Book Review – The Arsenal Shirt: The Official History of the Iconic Gunners Jersey by James Elkin and Simon Shakeshaft
This is the second edition of this ‘coffee table book’ with the original edition released in November 2014 and titled The Arsenal Shirt: The History of the Iconic Gunners Jersey Told Through an Extraordinary Collection of Match Worn Shirts. As with then, the authors are James Elkin and Simon Shakeshaft, with much of the collection referenced in the first book seen and added to in this second edition, belonging to co-author James Elkin.
That first edition proved to be popular with both the book-buying public and the book industry itself, as it was nominated for ‘Best Illustrated book’ at the 2015 British Sports Book Awards. It is not hard to see why the first edition was nominated back then as in the 2020 update, the glorious glossy pages continue to be a feast for the eyes.
That first edition was 256 pages, and this second edition sees the book grow to 368 pages as it brings the home and away kits of the Gunners right up to date including those worn during the COVID impacted conclusion of the 2019/20 Premier League campaign, the delayed 2019/20 FA Cup Final and the start of the ‘Behind Closed Doors’ 2020/21 season. Through its pages it traces and brings to life the history of the club, with the first shirt illustrated being that worn in the 1927 FA Cup Final by Bob John. There then follows examples of the Gunners match worn shirts through the ages as league titles, domestic cups and European trophies have been won and lost. Beyond the story of the Gunners, the timeline provides readers with a visual guide to the changes to the playing jersey as football has become influenced and changed by new methods of manufacturing, as well as the commercialisation and globalisation of the modern game.
Initially clubs rarely changed the designs of their shirt and this is reflected in the book by the fact that the period from 1927 to 1965 (38 years) is covered by just 26 pages. The biggest period of change began in late 1970s when the replica kits market was kickstarted by the, at the time, revolutionary manufacturer Admiral. Suddenly shirts were open to different design interpretations, with them becoming adorned by the makers logo and by 1987 clubs were all wearing sponsorship on their shirts – plain shirts with just a club badge, now confined to the history pages. The changes didn’t stop there though, as players names and squad numbers became the norm and then sleeve patches denoting the competition came to be standard on shirt sleeves. As 2020 has shown, the shirt has also become a vehicle for spreading awareness and supporting causes, as ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Thank You NHS’ logos were added to shirts when the Premier League restarted to complete the 2019/20 season.
Whilst this book is very much visually based, the supporting text for each shirt is informative and there are a number of interesting chapters that detail some Arsenal specific topics, such as the introduction of the iconic white sleeve to the shirt, how down the years the Captain choose whether the sides played in long or short sleeved shirts and a tribute to those people who have served as the Club Kit Man. In addition, the reader can learn why competitions such as the Premier League, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League all have different fonts for player names and numbers, and images of these are painstakingly recorded in the book. It is without doubt a wonderful piece of research in detailing the minor variations and rarities of Arsenal shirts, with for instance examples of jerseys worn on overseas tours, resplendent with players name and sponsors in different languages, which even the most ardent Gunners fan might not have been aware of until this book.
The game fans witness today may be as far removed from what the Victorians watched as you can get, but whatever happens to football in the future it is hoped that a team’s colours will always remain sacrosanct. This book shows how the shirt is a vital part of a club’s identity.
(Vision Sports Publishing. October 2020 [2nd edition]. Hardback 368 pages)