Just like fashion, football seasons are primed around newness. As well as players, rivalries and bids for the title, three new kits arrive for each Premier League club every year. But the rise of the vintage football shirt market means this could be changing. Increasingly, fans are moving through the turnstiles on match day in old shirts.
They may have got lucky, by finding one in a local charity shop, but most of these are sought-after; some particularly hallowed shirts are worth thousands of pounds and hyped up as sacred objects. Online, the world of vintage football shirts sees many young men (it is mostly young men) debate the intricacies of different seasons, graphics and even the sponsors that appear across the shirts.
Cult kits include the 1993-95 Manchester City kit (worn by Liam Gallagher), Coventry’s brown kit from 1978, Manchester United’s treble-winning kit from 1999 and Arsenal’s bruised banana away kit from 1990. This last one has such a mighty reputation that Arsenal’s away kit for 2019/20 revived the pattern – the club even rolled it out with a campaign featuring Ian Wright, who played in the original kit.
Gary Bierton, the general manager of the website Classic Football Shirts, says it is not just about aesthetics – the nostalgia is inspired by what happened on the pitch. “Generally speaking, if it was involved in an iconic moment or triumph, then it will have a solid reputation,” he says. “So, the Liverpool 1989/90 kit, the Holland ’88 kit, Arsenal ’05, worn in the last season at Highbury.” One of those Liverpool shirts is on the site for £349.99.
As well as feeling nostalgia for a particular season, fans also get emotional about their club in a certain era – and also their lives when they might have first worn the kit. Michael Maxwell founded the Football Shirt Collective with a few friends in 2014, since when it has grown to become a community where people can wax lyrical about old kits. “We realised it was a really emotive thing,” he says. “We wanted a place for the shirts and the stories behind the shirts.”
Of course, it is not all about the touchy-feely. The Football Shirt Collective has a marketplace section on its site where shirts can be bought and sold. Maxwell compares the growing market to the Hypebeast scene for collectible trainers, as seen on sites such as Grailed and StockX (think a specialised eBay, with nicer graphic design). “I initially thought the vintage football shirt market was a bubble, but if it’s following the trainer cycle it’s only going to grow,” says Maxwell. Andrew Groves, the curator of Invisible Men, an exhibition about British menswear that features vintage football shirts, says it fits into the collecting culture that we have seen with trainers, but is more specialised. “To hunt down that really rare football shirts takes a lot of work,” he says.
Indeed. The likes of Kendall Jenner and Drake have worn football merchandise, presumably for aesthetic reasons, with Juventus particularly favoured. The stylist Steph Stevens – an Arsenal fan – has brought a 1971 Gunners shirt to her shoots.
But, by and large, the vintage football shirt world has an “if you know, you know” mentality at its heart. This is a concept that makes a lot of sense in modern football culture, where the fanbase (in the Premier League anyway) is increasingly housed in a corporate climate characterised by huge stadiums, endless sponsorship deals and tickets hovering at the £50 mark. Groves says the most popular shirts hark back to the late 80s and early 90s, when “football as a sport was less dictated by huge amounts of money. It feels less cynical than how football shirts are marketed now.” Wearing a vintage shirt to a game shows you are not just there for a day out – it signals that you know your stuff. Wearing one “shows you’re not a plastic tourist fan,” says Maxwell.
Eighteen86, a website that describes its offering as “100% unofficial Arsenal merchandise”, was set up by the fans Ed Fenwick and Max Giles in 2016. In addition to T-shirts bearing images of Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira in their youth, and stickers that are a familiar sight around the Emirates stadium, they have gone beyond the shirt market to sell vintage Arsenal merch – training gear, fan T-shirts and more. The specificity of these pieces is what makes them popular. “It’s the era of merch that we and most of our followers grew up with,” says Fenwick. “The only rule we have is we don’t sell anything with the new crest on it – because we hate it and so do most of our followers – or the actual kits themselves.”
The Guardian Sport