by Richard Foster
The affinity that fans have with their own club’s kit is a close, extremely personal affair and one that should not be tinkered with ever, but nowadays that relationship is being toyed with for the sake of unscrupulous financial gain. Short-term revenue is considered far more important than long-term development, but such is the way with the majority of clubs in this moneyed age. It is no surprise that football kits rotate with dizzying frequency, as the marketing and sales imperative to shift more gear grows more and more irresistible.
Just look at the dreaded kit launch, which is now as overblown and hyped as any aspect of football. First we have the leaked new kit hubbub, which basically creates column inches and plenty of publicity. Then we get the launch itself. Who decided that what we need is lots of moody footballers staring at a phalanx of cameras? Whoever it is they should be shot and I do not mean photographically. Somebody needs to remind them that they are athletes not supermodels. Pouting is best left to the professionals.
But I digress let’s return to a simpler and more innocent age when the commercial departments of clubs were more concerned with finding a match ball sponsor or counting the programme receipts in hundreds of pounds. As a Palace fan the one aspect of the club that has been consistently great over the last five decades that I have followed them has been the series of splendid kits. Whilst we may not have won any cups apart from the much-derided Zenith Data Systems in 1991, the same year we finished third in the old Division One, (our highest ever league position) and of course, we reached our and only FA Cup Final in 1990.
But that, by and large, has been it as far as the honours board is concerned, all in the space of just over a year. Nothing to write home about and certainly not something that attracts envious glances from up and down the leagues. However, if there is one attribute in which Palace have excelled it is the kit. When I first started going to games in the late 1960s the one thing that struck me was the elegance of the claret shirts with blue pin stripe and the yellow piping. It not only looked great live but also my Subbuteo team was the apple of my and my friends’ eyes. The days of John McCormick and Steve Kember were encapsulated in all their elegant finery.
Then in 1971 the claret and blue were transformed into two thick bands against a white background for the muscular John ‘Yogi’ Hughes and the mercurial Don Rogers to grace. A big leap was taken in 1973 as Malcolm Allison’s flamboyant revolution oversaw the nickname being changed from The Glaziers to The Eagles and for the first time red and blue stripes were worn. Unfortunately the results did not match the boldness of the vision and Palace were relegated twice in those three years.
Then there was the period of transformation under Terry Venables who succeeded Allison in 1976 and the team began to rise back up from the Third Division. There was a sense of resurgence as football became enjoyable again and all this was underpinned and emphasised by the red and blue sash kit, which was instigated by Allison. The kit really needs no introduction as it is seared into so many people’s consciousness and not just Palace fans.
The strip is closely associated with the FA Cup run in 1975/76 that saw us knock out the likes of Chelsea, Sunderland and even the then mighty Leeds all on their own grounds. Peter Taylor, Alan Whittle and David Swindlehurst scored the goals but it was the kit that established the image of a modern, swashbuckling side who very briefly became The Team of the Eighties as they topped the Division One table for all of a week. In trying to analyse why this kit was so distinctive and ultimately popular I have discovered a few traits that do set it apart.
The use of the diagonal sash was unusual as far as domestic football was concerned although teams had used them way back in Victorian times, this was a modern version in the mould of the Peruvians who had their single red sash on display in the 1970s. For some reason very few people can resist the allure of a sash in the same way that men were traditionally fond of blondes. If hoops make the body look a little plumper then the diagonal sash made the team in some way look invincible, although it was just an illusion as the Team of the Eighties fizzled out in a puff of cigar smoke as Venables jumped ship to QPR and Allison returned briefly and without success.
The crux of the matter is the simplicity, after all beauty is often found in the simplest things. Fellow Palace fan Phil Morgan and graphic designer confirmed, in his professional view, that it is the very simplicity of the design which “is timeless and will always remain iconic. It’s almost as if the term ‘sexy football’ was invented with this strip in mind.” Indeed proof that this is one of those self-fulfilling prophecies emerged when Palace’s next kit in 1977 was an embellishment of the previous year but the extra red and blue piping on the shoulders and the shorts were just too much. It was never quite the same again, there was no need to add such fussy detail to a classic. It was akin to Da Vinci putting a few extra facial features on the Mona Lisa to make the painting more interesting– unnecessary and self-defeating. There is no point in gilding the lily. The sash kit reappeared a few times in subsequent years including the so-called ‘evil sash’ second kit that bore the diagonal red and blue against a black shirt but none of the later incarnations captured the iconic status of the original. Sometimes you just have to know when to stop tinkering, all football clubs should take note.
Richard is a football writer and author. His second book The Agony & The Ecstasy – A Comprehensive History of the Play-Offs, is currently available via the publishers at www.ockleybooks.co.uk in both hardback and eBook formats. His first book The A-Z of Football Hates is available through usual outlets such as Amazon, Waterstones, WH Smith etc.
Follow him on twitter @rcfoster