Football and cutting-edge sartorial elegance have always been uneasy bedfellows but this is not to say that there aren’t football kits that, while not realistically threatening to bridge that divide, have nevertheless managed to achieve a certain significance in their own particular field. The on-field garb of the 1985/86 English Football League season, it could be argued, represents one such era of enlightenment and discovery. The chief reason why making this argument is so persuasively tempting is that the doyen of football kit websites, Historical Football Kits, dedicates a whole section to just that. Who am I to argue? Who are you? Who is anyone?
In addition to this unexpectedly thorny existential dilemma, regular readers of these pages will know that we consider the 1985/86 season as being particularly notable; a time when English football was standing on the cusp of a new era, one which could quite easily proved to have been as horrendous as it has (as it turned out) been profitable. With stakes so high and the atmosphere so febrile, it is small wonder that the participants were so notably attired.
At a cursory glance, there’s a modernity to the designs that a lot of the 92 English Football League teams campaigned in thirty years ago. While the feathers, bells and whistles that were about to explode into football kit design are starting to be hinted at, mostly the collection retain the rather measured and classical simplicity that the sportswear companies have been striving to rediscover over the past decade. Modern, too, is the fact that there are a handful of teams who have temporarily lost their minds and chosen a kit preposterous in colour, design or both.
The broad trends for 1985/86 in English football kit design were that collars were out and V-necks were in, while advances in materials and manufacturing meant that ever more elaborate patterns could be woven into the fabric of the football shirt. The prevailing consequence of this was the shadow stripe: they festoon kits throughout the ladder, thin ones, thick ones or pinstripe ones; shirts or shorts; usually horizontal but not always: particular props go to Wimbledon for their use of the diagonal.
The other major change was that sponsors logos, the hot potato of the early 1980s, were now allowed unfettered access. Most clubs would sport one in 1985/86, with perhaps the only surprise being that there were very few liberties taken with the format as the new rule was implemented. Queens Park Rangers Guinness decal was preposterously high up on the chest and Peterborough United’s Sodastream branding was displayed horizontally and off-centre, presumably looking to break the valuable “people who learnt to read Chinese before they did English” market. Otherwise, more or less every sponsor’s logo is displayed exactly as it would appear today. Plus, there are some real classics here: Arsenal have JVC, Everton NEC, Oxford United are Wang, Manchester United have Sharp, Luton Town Bedford Vans and Vaux adorn Sunderland. My personal favourite are Leicester City, whose Ind Coope branding seems to have had at least one letter from each word blow off in the wind or stolen by local vandals.
A further sneaking trend is kits manufactured by Hummel. The Danish company were preparing to blow everyone away with their design for their national team at the forthcoming World Cup in Mexico, but were already getting a firm foothold in the English league game. Several teams are wearing the chevrons with perhaps the most stylish examples all being templates worn by lower division clubs, particularly Middlesbrough, Darlington and Swansea City. Norwich’s example is notable too, boldly including shadow stripes on the shorts as well as the shirt. Hummel’s blue riband contract was with Tottenham Hotspur, but this heady responsibility seems to have blown a few gaskets back at base. The subtle colour of the trim is very tasteful indeed but the shirt appears to have been designed by a bored monkey.
Enough negativity. Here are my ten picks of the very best kits from thirty years ago. (You can see the full list on HFK by clicking here.)
LIVERPOOL: It’s a fairly well-established fact that kits look better the better the team who wear them perform but here’s an example of a kit so good it could just have easily been a factor in soliciting more complete performances from its occupants. Measured, classical and stylish, it pulls off the neat sleight of hand of also being completely cutting edge, it is widely thought of now as a design classic. This strip recently finished fifth in the late lamented Football Attic’s 50 Greatest Football Shirts Ever.
LUTON TOWN: A second entry already for Adidas. Luton have played in a number of colour schemes down the years and recently their fans elected to return to playing in orange as a first choice. However, I’ve always been a firm believer that they never looked better than in white and blue. It’s too dark to be royal, too light to be navy. It must be Luton Town Blue. The nod to orange – piping in the collar and cuffs, as well as on the turnovers on the socks – makes this kit good enough to eat.
