It’s been four long years of waiting – wishing our lives away, thinking about football – but we finally have ourselves another World Cup. To celebrate kick off, we got in touch with Neal Heard, a kit connoisseur and author of ‘The Football Shirts Book’, the undisputed bible of the beautiful game’s most iconic kits. From the incalculable cultural significance of a shirt to their technical evolution over the decades, Heard knows a thing or two about the origins of their current cult status. Just as football is having a moment in the realms of sport, so too are its tried and tested sartorial codes being reinterpreted for the modern man and woman. Having said that, it’s worth noting that the importance of the football shirt is enduring and an order of magnitude above what its recent (and probably fleeting) popularity among the streetwear set suggests. Shirts are a vital key to the spirit of the game, each storied piece of authentic kit attached to an iconic moment in its history and our treasured memory of the sport we love. Before we get lost in a sea of nostalgia and teary-eyed over our favourite football moments, here’s what Heard had to share on a subject close to our hearts.
What makes a football shirt iconic?
To be honest, it can’t be a personal thing. For me, for a jersey to warrant the term iconic it has to earn it for a particular reason. It needs to be forever burnt into our worldwide collective consciousness for a specific moment or moments, issue or game. Try and think of Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ without seeing the kit.
Talk us through the most iconic England shirt of all time.
For me it’s England away 1966. Even for me, a proud Welshman, I love that shirt. It optimises the classic simplicity of the early shirts – heavy cotton only embellished with the badge. So many images spring to mind – Bobby Moore, cup aloft on the teams’ shoulders, a dancing Nobby Stiles – every time you see the glorious red shirt.
What do you make of the significance of the casuals and terrace culture to fashion and its resurgence now as a ‘trend’?
Having been an 80’s Casual, it’s always astounded me how overlooked the whole movement was by fashion. If you think about it, the Casuals kind of discovered and appropriated masses of labels and looks which the whole world only caught onto 30 years later – think trainers, full stop. Burberry, Aquascutum, Stone Island, Lyle and Scott, English Heritage. Sportswear, especially continental brands like Kappa and Fila were all basically invented by the Casuals – and ‘Casuals’, or ‘Dressers’ as we called ourselves would never wear the team’s replica kit, that was for the ‘Scarfers’!
At what point did football shirts shirts start to be considered a viable piece of everday clothing?
In my opinion this is actually a very recent phenomenon. There was a period in the early ‘90s when Duffer of St George stocked the Brazilian jerseys and you could wear a shirt as a fashion item, but it never applied to domestic shirts. That was a foul fashion-wise.
When charting the evolution of the football shirt from its beginnings to today, what have been the three seminal moments in its history?
The introduction of a visible manufacturer’s logo, somewhere around 1973 but first seen with Le Coq Sportif in France in ‘66.
Having sponsors on shirts – again this happened around the mid ‘70s on the continent, during the ‘60s in France and late ‘70s to the early ‘80s in the UK.
The introduction of sublimation techniques in the mid ‘80s gave rise to the crazy graphic patterns we saw at Euro ‘88 with Holland, which then led on to the ‘acid house’ graphic patterns of the ‘90s.
Why was it important to you that ‘The Football Shirts Book’ celebrate football shirts for factors other than the matches and victories that were played in them?
For me it was vital to start expressing the interest in football shirts that existed away from the dark corners of the village nerd. For years, the scene was occupied by ageing collectors who chatted about match-worn this and that, or different stitches on a badge. I knew there was a huge world where these things were less important, and how we had dug them for the sponsor, who wore them, the design, and the ‘90s graphic look was vital in this. Football shirts are cool, they’re not just the domain of the statto, they’re modern and fresh and relevant. The worlds of streetwear, fashion and football shirts are fusing fast and people have been slow to realise it. Think of the shirt launches this season: grime artists, nightclubs and cool players have been at the fore, the times and the game have changed.
What are your three favourite shirts of all time?
Tough, but I would usually say any Sampdoria shirt – particularly ‘91 ERG. St Etienne 1981 Super Tele, and Tampa Bay Rowdies, 1978.
What was your first football shirt?
Showing my age – I started with the full Wales Admiral and, bizarrely, Scotland Umbro 1976-77 kits. I still love both kits to this day.
When did you start collecting in earnest?For quite some time I was involved in vintage clothing and searching for deadstock trainers, so I was often in dusty old stockrooms and started picking up and keeping the shirts too. I guess it was the early ‘90s onwards.
What is the most obscure football shirt in your collection and how did you pick it up?
That’s a tough one, as I kind of specialise in the obscure but interesting. I suppose a shirt from Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, comes to mind as it has a giant graphic horse on the chest.
Are there any shirts out there that you desperately want but can’t get hold of?Hundreds, but my wife might be reading this! Milan Cuore sponsored by Pooh Jeans, Ascoli’s Pop 84 Jeans shirt and most of the adidas-made NASL.
Are there any that didn’t quite make it into the book?There is another book’s worth, but Mexico’s 1978 shirt springs to mind. It was made by Levis with the badge on the chest and all, which I love, but I couldn’t find one to photograph.
Has a shirt ever caused outrage?
There are quite a few shirts which have caused outrage. Most football fans are traditional animals so you mess with their colours and traditions at your peril. England’s 1982 shirt, which is now loved and is seen as iconic, was greeted with howls of outrage on release as it featured the colours of the union flag, including Scotland. The altering of colours for owners’ whims is one of the worst aspects of the modern game and I thought it was disgusting that Cardiff were made to play in a new colour. We really all have to be weary of and fight the ‘franchise’ style system of our teams over the coming years. Cardiff reverted back to blue and I’m really pleased the fans’ wishes were taken into account. Without us, the fans, the game is nothing.
What teams do you consider to be the most stylish of all time?
Brazil ’70, Ajax ’74, Barcelona 2012 and, for me, Manchester City 2018 are the best and most stylish team of all time to have graced the English league.
What shirts are you most looking forward to seeing at this year’s world cup?
I actually think that finally the brands have realised we’re bored with damn plain shirts, so it’s great to see colour and pattern again. I love a few of the World Cup jerseys, I just think it’s a shame that they are all really nods to the past with modern re-interpretations because I like to see new designs in full. Having said that, I love the adidas Germany ‘90 and Belgium ‘84 reworkings and think the Nigeria home shirt by Nike is a nice graphic statement.