Thursday, 3 April 2014

Changing your stripes

Thumbing through an issue of Football League Review the other day, I stumbled upon an article that caught my eye. 'Inquiry: Are the club colours getting too drab?' was its title, and it surmised that the day of the 'fancy' football shirt seemed to be all but dead and buried.

Written in the first few weeks of the 1968/69 season by Bob Baldwin, it opened with the line: "Whatever happened to the Turquoise Blues, the Gold and Royal Blues and the Claret Bodies with Amber Yolks?" It went on: "These descriptive colour blends are not taken from a Paris fashion catalogue. They come from a pre-war list of official League club strips. Times have changed. Two-thirds of the clubs now use the more sober use of reds, blues or whites. Colour has gone from the game."

Intriguing. Was I to believe that the early 20th Century was a technicolor carnival of a million rainbow hues?

"Main reason for the change? Cash" explained Baldwin. "Clubs are finding it too costly to have striped strips made in modern, light weight man-made fabrics." Other reasons were provided by Eric Taylor, General Manager of Sheffield Wednesday. His club had recently switched from blue and white stripes to blue shirts with white sleeves. "If we want to "sell" ourselves on television, plain shirts show up far better on a screen than striped ones. It pleases the viewers who are prospective customers."

And there was more. "We also found that when playing under floodlights against other sides, the colours merged and made easy identification impossible." So there you have it - football in the late-60s was supposedly becoming less colourful and less reliant on fancy patterns.

All of which got me thinking. Exactly how much had things changed in the thirty years leading up to 1968, and how do things stand up against this season, 2013-14? Well firstly it goes without saying that modern manufacturing techniques have allowed for any number of complex designs to become commonplace, so the issue of plain shirts outnumbering patterned ones is no longer relevant.

But what about shirt colours? Are Premier League and Football League clubs still relying on plain white, red or blue? I felt a graph coming on...

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And here you see it for yourself. Though there are fewer plain shirts worn by league clubs these days (at least those that existed back in 1938/39), 26 out of 31 are either red, white or blue. A similar vast majority appears to have existed for most of the last 100 years.

As for those shirts that aren't plain, the Football League Review was spot on in its analysis. Thirty years on from 1938-39, the number of striped shirts had dropped dramatically (it's since bounced back again) and hooped shirts would have disappeared altogether were it not for Queens Park Rangers pinning their colours to the mast. Blackburn's half-and-half style almost disappeared too, whereas shirts with contrasting coloured sleeves have remained constant.

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Bob Baldwin's article highlights a time when football wasn't awash with the money we see today. "Bert Tann [Bristol Rovers General Manager] points out, "A plain strip costs around £20 a set, a set of striped shirts as much as £36. They don't last all that long, with all the laundering they need." "

As Baldwin himself says at the end of his piece, times have certainly changed. Somehow I doubt we'll ever see turquoise make a comeback, and it'll no doubt be a long day also before football is again starved of the money that gives us today's advanced kit styles.


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