Replica kits are as much a part of the modern game as the offside rule and heartless billionaire owners, but without Leeds United, Don Revie and Admiral, things could have been very different.
By Joseph Phelan
The replica football kit market is a force to be reckoned with. Across the 2018/19 season an estimated 3,250,000 Manchester United shirts were sold, while during the same period Real Madrid fans snapped up 3,120,000 replica tops, and Bayern fans bought 2,575,000. These three teams, who came first, second and third respectively in the shirt sales chart that season, sold a staggering nine million jerseys between them. In just one year. That’s two shirts each for every man, woman, and child in Ireland.
Conservative estimates suggest that the replica shirt sector is today worth a colossal £2.5bn. To put that figure into some kind of context, it’s higher than the annual GDP of countries such as Liberia, Central African Republic, Grenada, Tonga and Samoa.
The idea of donning a shirt to show allegiance to one’s favourite club is now part and parcel of being a football fan. Every Saturday – pandemic permitting – stadium terraces are decorated with loyal supporters cheering on their team, swathes of them adorned in the livery of their sporting heroes.
However, without a serendipitous meeting between Bert Patrick, then company director at sportswear pioneer Admiral, and iconic Leeds United boss Don Revie, there’s no guarantee that replica football shirts would be as synonymous with the sport as they are today.
A chance encounter
The old adage claims that opportunity knocks but once, but in the case of Admiral, an awful lot of knocking occurred prior to opportunity rearing its head. In the early ‘70s the sportswear industry was a very different beast to the one that exists today. At the time of writing, it is estimated to be worth close to £6.5bn, but fifty years ago, bespoke clothing crafted for the purposes of sporting participation was very much a niche trade.
Bert Patrick, who had been Admiral’s top dog for 20 years prior to his meeting with Revie, had been attempting to convince retailers that there was a market for replica kits since the ‘60s. In the wake of England’s glorious 1966 World Cup campaign, Patrick became convinced that fans, and especially younger ones, would be willing to spend money on high-quality replica kits so as to emulate their idols.
His hunch would, as we now know, turn out to be absolutely spot on, but Patrick was so far ahead of the curve, and his ideas so at odds with the market at the time, that he struggled to persuade retailers of his vision’s viability. He and his salespeople were forced to tolerate one futile meeting after another, with clothing outlets and sporting goods stores around the country unable to see the value in what Patrick was suggesting. It was immediately in the wake of one of these fruitless business pitches, however, that Bert Patrick finally got the break his ingenuity and enterprising nature warranted.
Emerging from an unsuccessful meeting with the boss of a retailer in Leeds, Patrick spotted Don Revie’s Leeds United side in the midst of a training session over the road and decided to chance his arm. Patrick approached Revie, delivered the elevator pitch that he had been honing for close to decade, and brazenly enquired about the possibility of Admiral redesigning Leeds’ classic plain white home kit.
Revie, who immediately saw the potential in Patrick’s proposal, flat-out rejected the idea of an overhaul of the home shirt, but said he was more than happy to give Admiral carte blanche with regard to the away kit. Sealed with a handshake and a verbal agreement, this fortuitous encounter on a muddy training field in Leeds spawned the birth of a market that would ultimately be worth billions.
So certain of success was Patrick that he paid Leeds for the privilege of designing the away kit, and his approach reaped rewards almost immediately. Armed with its own manufacturing factory – a facility it had historically been using to produce hosiery – Admiral was able to leap on the opportunity immediately, producing a now legendary yellow shirt with white and blue stripes adorning the sleeves.
The away shirt sold so well that Revie authorised Admiral to design the club’s official tracksuit, which also sold in huge numbers, and even ended up being used on the club’s Christmas cards. Patrick’s perseverance, coupled with Revie’s prescience, had created a new money-spinning revenue stream practically overnight. Admiral’s Leeds designs not only stood out when compared to what was being worn by other teams, but they catalysed a complete change in what fans expected from their clubs in terms of attire, demanding that clubs and manufacturers alike embrace the changing face of football, and accept that such merchandise was more than a flash in the pan. A new era had begun.
Donwards and upwards
Admiral’s connection with Don Revie did not stop at the gates of Elland Road. When Revie took the England job in 1974, he invited Admiral to fashion the national side’s home kit, a task which the company’s design team took to with gusto.
Admiral’s deal with the FA, which brought about the first commercially available England shirt to be emblazoned with the branding of a sportswear company, was yet another momentous milestone. The five-year contract, costing £15,000 annually was ultimately a small price for Admiral to pay. The deal opened the replica kit market up even further, cementing Admiral as the country’s go-to sportswear manufacturer and revolutionising the concept of football-themed merchandise.
In subsequent years the company signed up to work with some of the biggest clubs in football, from Manchester United to Spurs, Southampton to West Ham, Aberdeen to Rangers, Bologna to Malmö, Dynamo Kiev to Partizan Belgrade. Admiral quickly grew to dominate Europe, setting standards and becoming a byword for quality, innovation, and originality in the process.
A changing of the guard
During the late ‘70s, through the ‘80s and until the early ‘90s, Admiral was arguably the name in sportswear. From incredibly humble beginnings a sporting goliath grew, but as the marketplace became increasingly profitable and, ultimately, more cutthroat, the brand’s influence began to wane. With major sporting corporations such as adidas, Nike, Puma, Umbro and Reebok realising that there was serious money to be made from associations with clubs, especially with TV becoming an ever-bigger part of the footballing landscape, the parameters shifted and Admiral was unceremoniously brushed aside.
