A look at the best, worst and current kits of City’s forthcoming opponents.
Manchester United. Man Utd. Man U. Whether you use the full name or an abbreviated form, the most successful team in the land don’t often go by their nickname of The Red Devils (you hear that Assem Allam?), but the rarely used sobriquet does slyly refer to the most striking part of the club’s visual identity, the red shirt.
Founded as Newton Heath in 1878, the club played in green and gold halved shirts until 1887 when they foreshadowed a future guise by wearing red and white home jerseys, doing so until 1893 when green and gold returned. Deciding to expand their sphere of representation beyond the Newton Heath part of the city, the club became Manchester United in 1902*, and switched to the red shirt, white shorts, black socks combination that is now instantly recognisable.
We’re not going to consider Manchester United’s distinguished home shirt history however, they’re the away side when they meet Hull City this weekend, and although they’re unlikely to wear an away kit (having done so only once in the three Premier League fixtures between the sides played at the KC Stadium) when they visit Hull, it’s Manchester United away kits we are going to ponder in this edition of Shirt Swapping.
In terms of change kits, United had a chaotic first few decades: They started with blue and white striped shirts, then tried out shirts of white, solid blue, white with a red chevron (which became the home shirt for a while, so red shirts were used away when a change was needed) and maroon and white hoops (also used as home shirt for a time) before going with solid blue shirts with white shirts post World War Two. Blue and white was used away for almost a decade when all white with red trim became the standard change uniform until the mid Seventies when black sorts were used with white jerseys.
In the mid Sixties blue jerseys with white shorts were again used away, but as a third choice. Blue shirts as part of a third kit became the norm following Manchester United’s first European Cup triumph, they wore all blue when beating a red and white clad Benfica 4-1 after extra time at Wembley.
A kit set of red home shirts, white away shirts and blue third shirts became standard until the Nineties, when United (along with the rest of the league) went along with the experimental whims of kit makers who could now employ state of the art printing techniques and use black, after referees expanded their uniform colour palette. When considering the best and worst Manchester United kits, we’ll largely be looking at designs from the polyester era (and shoehorning in photos of a youthful Steve Bruce wherever we can).
*Somebody will say it, so we’ll get the answer in early. No, Newton Heath becoming Manchester United is not justification for Hull City becoming Hull Tigers. There is a world of difference between making a change ten years into your existence as a Football League club having achieved little of note because you want to represent a whole area rather than just a small corner of it, and making a change because the owner has a grudge with Hull City Council because they quite reasonably won’t illegally gift him a community owned stadium but barely hides that with the quasi-racist suggestion that it’s really because Asians are so gullible that they’ll throw money at anything with Tigers in the name and begin wearing Tom Huddlestone shirts rather than ones with Messi, Ronaldo and Rooney on the back , when (in the words of the FA) there is no compelling business plan presented for the change, and when you’re at the apex of your 110 year history rather than near to the beginning.
Best Away Kits
As the Eighties drew to a close, clubs were realising the revenue making potential of replica shirts and kit makers had new printing techniques to show off. Fast forward a few years to the mid Nineties and the envelope was no longer being pushed*, it was being ripped into small pieces, eaten with laxatives and then shat out. Onto a sketchpad, and whatever pattern the liquid bab made was scanned, given a day-glo colour change and printed onto a football shirt. It was a period of migraine inducing monstrosities, see examples here, here and here, and if we’re being honest, here.
In between those years there was some fun kit design experimentation that pushed boundaries but still referenced tradition. The 1990-92 Manchester United away shirt by adidas is a perfect exemplar of this: Blue and white, so therefore using traditional away colours, but featuring a sublimated pattern that was achingly modern (by the standards of the time). I’m not entirely sure how to describe the pattern, and come to think of it I’ve never seen a description that succinctly sums it up in the 25 years since it was released.
It’s like a blue maple leaf conforming to EU straightness standards that gradually fades into white, repeated ad infinitum. Or how about a new and fiendishly difficult to fit Tetris block designed by a sadistic Russian mathematician.
Rumours of the design being a magic eye pattern that reveals the face of Russell Beardsmore after 20 minutes of staring are totally unfounded. Maybe the pattern was chosen because the lighter negative space behind the blue leaf-form creates a stylised M, or maybe that is entirely coincidental. From afar, the royal blue and white blend together to create the impression of a much lighter shade of blue, which might have caused consternation for some Mancunians of a United persuasion, but then the sight of Manchester City wearing red and black away shirts must be even more galling.
