My football shirt

An article by Dave Edwards. 

Directly in front of me, pinned to the wall in my office, is a postcard of a crowd of football fans making their way to the 1999 FA Cup Final between Newcastle United and Manchester United. It is an image I look at almost every day.

My football shirt 1

The photograph was taken by Stuart Roy Clark who specialises in photographing football fans and stadiums. To my way of thinking, this image is a rather candid and engaging one. Taken from above, the image features two Manchester United fans – a father carrying his son on his shoulders – surrounded by a large crowd of Newcastle United fans. Given the rivalry and ‘tribal’ animosity frequently associated with football fans, mainly in the mainstream media, the relaxed behaviour of the fans and total absence of any sense of threat or malevolence is notable, but perhaps not entirely surprising to those of us who attend football matches on a regular basis. What is also notable about the photograph – so much so indeed that it is almost unnoticeable – is the number of fans wearing replica football shirts. While some fans can be seen wearing casual clothing, and one or two are evidently wearing suits, the majority are wearing replica versions of the shirts worn by players of the team they support. A closer look also reveals that most, but by no means all, are wearing that season’s shirt.

Allegiance and attachment

Though familiar and highly visible, the football shirt is no ordinary object. It is an object of iconic significance. The shirt is the most recognisable symbol not only of a player’s identity but also of a team and a football clubs identity; so much so that many of the most common club nicknames are derived from the clubs shirt colour or its associations; the Blues (Birmingham City) the Clarets (Burnley) the Hornets (Watford), the Magpies (Newcastle United), the Reds (Liverpool), the Tigers (Hull City), etc. In addition to defining a football club’s visual identity the replica football shirt has become an item of ‘cross-generational leisurewear’ (Stride et al, 2014) and the primary means many fans have of expressing and communicating their allegiance and attachment to a particular club or team; and through this their locality or nationality.

In this context, the term ‘attachment’ refers to the emotional bond, the enduring psychological connectedness established between human beings, individually and collectively. Attachment theory was first developed by the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby (1907-1990) (Bowlby, 1971) and the American born developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999) (Holmes, 1993). The central tenet of attachment theory is that the emotional bonds formed with our primary caregivers during infancy shape the way we relate to others throughout later life (Ainsworth et al, 1979). It is through these bonds of attachment that we acquire a sense of self and of belonging. If these bonds are significantly damaged or absent a person may experience a range of mental health problems in childhood or later in adulthood; including separation anxiety and a pervasive sense of insecurity (Holmes, 2001).

Feelings may run high when our attachments and allegiances are challenged or threatened. A recent example of this being the current controversy in Spain surrounding the kit to be worn by the national team in next year’s World Cup. Coming as it does at a time of heightened political divisions in Spain the new kit has apparently proved extremely divisive among the nation’s fans. Nuanced though it is, the controversy appears to stem from the addition of blue – seen by many as purple – to red and yellow colours traditionally used in the design of the Spanish national team kit. According to the BBC website,

Critics say the colours of the shirt appear similar to the flag of Spain’s Second Republic, rather than the current Spanish national flag. The Second Republic started in 1931 when the King was overthrown and lasted just until 1939.

Ironically, the shirt was designed to recreate the classic jersey worn by the Spanish team at the 1994 World Cup held in the USA and both the Spanish football federation and the manufacturer Adidas deny the kit has political connotations.

Get your kit on…

For much of footballs history, developments in the fabrication and design of player’s kit – shirts, shorts, socks, and boots – have been driven by the requirements of the game for enhanced performance and by developments in manufacturing technology. In the UK, where the game first developed, football has traditionally been a game played in winter. Consequently the clothing or kit worn by players – stout, studded boots, woollen shirts, etc. – served not only to help identify players from their opponents but as protection from the elements. In warmer climates – in South America or Mediterranean countries, for example – player kit tended to be lighter in weight and tighter in fit.

As the game became less physical and more athletic over time, traditional, natural materials such as cotton and wool have been replaced by lighter, ‘engineered’ synthetic materials often with baffling scientific sounding names designed to reduce sweating and friction and increase freedom of movement. A notable relatively early example of such a development in my lifetime was the kit worn by the England football team during the 1970 World Cup finals held in Mexico. To combat the heat and humidity of a Mexico summer the England team wore a kit made from Aertex, a lightweight cellular material designed for hot climates.

Brand loyalty

For boys of my age owning your own football kit marked something of a rite of passage. No longer compelled to wear the ill-fitting sportswear allocated by school I could wear what I wanted, or more accurately what my family were willing and able to buy. Not that there was a great deal of choice back in the early 1960s. Shirts and shorts came in primary colours, usually with white collars and cuffs; socks similarly. Lacking club crests and numbers the shirts available bore little resemblance to those worn by the players seen in newspapers, magazine and, increasingly, on television. Although football boots had long been commodified, it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that replica kits, marketed as sportswear to children, became widely available. One consequence of the increasing commercialisation of professional football has been the ruthless commercial exploitation of the desire to identify with clubs and teams, especially successful ones such as Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Wearing the shirt may bring with it a sense of belonging but it comes at a price. Clubs not only change the design of their first team shirt on an annual basis, they do so for second (away) and third strip too. For the loyal football fan buying and wearing the shirt can be an expensive undertaking. At the time of writing, a Newcastle United Home Shirt for the 2017-2018 is retailing on the club website for £54.99. This price includes a £10 discount on the manufacturer’s retail price. Personalising a shirt through the addition of a name – one’s own or that of a favourite player – comes at an additional cost.