Revie, meanwhile, had endured a very public decline in fortunes and in status. In 1977 he left his post at England boss under a cloud, having gone behind the FA’s back to negotiate a lucrative deal to become manager of the United Arab Emirates. He was initially given a 10-year suspension for football from the FA for bringing the game into disrepute, though this ruling was eventually overturned.
His reputation was, for many in England, destroyed irreparably. He never worked in English football again, taking only two further managerial positions once his stint with the UAE came to an end in 1980 – one with Dubai-based Al-Nasr, a position he held for four years, and the other with Al Ahly in Egypt, which he stuck out for less than 12 months.
It was a sorry decline for a manager who, throughout the ‘60s and most of the ‘70s, was a mainstay at football’s pinnacle. On top of the well-publicised UAE debacle, Revie’s name was additionally tarnished by repeated allegations of corruption, bribery and financial misconduct, and though these claims never resulted in anything close to a guilty verdict, they played a further part in denting his legacy.
What remains undeniably true, however, is that Revie was one of the greatest managers that the nation has ever produced. His time with Leeds in particular, highlighted his ability to embrace new ideas and pursue modern approaches. As his dealings with Admiral ably demonstrated, he did as much to progress the sport of football, and everything that the beautiful game now encompasses, as practically anyone else.
Admiral’s ship is back on course
Admiral’s recent history has been rather turbulent, and, at points, the company’s survival was far from a certainty, but despite numerous restructures and changes of ownership over the decades, it is now, half a century on from its historic collaboration with Leeds, carving out yet another niche.
The pioneering spirit associated with Admiral persists, and the company now looks to be in better shape than it has been for nearly 30 years, largely due to a directional shift. Where once the company was fixated on looking forward, its attention locked firmly on the development and subsequent growth of the replica shirt market, its gaze is now directed on the past, on providing football aficionados with a reminder of former glories via the medium of nostalgia-infused memorabilia.
Admiral Retro is now the company’s flagship offering. This range of replica designs showcases exemplary Admiral kits from years gone by, many of them harking back to the days before mega-money sponsorship deals, when shirt sales relied upon stylish designs rather than the annual kit purchase that, for many supporters today, is simply an automatic acquisition to mark the dawning of a new season.
The company, which is older than a number of the country’s best-known sides – including Leeds United, the club with which it has forged such a fruitful relationship – has over 107 years of sportswear history to draw upon, and any number of classics designs to breathe new life into.
Out with the new, in with the old
Several top-tier clubs have jumped on the retro kit bandwagon in recent years, with Arsenal famously launching a 125th anniversary away kit in 2011 complete with a crest representing the club’s origins, and Rangers currently playing their home games in a throwback kit inspired by its outfits from the ‘20s and ‘30s. For some, however, retro kits are far more than garments of mere sentimentality.
For the multitudes of football fans who declare themselves to be against modern football, who yearn for a time when the sport was all about what happened on the pitch rather than the revenues to be pursued off it, the wearing of retro kits can act as means of declaring devotion while also partaking in a form of protest.
By shunning the contemporary in favour of the vintage some supporters endeavour to evoke a feeling of wistful reminiscence, harking back to the days when quality was at the fore and fans were more than simply a resource for clubs to mine. Of course, it obviously doesn’t hurt that many of the kit designs from the ‘70s and ‘80s have aged like fine wines, looking as elegant today as they did when they first appeared on store shelves.
Modern football is, without question, a hive of consumerism. The replica shirt industry, which was walking its first tentative steps 50 years ago, has birthed a capitalist monster that even the entrepreneurial Bert Patrick would not have been able to predict. The fact that clubs like Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United are able to charge upwards of £65 for a replica top at once showcases Patrick’s astuteness all those years ago, and also indicates that football is increasingly moving in a direction that values profits over people.
The sport itself, while still a core component of the wider footballing machine, is viewed by many business-minded folk as simply a conduit through which merchandise, advertisement space, TV rights and endorsements can be sold. The matches themselves are, for some club owners, far from the be all and end all; rather, they are a business necessity, an opportunity to bring in revenues, to promote good and services, another avenue via which supporters can be milked.
This is, of course, very much a viewpoint borne of personal opinion. It could – and likely will – be deemed by some as overly antagonistic or naïve. Others will, no doubt, assert that this is simply the way of the game now and, whether one likes it or not, it is time to adapt and get to grips with the sport’s reality. People were likely spouting similar sentiments in 1974 when Patrick and Revie first joined forces, after all, and such protestations likely made as little impact as mine are liable to.
I understand that my take on the current state of the game is at odds with how it is perceived by millions upon millions of people around the world, those supporters who have helped grow the European football market to the point where it’s worth a monumental £25bn, but with increasing frequency I find myself longing for an era of football that I wasn’t even alive to witness.
If by wearing a retro kit and reliving stories from a time when football was a little bit more amateur and was a touch less sanitised makes me a malcontent, then so be it. I’ll still delight in flaunting my replica 1974 Leeds away shirt, and I’ll do so while daydreaming of a time when it was possible to amble onto a training ground, shake hands with Don Revie, and secure a deal so momentous that, for better or worse, it would change the state of football forever.