This shirts most famous outing was in the Rumbelows sponsored League Cup Final when a United side featuring City manager Steve Bruce and assistant boss Mike Phelan beat Nottingham Forest 1-0 at Wembley. It’s an ugly-beautiful kit, a little shocking when released and oozing retro-coolness now, adidas Originals reissued a sans-United crest version a few years ago which is testament to its cultural imprint.
*Yes, yes, the phrase pushing the envelope isn’t about postal envelopes, but rather the mathematical envelope, defined as ‘the locus of the ultimate intersections of consecutive curves’, but let me have this one.
The seeds of retro shirt releases germinated and reached full bloom around 1996, when the staging of the European Championships in England had everyone misty eyed over past glories and the delightful simplicity of red cotton jerseys decorated only by the shield borne three lions, unsullied by maker’s marks and lager logos.
Those seeds had been planted a few years previous by Umbro, who gave otherwise state of the art/high tech kits a throwback element by adding collar laces to the home shirts of Aston Villa, Sheffield United and Manchester United. Umbro went one level louder with retro styling on Manchester United’s 1992 third shirt: They based it on Newton Heath’s green and gold halved jerseys from a century past (give or take a few years).
The shirt was yellow on the left side (as viewed) and green on the right, and featured tapered collar panels that reversed that colour order and had black laces criss-crossed in front of a yellow ‘tongue’ panel, underneath a green turnover collar with black trim stripe. The club crest was placed on a black shield sewn on with yellow stitching, and both the makers mark and sponsor were applied in black. A shadow pattern woven throughout the shirt had large Ms (each with UFC contained within) repeating, alternating between right way up and wrong way up to create a pattern not too dissimilar from the adidas Tetris maple leaf motif used on the 1990-92 away shirt.
The ‘knickerbockers and stockings’ of Newton Heath’s late 1800’s green and gold jerseyed kits were white and black (1878-1866), then navy for both (1886-1887), but on the 1992-94 third kit United went with black shorts and socks with gold and green trim.
Umbro enthusiastically embraced the retro angle, describing the new third shirts as ‘a hundred years old’ and getting the team to appear with late Victorian-era hairstyles and facial hair in a team photo used to promote the kit (Eric Cantona and Mark Hughes had the most impressive moustaches, the lip fuzzes of Denis Irwin and Andrei Kanchelskis’ though didn’t pass muster).
Although this kit is striking, it isn’t necessarily the aesthetics that make this an ace kit, it’s the recognisability and the back story, and those things go hand in hand. Without the back story being established when this kit was launched, it wouldn’t be so recognisably Manchester United, and it most certainly is, evidenced by the adoption of green and gold by the Love United Hate Glazer movement over a decade later .
Nowadays every kit supposedly ‘tells a story’, the whole concept has gone too far and eyes are rolled whenever we hear straight up bullshit such as “the shirts… feature subtle references to the armour of English knights in the pinstripe” (2014 England home, Nike) or “these kits will look electric, as if powered by batteries, and will provide an almost electric flash of colour on the pitch” (2014 Manchester City third, again Nike), breathlessly uttered by po-faced over-caffeinated marketing wonks.
The 1992-94 Manchester United third shirts though, DID tell a story, about the formative years of Manchester United, and that is enough. If this shirt was being released now they’d probably say that the lace up collar “pays tribute to the hobnail boots worn by railway workers at the Newton Heath depot” (seriously kit designers, shut up with all that shite), but all that ultimately mattered was that a very old club shirt was being used as inspiration.
This kit successfully planted the association of green and gold with Manchester United into the collective consciousness, an association that remains today, even though United haven’t worn the colours since 1994, and even though other clubs wear yellow and green regularly. Norwich are the most notable club, but when you think of Norwich you think of yellow shirts and green shorts, not green and yellow halved shirts with black shorts, this despite the fact that The Canaries have worn kits like that, in the 1920s and 1930s. That the green and gold halves with black has come to be recognisably Manchester United instead of Norwich is a powerful testament to the recognisability of this very kit. That is why it’s one of United’s finest away kits.
