Saturday, July 25, 2015
During the close season, there’s a well-rehearsed series of close season Christmases - fixture launch day, first pre-season friendly day, new signing day. Each is greeted with the same euphoric sense of orgasmic pleasure as the last. Last week we had KIT LAUNCH DAY!
It wasn’t always like this; in days gone by kits broadly stayed the same from one year to the next. A change of manufacturer might result in a different collar, or a switch from a round neck to a v-neck. There wasn’t a culture of fans wearing shirts and clubs couldn’t see the money making opportunities that could come from changing.
Then, in the early 70s, things started to change; manufacturers started to recognise the benefit of advertising themselves through their designs; none more so than Adidas with their iconic three stripes. In the mid-80s things shifted again; I guess it was a breakthrough in technology. Kit designs got more elaborate and intricate. Oxford’s kit, previously a plain yellow with an Adidas stripe, switched manufacturer and gained pin-stripes. You could buy copies in the club shop. Over the next 30 years, kits changed with increasing frequency; first it alternated annually between changes to the home shirt, then the away shirt, and then, eventually, every season both home and away shirts were changed.
We now comply with this custom, we look forward to it, even though it’s a tax on our loyalty. We are expected to buy it, year in, year out. We don’t change our kit because it doesn’t work, it’s because there’s something in our brain which creates an anxiety that challenges our perceptions of loyalty by not being up to date. It's a bit like that bloke you occasionally sit next to who asks whether Alfie Potter or Joey Beauchamp is still playing for us. He's not a proper fan. For some it’s exploitative, for others, like me, we are knowingly exploited, and some resist the whole charade as the scam it is.
This year’s kit has been launched and, well, it’s OK. Truth is, I never really liked the original; we were promoted in 1984 and 1985 in bright yellow and royal blue, with a pinstripe; Division 1 saw a shift to yellow and navy, the darker blue which we’ve become accustomed to is a relatively recent change. The yellow itself was washed out and it had this shadow hoop effect with shiny bits. It was far from an aesthetic classic and just seemed to be a product of the death throes of a golden age of kit innovation. The kit after that - launched in 1987 - was a misfortunate attempt at multi-toned yellow and white stripes, years before Newcastle were ridiculed for it.
It has, of course, acquired legendary status due to the Milk Cup win in 1986, but as a classic design, it was nothing special. The 2015/16 reboot is completely logical in a season that celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Milk Cup win it’s good to see the club trying to capitalise on that. In the past these anniversary celebrations have been surprisingly muted given that there’s much commercial capital to be made from it.
The club are manufacturing their own this year, not quite back to the heady days of Manor Leisure, but a step in that direction. It’s only recently that I realised that kits were typically blank templates which were used by teams all over the world. I thought it was all tailored to us alone. But, there’s something about not having a manufacturer’s logo on which cheapens the design - that’s probably what hundreds of billions of dollars of advertising spend does distorting you into thinking a logo is a, probably fictitious, assurance of quality.
It’s also an excellent move from the club - although I imagine the process of manufacturing your own kit is a grand pain in the backside. In recent years the templates we’ve adopted can range from £10-£15 without a badge, presumably less for bulk. But that includes the manufacturer and distributor costs and profit; buying straight from the factory must push the unit price down considerably. When you’re retailing at £40, that’s a lot of profit.
In 1986, the kit was made by Umbro; a switch from Spall Sports, the Cabrini, Carlotti or Avec of the 80s. Umbro made the England and Scotland kit, at the time. They were a proper, grown up kit maker, with a proper heritage. It seemed like a genuine graduation into the big time. Not carrying a manufacturer feels like a step down; it looks like one of those not-quite-replica vintage kits that clubs now sell. In fact, we’ve been selling one of those for 1986 for the last three years - if this does become a classic, goodness knows what the not-quite-replica version will look like in 2020.
I suppose part of me laments the lack of visceral excitement of a genuinely new and exciting design; something that looks like it’s ours, and at the same time, not like ours. I’m still a sucker for the 2010/11 striped number, an update of 1975, a counter cultural classic, even though most seemed to dislike it. But most kits before and since are little more than a rearrangement of navy panelling and piping on a yellow fabric. Admittedly it's not a broad canvas to work from; maybe we should give up trying to innovate something so limited.
Ultimately, the kit doesn’t define the year, the year defines the kit. The 1986 ‘classic’ is a classic because of Wembley, as is the 2010s vintage. So, the kit is fine, it’s not a problem, it doesn’t do much for me, but if we did get promoted, then that will probably change.