We’ve been here before, of course. The news that the Football Association has decided to jettison Umbro as the manufacturers of the England national teams kit in favour of the brand that owns it, Nike, has been a long time coming and should be no great surprise to many seasoned kit-watchers. Although much has been of the tradition and apparent permanence of this particular contract, this is not even the first time that Umbro has been replaced as the England kit manufacturer since football shirts started to become adorned with manufacturers logos in the middle of the 1970s.
Umbro have flirted with – and entered into a more committed relationship with – the England national team since the early 1950s. They took on the job from a little known company called St Blair in 1954 before losing the contract to Bukta in 1961. That they should have won it back for the start of the 1965/66 season may well, however, be the single biggest contributing factor behind why they have kept the contract for most of the previous three decades. The simple, elegant designs used by the England team between 1965 and 1974 are considered by some to be a high point in the history of the design of football kits, but when the national team failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup finals, a clean sweep at Lancaster Gate meant the exit of Umbro and the arrival of Admiral.
For almost a decade, Admiral experimented with the England kit in a way hitherto unseen, but the company’s financial collapse at the end of 1982 meant the return of the familiar diamond from the start of 1984 on. The world of football has changed immeasurably in the intervening three decades since then, and Umbro has changed with it. In 2007 it became a subsidiary of Nike and in spite of promotional schtick about the companys output being ‘Tailored in England’, it has become increasingly apparent of late that Nike intended to dispose of the name in order to focus upon its other brands. In May of this year, Nike confirmed that it was to sell the company but not before, it would appear, it stripped the carcass of its most lucrative contracts.
So it was that clubs such Everton and Manchester City confirmed their switch from diamond to swoosh during the summer – although Manchester City will not complete theirs until next year – and in todays announcement we see, perhaps, the least surprising of all. The sale of replica football kits has grown into a subculture entirely of its own. The most profitable lines are now a multi-million pound business which generate enormous income, not only for the manufacturers of said kits, but also clubs themselves, and England remain, in spite of the continuing failure of the team itself to be able to successfully impose itself upon the international game, a guaranteed money-spinner for whoever holds that contract. That Nike should have made this decision with the FA is hardly surprising.
That the FA should have agreed doesn’t feel like any great surprise, either. They may – and the word ‘may’ should be stressed there, considering that all we’re likely to hear on the subject from them will be the usual talking a lot whilst saying nothing PR guff that we have long since come to expect from such organisations – seek to express some regret at the passing of a commercial relationship that has lasted for almost three decades, but financial reality has a tendency to trump all other concerns and the FA, which will probably still be paying for Wembley Stadium by the time that most us reading this are long dead, can hardly afford to pass up the opportunity to make a little extra from a revised kit deal. Traditionalists may mourn the passing of Umbros relationship with the England team, but the truth of the matter is that England have been wearing Nike since they acquired Umbro four years ago. Such is the nature of the brand in the global village that is twenty-first century capitalism.
Returning to matters sartorial, it might be easier to have a little sympathy for Umbro if their has couple if designs for England had been, well, much like England kits. The current design, in all white with red trim, is not so much an England kit as a Poland kit. The one before that lasted just a year and featured the wrong coloured shorts and the one prior to that, although aesthetically pleasing enough, seemed stuck between a Real Madrid kit from a parallel universe and something that Fred Perry might have considered for Wimbledon in the 1930s. If anything, the disappointment of Umbros relationship with England over the last few years has been the extent to which it has lost its way over something that should be easy. White shirts, navy blue shorts and white socks shouldn’t be difficult to get right, but somehow Umbro – even if this was little to do with the actual decision to switch manufacturers – managed it.
Perhaps Nike will get the new England kit wrong, perhaps they won’t. They have a recent history of managing either in spades, and there seldom seems to be any middle ground for them. Nike president, Charlie Denson, has stated that, “The pride and passion of England fans is renowned throughout the football world and we are delighted to partner with the FA.” If all concerned can stay away from that sort of PR-talk and design an England kit that is, well, an England kit, the switch from diamond to swoosh might not be quite as traumatic as some may be pre-disposed to presume that it will be.
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