Wearing football shirts – why?

A FEW years ago, my wife and I were at a game in Prague, at the very atmospheric Bohemians stadium, with the famous Mr Panenka sitting high in the stand. The opposition fans were in full voice but most were as naked from the waist upwards as Vladimir Putin on his horse. You could almost smell the testosterone as the bald, stout gang of ultras demonstrated their masculinity in the autumn wind. “Why?”, I asked, shivering away as the trams whirred past the ground. “Perhaps their football shirts don’t fit, so they just strip off?”, replied my wife, tongue-in-cheek.

It was a good point, because at virtually every football ground around Europe, beer-bellies and bald heads squeeze into football shirts, testing the resistance of the fabric and making thin-stripes instantly into broad stripes.

One might say the replica shirt is a garment that makes us all equal, that it introduces a form of democracy to the football experience, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, football shirts are for the young, they are the costumes in a costume drama. But somehow, the act of putting on a football shirt creates a form of sporting “Dad’s Army” out of most of us.

It is understandable that fans want to show their allegiance, but wearing a football shirt is, if you think about it, vaguely comical. You are basically wearing the uniform of the footballer, a fit, nimble picture of vitality. We all want to turn back time and defy the ageing process, but dressing like a 22 year-old is not necessarily the best way to show that you’re still relevant.

Indeed, when you look at the ways in which designers are decimating club colours, from what resembles blood-splattered away kits to the hideous new kits that include the name of the club and no crest, why would you want to give credibility to some truly awful creations? And then, of course, there’s the unflattering fabrics, showing every hill and vale of the body. Still want to wear that Liverpool third kit?

There’s a moral issue aswell, notably the source of the shirts themselves. Are they created in small sweat-shops in places like Cambodia, Indonesia or China? Are they products of cheap, explotive labour? Most people don’t want to know, but in this era of visible displays of social responsibility by football, shouldn’t we want to be aware of how these products are put together?

Maybe it is time for a kit manufacturer to come up with something very innovative and sensible – the plain blue or red shirt. With more and more people trying to adopt a more simplistic lifestyle, embracing minimalism and basic principles, how wonderful would the plain shirt look in the TV interference that is shirt design? The most iconic strips of all time have included the all-white Real Madrid kit, the Arsenal red with white sleeves, Inter Milan’s blue and black stripes and Brazil’s yellow, among others. I would certainly applaud any kit company that pushes aside the nonsense and says, “here we are, our new look – blue and white (red and white)”. Forget the graffiti, the splashes and the delicate shades, let’s really bring back club identity.

It is quite possible kit producers deliberately make their latest offerings as complex as possible, firstly to justify marketing another shirt for each club and secondly to make counterfeits more difficult to make. The latter is understandable and we have to accept that for clubs, shirt sales are an important part of their commercial activities.

The fans complain about “another shirt for Manchester United”, but they still buy them and queue up to get the latest abomination. In other words, they continue to feed the beast, laying out large sums of money to ensure they remain on trend.

But is it really important? If you want to show allegiance, buy a scarf or a badge. Not convinced? Next time you put on a replica shirt, take a look at yourself in a full-length mirror. Ask yourself which part of your torso looks big in this and I would wager you will be tempted to put that shirt back in the drawer. I know, I’ve tried it.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of Football Weekends.

When Saturday Comes – why we should help the trailblazer

BACK in the 1980s, football was in a miserable place. Plagued by hooliganism, supporters taken for granted, falling crowds, a poor product on the pitch and dreadful spectating conditions. From catering to care, the industry was a second-rate pastime followed by people who were almost embarrassed to admit they watched football on a regular basis. What’s more the government didn’t like football and with each and every well publicised setback, including Bradford, Brussels and, ultimately Hillsborough, the establishment’s response to the game was one of gross indifference. Those that occupied football grounds were, quite simply, scum.

In the 1980s, the fanzine phenomenum gathered momentum and while most were club specific and a little myopic, When Saturday Comes became the modern successor to the fabled, and rarely seen, Foul. Heath Robinson in design in its early years, WSC became the soapbox for fans who were unhappy about their club or football in general. It raised issues that people were often aware of but had no forum to express their dissatisfaction. There was plenty to be unhappy about at that time as football in Britain looked and behaved like a dying swan.

Amid an attitude of world-weariness, writers pleaded for a better time, greater communication between fans and clubs and an end to badly-run, cash-clumsy clubs. To some extent, the WSC writers of that time got what they wanted. In other ways, they just got a different set of irritations and problems.

Six years after the magazine’s launch, the Premier League was formed and football in Britain changed, possibly forever. The corporatisation of football has been an enormous success in many ways, but it has also attempted to jettison the game’s traditional audience. In the 1980s, we had hooligans, but the “tasty boys” of that era are now entering retirement and their terraces have long gone. While football has lost some of its inclusiveness – despite its attachment to causes – the game has become a “supply and demand” industry and pricing policies have responded accordingly. When WSC kicked-off, people’s discontent with football manifested itself in falling crowds – the 1985-86 top flight average was just 19,797 – in 2019, the average is 95% higher – today, the new audience that football’s marketing folk longed for cannot get enough high-priced tickets and merchandise.

There’s still lots of issues to question clubs and the governing bodies about, but today’s fans have social media to voice their opinion, and what’s more, they can be REALLY nasty and accusatory and hide behind anonymity. Meanwhile, the WSC warriors of old are more concerned that there’s easy access lavatories for that half-time leak. It may be that WSC’s place has been taken by social media and the fashion towards instant content that doesn’t require too much concentration. Like most print products, it’s tough for the publication to find its place in the modern football library.

That library will be that much poorer without WSC. Some great writers have cut their teeth with the magazine and when you compare it alongside some of the anodyne content found in club publications or the obsession with fan culture and ladishness that defines others, there’s an argument that WSC should be more prominent and certainly a more expansive product. As the magazine itself said, “We’d like to think we’d be missed it we weren’t here.” No doubt about it.

@GameofthePeople