-season, we sacrifice £45 to The Club in exchange for a token coloured uniform, and the unspoken promise that in ten months’ time we can stick out our chests to proudly showcase the victors with whom we’ve been associated from the first kick until the glorious end.

From WSC 283 September 2010

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