The Shirts of Manchester United

Serious football fans, no matter which team they support, love their shirts. Their team’s home shirt, the away shirt, the 3rd choice shirt and everything in between. They love to talk kit, whether it be the new one, the old one, the favourite one and that one that everyone thought was crap. Every team under the sun has those shirts. What a team wears on the pitch has always been important to people, United fans are no different.

The Old Trafford club has quite a history of special shirts revered by the fans that were worn on those special moments in the clubs history, whether it be in a final, a semi, a derby or a cup win. There’s more to a football kit than the shirt, but it’s always been the shirt that fans have gravitated to the most. It’s a tribal thing; they are your colours for life. Sure, the better designs of football shirts down the years do contain the traditional colours in football, red, blue and white. No surprise, but kit designers can often come up with surprising and interesting work. By using unconventional and rarely used colours, such the Day-Glo yellow with black used by German club Borussia Dortmund, and the all over bold gold colour used by United about 15 years ago, shirts can look pretty good.

Of course there is the other, and often funnier, side of that particular coin. There are plenty of examples of shirt designs down the years that must have had you thinking that maybe something dodgy was dropped in the tea of the designer, the day they came up with their design. Yeah, it might have looked good on paper, but… What about that pink psychedelic blizzard effect used by Scunthorpe United for their away shirt back in 1994?

Having the shirt sponsor’s name on the front, “Pleasure Island”, only increased its scope for ridicule. Then there’s the Wolves home shirt from the 92 – 93 season which featured skid marks from a cars tyres, which surely had to be an idea put forward by the shirt sponsors, Goodyear. Just stick to making tyres, lads. Then there’s the Huddersfield Town 1992 shirt, featuring a tie died effect. Groovy. All worthy examples of just how things can go so wrong.

I can’t talk about this and not mention the home shirt of east coast side Hull City, from 1992. To be fair the intention is clear, the stripes of a tiger.

However, you could be forgiven for thinking it looked like the throw over from a sofa in a 1970’s sitcom, Phwoor Mrs.! To me personally, it looked like the seat covers from the buses in Manchester around late 70’s, early 80’s.

The Badge on the Shirt

The club badge of Manchester United Football Club is the most recognized anywhere in the world. For decades now it’s been everywhere and anywhere, worn by hundreds of millions. The story behind the United team badge is an interesting one as you might expect.

The club badge is actually derived from the coat of arms of the city Manchester. On the coat of arms there are many references to Manchester’s industrial heritage. The ship is an obvious reminder of the ship canal, a magnificent feat of engineering from the industrial revolution. At the top there is a globe of the Earth that is, if you look carefully, covered in bees. Not many people notice the bees. They were introduced to the coat of arms back in Queen Victoria’s day, Manchester’s then council thought the bees an appropriate symbol of industry for Manchester. On the left side of the crest is an antelope and on the right, a lion. United would wear that same coat of arms for finals and other big games.

During the 1960’s, United unveiled a new club badge, smart, eye catching and to the point.

The most recognizable team badge in the world was about to be born. No surprises that the predominant colour was red, it borrowed the centre piece shield of its city’s coat of arms, emblazoned at the top with a ship. Above and below were two banners, one saying Manchester United, the other Football Club, like I said, to the point.

This was the team badge that ended up on countless coffee mugs and other United memorabilia. As 1970 dawned Manchester United were going to have a re think about their club badge. A change in design saw the inclusion of a devil with a pitch fork, out went the shield but the ship remained.

As the more reliable sources say, this was an idea thought of by Sir Matt Busby. No serious ill intent or devilry was meant by the inclusion of the little red devil, Sir Matt just wanted a more eye catching design that would hopefully have opponents shaking with fear!! Sir Matt was even good at marketing. As Tommy Docherty was taking over the managerial reins at Old Trafford, the club badge became a permanent feature on the shirt.

Interestingly, and older fans might well remember that during the 1980’s Adidas added a football boot on each side of the club badge, however it wasn’t something that lasted long. That particular club badge went without change for almost thirty years. In 1998, United dropped the Football Club from the team badge, replacing it would be the word “United “in the lower banner, the United club badge we know today.


The Shirts

In 1878, Newton Heath Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Football Club was founded, the club that would go on to be Manchester United, the biggest club in world football.

Newton Heath’s first first team colours would be green, gold and white, the shirt half gold down the right, green down the left, the sleeves in same design. The shorts, or leggings as they were then, were white. As we all know those colours are still very popular amongst United fans, for various reasons.

Newton Heath would keep those same colours until 1887, when they changed from the green and gold to what we know as United colours, red and white. The half and half design of the shirt stayed the same, this time the left would be white, the right would be red, and the legging type shorts were black or a navy blue. There would be change again in 1892 when United changed back to the green and gold for a vertically stripped shirt.