MANCHESTER CITY: Umbro produced a kit of staggering classicism and elegance for Manchester’s blue half in 1985. Its simplicity is misleading, in fact it stood out a mile due to its lack of shadow patterns or other adornments and for having a crew neck instead of the standard V. City and Umbro brought back this kit for 2009/10 and it was just as beautiful all over again.
OXFORD UNITED: I haven’t just chosen this kit because it’s got WANG written on it, although I’d be lying if I claimed that it wasn’t even a factor in my decision. However, there’s plenty of other things to admire. Like all the best Umbro designs, it is clean and crisp, while the rakishly different shadow pattern – yes madam, those ARE hoops – make it stand out further. Plus, you know, “wang”.
NEWCASTLE UNITED: Newcastle’s kit is just a plain old boring black and white striped shirt, which is precisely why I have included it. More or less every year I look at the steaming crap pile Newcastle’s sportswear gurus have produced and wail “how hard is it to just design a striped shirt?” to nobody in particular. This kit, complete with the classic star-shaped Brown Ale sponsor logo, is what every Newcastle kit should look like until further notice is given. By me.
WATFORD: Watford are a club frequently caught between two stools. Are they yellow and black or yellow and red? Should they include red AND black? And in what proportions? For future reference, this is pretty much ideal. In fact, the chest bar even suggests a 66.6%-33.4% red-to-black split. The answer was right under their nose the whole time. Or, at the very least, right under their tit.
PRESTON NORTH END: Year after year, Preston’s kit will make my list of favourites and the 1985/86 vintage is a fine example of why this is. A classic simplicity which nevertheless manages to tip the wink to all of the latest trends in football kit design, yet remaining unmistakably Preston North End. The welcome addition of hooped stockings is always a winner.
PLYMOUTH ARGYLE: It’s not easy being green, especially when you are the Football League’s sole flag bearer for the fourth colour of the rainbow. However, if you are going to persevere, you have to really own it. There’s no meek or mild pastel shades on display here, Plymouth going for a bold as brass emerald green and contrasting it with black shorts. It is, by some distance, the most striking design among the 92 examples on display. Black pinstripes are a nice touch, as is the further contrasting element of wearing white socks. Add in to this heady mix that this was one of the first Subbuteo teams that I owned and you’ve got yourself a real beauty.
GILLINGHAM: The thing about opting to have a busy design is that it will always be something of a tightrope. Chesterfield had a subtlely different shades of blue striped shirt for 1985/86 which could very easily have been completely calamitous but for the removal of all other extraneous design fripperies. A simple, neat, white V-neck is matched by simple, neat, white collars and plain white shorts and socks. For all of that, however, next to Gillingham’s design – a similar idea, albeit one with greater contrast and the addition of bold, thick, angular trim pieces – it seems a little staid and old-fashioned. Like I say, a tightrope.
WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS: Nothing out of the ordinary on display here, especially not for a 1985/86 vintage kit. However, there’s something about Wolves’ colours that make the now-standard V-neck and shadow stripes look pop like nothing else. Their use of their fabulous club logo on the shorts is also an inspired choice. Comparing to the Newport County kit, which is more or less identical in design philosophy, is an interesting and instructive look at how such little things can make a big difference.
Honorable mentions: Both ASTON VILLA and WEST HAM UNITED reminded me of how much I like it when those teams take liberties with the layout of their traditional claret and blue shirts; HULL CITY take shadow stripes up a notch and then push the envelope further with alarmingly hooped stockings; and PORTSMOUTH pose the question, are shirt sponsors really necessary?
Of course, no-one would want to have read this far without some vitriol, so here’s a bit of that: READING‘s design looks like something pulled out of the lost property box for a P.E. lesson and is, by some considerable distance, the most diabolical kit of the 1985/86 season. Both TRANMERE ROVERS and TORQUAY UNITED aren’t playing in the right colours… BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION and SOUTHAMPTON manage to but the layout is all to cock in both cases. Finally, SOUTHEND UNITED can feel lucky that Reading chose quite so poorly.
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