One suspects that this change kit design might have become part of a third shirt style rotation (along with all blue and all black) had the green and gold NOT been adopted by the Love United Hate Glazer protesters, who are rightly unhappy that a hugely profitable club has been plunged into eye-watering debt in order to leverage the Glazer’s purchase of the club. Maybe when the Glazers have moved on, green and gold can again be used.
If Manchester United’s contemporary styled blue and white away kit (first used in the 1990/91 season) was the ridiculous, then the one-off third kit created for the 1991 Cup Winner’s Cup final was the sublime. All white with red and black trim, unsullied by sponsor branding, it was classier than Ron Bergundy’s beloved San Diego.
The kits very existence though, is a curious thing. Firstly because United already had a white third shirt, worn with black shorts at Aston Villa in the league and with the home kit’s white shorts in Hungary versus Pécsi Munkás in the first round of the Cup Winner’s Cup. Secondly, because Barcelona didn’t wear their red and blue primary kit. The Catalan’s home strip would have clashed with both United’s red home and blue away shirts, however given the choice of kits after winning a coin toss, Barca elected to wear their silvery blue third kit. United’s kitman played it safe, all white was distinctive from all three Barcelona kits.
The regular white third shirt featured a V neck with red overlapping collar panel and raglan sleeves that were separated from the main body by black piping, had no cuff trim and adorned only by adidas’ trademark three stripes in red. Shadow stripes with club initials MUFC spelt out vertically repeated throughout the shirt and the wordmark of sponsor, Japanese electronics firm Sharp, was applied in red across the chest.
The white shirt worn in Rotterdam for the Cup Winner’s Cup final however, had more in common with the home shirt. Both shirts had an overlapping crew neck, this shirt’s was red with a contrast stripe of white dashes broken by black dots. This pattern was evident on the sleeve cuffs also, which somewhat strangely (given this shirt was made for a game under the auspices of UEFA) had the Football League sleeve badges sewn over the adidas three stripes. Shirt sponsorship was not permitted for the final by UEFA decree (who didn’t allow sponsors on shirts in Cup Winner’s Cup finals until 1997) so the maker’s mark and club crest were placed lower than on the regular third shirts.
The logo of adidas, a trefoil, was smaller on this shirt than on other United strips from the same year, and the club crest had ‘Cup Winners Cup’ embroidered above and ‘1991’ below. The shadow pattern (different from that of the home shirt) was quite abstract, vaguely resembling shattered glass, but that was only visible up close, for all intents and purposes, this was a very simple and classy looking affair. The white shorts used were home kit’s regular shorts, but the socks were different to the white hose used previously. Instead of white socks with black shin level trefoils and red foldover bands decorated with two stripes in black sandwiching a third in white, these stockings were white with red trefoils and red foldover bands split by three white stripes with black outlines.
In a memorable final, United triumphed, beating Barcelona 2-1 courtesy of two goals by Mark Hughes, who in typical selfish striker style robbed Steve Bruce of glory by blasting our manager’s goalward header into the netting for the first. The kit though (never used again as United went back to the V necked white shirt when a third shirt was needed in 1991/92), is even more memorable, prompting a Spanish newspaper to comment on United’s best change kit ever: “The Red Devils came dressed…like angels.”
Worst Away Kit
The primary function of a football kit is to distinguish one team from another. In the Premier League era however, that function has often been viewed as secondary to revenue generation, and the merchandising tail has wagged the dog. Manchester United’s 1995/96 away kit is a case in point.
The club’s traditional change colours of white and blue weren’t really an option, as both has been fused together on the third kit, in use for a second campaign after two outings in 1994/95. Instead, suppliers Umbro went for a three tone grey change kit with black and red trim.
Umbro had an odd fascination with tonal greys for away kits around this time, they’d already given Chelsea a visually disturbing grey and orange away kit and had an England away shirt in the works that they insisted was ‘indigo’, but it most certainly looked more grey than blue, and wasn’t particularly popular.
It was as if they were more focused on the leisurewear aspect of shirts, on what it looked like on fans when worn with jeans, than on creating a kit that made the team wearing it stand out. This design sensibility was roundly condemned, most publicly by United manager Alex Ferguson who considered the grey change kit a contributory factor in a series of poor performances while wearing it.