Wearing the shirt

In his book The Language of Things Deyan Sudjic, the current Director of the Design Museum in London, writes,

Objects are the way in which we measure out the passing of our lives. They are what we use to define ourselves, to signal who we are, and who we are not. Sometimes it is jewellery that takes on this role, at other times it is the furniture that we use in our homes, or the personal possessions that we carry with us, or the clothes that we wear (Sudjic, 2009: 21).

This was never truer than with the replica shirts bought and worn by football fans such as myself. Not only do they help define us through making our sporting affiliations so public, but they mark the passing of time as clearly as the rings in the trunk of a tree. The logos we display also turn us into walking advertisements for global sporting and other brands. The current Newcastle United shirt sponsorship deal with the Chinese gambling company Fun88 is the biggest in club’s history. While being extremely lucrative, shirt sponsorship is relatively new given the long history of the game. Prior to 1979 advertising on shirts was banned by the FA.

My football shirt 2

My own Newcastle United club shirt is many seasons old now and doesn’t have my name or the name of a favourite player on the back. At a guess, I would estimate I bought my shirt in 2007 or 2008, the year before the bank Northern Rock – the club sponsors at the time – were taken into public ownership and before Puma became the official supplier and licensee of replica merchandise for manufacturer in 2010. That I haven’t replaced my club shirt for almost a decade now over the illustrates my ambivalence concerning the commercialisation of the game (no matter how loyal a fan I might be I really couldn’t bring myself to wear a shirt with the Wonga logo emblazoned so prominently on the front) and about the role played by the clubs current owner – Mike Ashley – in relation to this.

Investment, Identification and identity

For a number of years now there has been much talk in the media, especially in the North East, concerning the way Mike Ashley does business and runs Newcastle United. Despite, or possibly as a consequence of being a highly successful businessman (he owns, amongst other businesses, Sports Direct) Ashley is frequently portrayed – mostly by angry fans, it must be said – as miserly, incompetent, secretive, malevolent and ruthless. This may or may not be true. What is beyond dispute is that Mike Ashley is intensely disliked on Tyneside, mainly for selling popular players and failing to invest in strengthening the first team. Since taking ownership of the club, Newcastle United has been relegated from the Premier League on two occasions; most recently at the end of the 2015-16 season.

At the heart of this antipathy is the entirely different nature of the investment Ashley and the fans have in Newcastle United. Irrespective of the fact he may be seen sporting a black and white shirt, tie or scarf, Mike Ashley’s investment in the club is primarily financial. Ashley appears to view the club as providing a global platform from which to promote his retail business Sports Direct. Although it is difficult to obtain precise figures, the financial investment has certainly been substantial.
For most fans the investment made in Newcastle United is emotional rather than financial, although no one should underestimate the cost of being a committed supporter of any football team, let alone Newcastle United. In addition to the not insubstantial cost of actually watching the team play at home or away, live or on television (match tickets, travel, food, TV subscriptions, etc.), there are team shirts and other symbols of affiliation and loyalty (merchandise such as bedspreads, mouse mats, key rings, etc.) to be bought.

It is the depth and intensity of this emotional investment – the emotional bond (attachment) – that so many fans and followers of the game – myself included – feel is so ruthlessly exploited. Those who profit from the game, – most obviously club owners and multi-national corporations – want our money, our participation and (brand) loyalty, yet are willing to reschedule games, seemingly on a whim or sell crowd favourite players even if this weakens the team. This feels like contempt and may in fact be such. If the fans continue to turn up in significantly large numbers week after week with little prospect of witnessing success why should the likes of Mike Ashley care? So long as the money continues to roll in why should it matter what I or other fans feel? No wonder then that a recent national fans’ survey revealed that two-thirds of fans believe the clubs they support do not care about them. More fool us!

References

Ainsworth, M., Blehar, M, Waters, E. & Wall, S. (1979) Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Hillsdale, New Jersey, USA

Bowlby, J. (1971) Attachment and Loss Volume 1: Attachment, Penguin Books: London:

Holmes, J. (2001) The Search for the Secure Base, Brunner –Routledge: Hove

Holmes, J. (1993) John Bowlby & Attachment Theory, Brunner –Routledge: Hove

Stride, C., Williams, J., Moor, D. & Catley, N. (2014). From Sportswear to Leisurewear: The Evolution of English Football League Shirt Design in the Replica Kit Era. Sport in History. 35(1): 156-194

Sudjic, D. (2009) The Language of Things, Penguin Books: London

DE: Wednesday, 15 November 2017 (2100 words)

A lifelong Newcastle United supporter, Dave Edwards is an HCPC registered Art Therapist and a UKCP registered Psychodynamic Psychotherapist who has been practicing for over thirty years.

He also has a Sheffield based private practice mainly offering individual clinical supervision to qualified art therapists, psychotherapists and counsellors.

The second edition of Dave’s book – Art Therapy – was published by Sage in 2014.

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