When a new Admiral England kit was launched in 1980, the one with red, white and blue panels on the shoulder, such was its popularity with English children that every junior school and comprehensive from Carlisle to Lizard could have adopted it as their school-team colours. Apologies to inhabitants of other UK countries but there was something about that England shirt that made the wearer feel, well, not a million dollars but a million pounds sterling. For many, a lifelong fascination with football kits started with that Admiral masterpiece.
Football kits should be a young man’s game but some addictions are hard to leave behind. It’s an illness that’s fully understood by David Moor, the founder and touchline-standing manager of online football-kit archive Historical Football Kits. During ten years of the site’s existence, Moor has seen it, done it and coded the link to the replica-shirt manufacturer, meticulously cataloguing the minutiae of English and Scottish League kits from the birth of association football to the present day. Plus, there are the designs of home nations, with bonus sections on major international tournaments.
In reality, Historical Football Kits is a substantial waste of an adult’s time, yet it’s absolutely riveting – and 100,000 visitors a month agree. British Ideas Corporation catches up with Moor during his busiest period: the close season.
British Ideas Corporation: Why did you start a football-kit website?
David Moor: The history of football kits has been a passion of mine since I was 13. As you grow up, you leave these things behind but when computers became an everyday part of life, I realised that using computer technology, I could create and collate graphics, put them into albums and update them.
When you were younger, did you draw kits into exercise books?
Yes, that’s exactly what I did. I was 13 and it was the year of the 1966 World Cup. I’d been bitten by the football bug. After the World Cup, we went on a family holiday to Cornwall and, of course, it rained all the time. My brother and I were stuck in a hotel room and our parents bought us a big encyclopedia of sport. It had the shirt colours of all the Football League clubs and we amused ourselves by drawing them.
Is the website a full-time job?
No, I’m retired. I started it ten years ago; I was working then. It’s a hobby, really. It keeps me busy but I can spend a full week working on it. At the end of every season, I think, “OK, who’s going to change kit design? What are the kits going to look like?”
Do you work on the site on your own?
My son takes care of all the technical side. I just do the content.
Are you “techy”?
No, ha-ha. I can do what I need to do but as far as managing servers and all the rest of that stuff, that’s way beyond me.
Did you used to be a designer?
No. This is the beauty of having graphics technology and graphics programs. You only need to do a drawing once and get it right and then you can keep re-using it. You don’t have to have any talent.
There are so many different kit styles – round-necks, collars, V-necks. Do you have various templates to call on?
Yes, there are basic templates. If you look through an archive, you’ll see that the style of kits changes over the years. There are basic templates for 19th century, Twenties, Fifties and so on. And then I’ve got this huge archive of little bits and pieces that can be dropped in for style of stripes or whatever. I do it once and then it’s stored. We’ve got a new Adidas shirt with stripes down the side of the body. I only had to draw that once and then I can pull that out whenever I need it. I draw it and it goes into storage.
What’s particularly absorbing about your site is the level of detail, with odd kit variations for single matches, like different-coloured socks and a non-standard kit-manufacturer’s logo. How do you find out facts like that?
When we set this up, it was my son’s idea to post it on the web. I didn’t think anybody was going to be interested. I wanted to use this technology because it was like a book of pictures and drawings, but it could be updated. We made the decision at the beginning to say to visitors, “If you can help with this or correct it, just let me know.” It’s quite extraordinary; without exaggeration, we’ve had thousands of emails and hundreds of contributors. There was one person who spent 30 years going through Scottish newspaper reports and annuals, meticulously recording the colours of clubs and he shared all the material with us.
Do you think this is a peculiarly British phenomenon?
I don’t know if it is. There are some similarly obsessed people around the world.
Which kit really stands out for you?
I love the Victorian period. It’s so unrestrained. Well, I say unrestrained, there were a limited number of designs, but there were no constraints about colour. Teams would change colour depending on what material they could get hold of. My favourite is Chesterfield. The story is that the owner of The Spital Hotel in Chesterfield discovered a set of shirts in the loft that had been made of Union Jacks. He gave them to the club. The following season they wore Union Jack shirts. I’d heard about this when I was a kid. It was part of the stories that circulated. Everybody assumed they were white shirts and that someone had sewn a Union Jack on. That would be the sensible thing. No! They were complete Union Jack shirts.