The shirt featured two dark grey chest hoops edged by red trim, in between those hoops sponsor Sharp’s Viewcam range was advertised, with the wordmarks similarly dark grey outlined in red. Above the top hoop the shirt was light grey, made up of a white background with rows of abstract grey dots repeating inside grey pinstripes, though the pinstripes didn’t feature on the sleeves. Underneath the bottom hoop the shirt was a darker grey, though not as dark as the hoop grey, as that tone was used for pinstripes on the bottom ‘panel’. A dark grey turnover collar was trimmed with white and red, and the club crest was placed on a field of dark grey with a red outlined and sewn on shield.
Completing the kit were mid grey pinstriped shorts with red trimmed dark grey hoops and mid grey socks with a red trimmed dark grey hoop on each foldover band. This full kit was used at Aston Villa on opening day in a 3-1 defeat that had Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen rubbishing United’s title hopes with his famous “you’ll never win anything with kids” line. It’s next outing was in a 1-0 defeat at Arsenal in early November, then came a 1-1 draw at Nottingham Forest later that month before a ‘grey day’ at Liverpool in December saw a 2-0 loss.
The most notable use of the grey shirts though came in April 1996, and would prove to be their last outing. At Southampton, United paired the grey jerseys with the home kit’s white shorts and alternate white socks for a first half that was similarly mismatched. The Saints raced to a 3-0 halftime lead with goals from Monkou, Shipperley and Le Tissier, prompting an outfit change for United. They emerged for the second half wearing the blue and white third kit, and clawed back some respectability from the scoreline with a Ryan Giggs goal, ultimately losing 3-1.
Was the grey kit simply unlucky? Not according to Alex Ferguson who explained the kit-change: “The players couldn’t pick each other out. They said it was difficult to see their team-mates at distance when they lifted their heads.”
So there you have it, a miserable looking kit directly caused miserable performances, if you believe the manager that is. He might have had a point though, given that Manchester United were formidable when not clad in grey, they won the title in 1995/96 and those ‘kids’ that Hansen felt could not be relied upon, had become household names.
Current Away Kit
‘Less is more’ isn’t a philosophy you naturally attribute to Nike, who often take a brash and bold approach to both sportswear design and marketing. Take the current range of Nike boots for example: garish neon colouring and promises of ‘explosive speed’ and ‘enhanced multi-directional grip’.
By contrast, Nike’s kit design has been somewhat understated of late, almost minimalist. Manchester United’s 2014/15 away kit, conforms to that clean cut aesthetic as well as the club’s post 1974 away kit tendency of black shorts with a white shirt (as opposed to all white with red trim which was favoured between 1957 and the early Seventies).
The white shirt has a simple turnover polo collar in black and a long white placket. The set-in sleeves are ended with white cuffs, and laser cut ventilation holes under the arms are arranged in groups creating chevrons, subtly referencing the chevron emblazoned shirts used in the 1909 FA Cup final (as well as Nike’s 2009/10 home and away jerseys). Unusually, the logo of sponsor Chevrolet is polychromatic and rendered to appear 3D, on a busier shirt design it would look rather incongruous and a simplified, solid colour version would be needed, but on an effectively plain white jersey it isn’t so bad.
The shorts are, club crest and red swoosh aside, plain black and the kit is completed by white socks with black foldover bands and a red swoosh and MUFC initials at shin level.
Minimalism is probably our preferred kit design ethic, but there is a pitfall to be avoided when employing a stripped down ethos, and that is genericism, an ‘everyteam’ template conformity. Granted, it’s not as big a deal with away kits as it is with primary uniforms, but if you’re using traditional change colours you still want a kit to readily identify a team without needing to see the club crest. This kit falls into the template trap somewhat, cover up the United crest and what about this kit says ‘MUFC’? Not nearly enough.
A tiny bit more trim would have achieved that without compromising the overall simplicity of the kit, a thin red outline stripe on the shirt’s turnover collar and on the sock’s black foldover band would have made all the difference and elevated a shirt that as is elicits only a ‘Hmm, it’s alright’ response. There are some club related flourishes, a devil on the placket panel obscured when the shirt is buttoned up and ‘Youth, Courage, Greatness.’ printed on the inside collar, supposedly stating club values, but these details are hidden and not immediately apparent. This kit is close to excellence, but doesn’t quite make it, rather like Louis van Gaal’s 2014/15 side.
Nike won’t get to make amends next season though, as this is the last year of a 13 year association, and German firm adidas will outfit United from 2015/16.
One last thing…
David Beckham he is not, but Steve Bruce was once also a model for adidas gear…