For a couple of seasons after that they opted for an all green shirt with gold cuffs and collar. For the next 5 years or so in 1896 Newton Heath would play in all white shirt, with dark blue or a black legging/shorts.


1902 was a most excellent year for football, Newton Heath changed its name to Manchester United, and they changed their first team colours to the red and white we know and love today, red shirts, white shorts with black socks. Those were to be the colours for the next twenty, of course they would return to be known throughout the world as United colours, but in 1922 United had another change in kit. In came an all-white kit with a red chevron on the shirt, a design we have seen very recently on goalkeeper Eddie van der Sar. As we are all aware, “retro” is a big thing with football fans, it’s been popular for years now.

United aren’t the only club to use retro chic for a new shirt, apart from Edwin’s retro goalie jersey, the Red Devils produced the Newton Heath shirt back in the early 90’s, it proved extremely popular with fans. The red chevron was a pleasing design but it only lasted 5 or so years. In 1927 United made a very sensible decision, they reverted back to the old red and white, red shirt, white shorts with black socks.

It’s a colour scheme that’s endured, there’s quite a few teams that use the same colours, but everyone knows red, white and black belongs to Manchester United. United have lifted every trophy worth winning in the red shirt. Red, white and black have become synonymous with Manchester United.

United have even had a shirt that the manager said made everyone invisible, wearing it made it difficult for team mates to see each other. Over the years the Red Devils have had only 5 shirt sponsors, Sharp, Vodaphone, AIG, Aon and now Chevrolet. We don’t have long to wait now to see United unveil their new shirts, after signing a record breaking kit supply deal, the Red Devils are about to change kit again. Fans have been busy speculating what these shirts are going to look like. There have been quite a few fan designed shirts that have made their way on the web, a few are quite good actually. The new billion dollar plus deal can only, hopefully, be of a huge help to United, they are going to cool in their new kit, now Louis will want them to look on the pitch when the new season begins.

The Famous Three Stripe Four Stripe Affair

United’s first kit supplier was Umbro, a sportswear company founded in the Manchester area, Umbro began supplying United around the mid 1950’s. However once the mid ‘70’s arrived the Old Trafford club underwent a change. Quite an interesting little episode concerning United and its shirts happened in the mid 1970’s. It all centered around the white away shirt with the black vertical stripes going down one side.

It was a superb looking away shirt, the favourite away shirt of many United fans, including myself. Branding as we know it today didn’t happen in the English game until the early to mid 1970’s. In 1975, United changed their kit supplier to Admiral, a company from Leicester that started life in 1914, but now has its main office in Manchester. Admiral designed the eye catching white away top with the three lines down the left same side as the club badge, on the other side, the admiral logo, a very shirt indeed. The Red Devils were photographed in it, publicity pics were taken and was featured elsewhere in the media.

As far as the story goes, Adidas were not happy at all, the three stripe design was theirs. The German copy saw it as an open and shut case of copyright infringement. Legal advice was sought and Admiral were told that as the three stripes on the shirt were not on the sleeve, they were quite within their rights to use such a design. Apparently, it also came to light that legally a straight line cannot be used as registered trade mark. In 1975 Adidas launched legal action to have the manufacture of said shirt halted. Eventually both Admiral and Adidas came to an agreement where Admiral would add a fourth stripe to the existing three.

By all reliable accounts this four stripe white away shirt was worn in the November of 1975, against Liverpool at Anfield.

It’s also been said was that Admiral was given permission to go back to its three stripe shirts as long as it paid Adidas a regular retainer. Indeed, the three striper made its return at the start of the ’76 – ’77 season. Let’s be honest, the 4 striper looked daft to be honest. One of the more interesting little snippets of info to have come from that falling out between Admiral and Adidas is that an understanding was made between all parties concerned that Adidas could have the first refusal on the next United kit supplier contract. This can’t really be proven as 100% true, but it’s interesting to note that after Admiral, Adidas did indeed become United’s next kit supplier. Around that time United also introduced a 3rd choice blue shirt with red trim around the sleeves and collar. Another interesting thing surrounding Admiral and United is that there are quite a few of these shirts knocking about. Shirts that have quite a few obvious changes to them, whether a change in colour of the stripes or collar, whether these are factory mistakes or not, I don’t know. United fans will tell they have always had smart looking kits, and they’d be right. The 1990’s all black kit looked absolute mustard, THE favourite kit of treble winning United star, Andrew Cole. United shirts will always be popular, people will always buy them, either brand new or retro, throughout the clubs history, it’s always had well designed shirts. How many other clubs can say that?

Richard Fenton. May 2015


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