Have you seen any photographs of this?
Yes, I’ve got a photograph on the website.
So that’s your golden era, the Victorian times.
Yes. Partly it’s because it’s so remote and it requires such a lot of detective work. I’m really very fortunate. I’ve got professional historians who are going through newspaper archives. There’s a contributor who’s actually doing this at the moment, sending me little clips from the 1880s and 1890s, and because records from this period are so sparse, it’s like finding jewels.
You must look forward to his emails coming through.
I do. You never know what’s going to come in. A lot of this stuff has never been published before. It’s a real privilege. I actually don’t have to do very much research at all. I’m more a curator.
The brown Admiral “hockey sticks” kit of Coventry City in the Seventies is regarded as a nasty piece of kit design, but do you have a kit that you think is particularly gruesome?
Oh yes. That’s Hull City’s tiger stripes. It’s just so unutterably bad. It’s so silly.
Was that a Nineties shirt?
Absolutely. When I started looking into this, I realised that in the Eighties, polyester started to be used in the manufacture of shirts, replacing cotton. The thing about polyester is that you can use a process called heat-dye sublimation, so you can print into the fabric all kinds of elaborate patterns, and then in the Nineties, with designers, it was like giving little boys a new box of paints. They just went crazy. More and more complicated.
Wasn’t the excuse that it stopped counterfeiting?
Well, I don’t think it ever stopped counterfeiting. You just need to get hold of an original shirt, scan it, put it into some special piece of kit and it will print your fabric out. You’ve got to remember this was the period of shell suits. The era was a fashion disaster.
Where do you think we are at the moment with kits?
There’s been a trend in the last 15 years or so for simpler designs, a lot of retro influence, and Historical Football Kits has played a part in that. I notice that clubs are turning out anniversary designs and all sorts of things. Very often they’ve used us as one of their sources. That’s all very good: simpler designs, that’s very positive. On the other hand, I feel unhappy that the big global players like Adidas, Puma and Nike are so dominant now. When we watch the Euros, we’re going to be seeing all these standard template kits with very little variation.
And skintight kits too – the muscle-suit look.
Those breast plates. What are they thinking of?
It makes you long for the days of Chris Waddle with his billowing shirt.
I think people’s ideas of what makes a good kit are influenced by when they first went to a football match. If you saw matches for the first time in the Eighties, it would be billowy. Me? I went in the Sixties. Its miniscule shorts, long sleeves, plain shirts with crewnecks, that’s a proper football kit.
Are you able to keep track of viewing figures through your site?
Yes. I was looking at them recently. I used to spend a lot of time analysing where our visitors came from in terms of countries and so on. It’s just the sheer numbers that I find extraordinary, around 1.5 million a year.
Do you get enough adverts to make your site work?
Yes, but we don’t rely on advertising. We realised that we were going to need a proper server and had to rent space somewhere in, God knows, Death Valley somewhere. We needed to generate some way of earning an income to cover that so we started taking advertising, but we’ve always limited it. I don’t want people to be swamped.
Moving adverts make people click away from sites.
They do. And it makes the whole thing look untidy. The whole point of the website is the content. What we’ve managed to do is to create advertising that is a direct relevance to the people who are coming to pay us a visit. It’s the most successful thing that we’ve done, offering people links. So if you’re looking for an Arsenal shirt from the Eighties, there’ll be a button and you can go and buy it. It’s what I think our visitors would want. And we get a little commission.
What do you think of the moving adverts at major football matches?
Ohh! It’s distracting. But if it didn’t distract you from the game, it wouldn’t exist.
Have you ever done a book?
Yes. It’s called The Worst Football Kits Of All Time [The History Press, 2011]. I was approached to do that and it was great fun.
Who do you support?
I don’t actually support anyone. I live in South Wales now and I actually prefer to watch rugby.
I know. But this thing about football kits is an unhealthy obsession.