Book Review – Get Shirty: The Rise & Fall of Admiral Sportswear by Andy Wells
Watching the recent 2022 World Cup there were a couple of things in terms of the fans attending that stood out. Firstly, irrespective of the country, and whether a child or an adult the vast majority were wearing replica shirts creating swathes of colour in the stands. Secondly, despite The FA having signed with Nike in 2012 to produce the England kits, many fans favoured the wearing of retro shirts from before that period. Prominent amongst them were the Three Lions home and away shirts released in 1980 and 1982 respectively, synonymous with the European Championship Finals in Italy and the World Cup in Spain. The design with the distinctive coloured bands across the shoulders was derided by many leading names in the game at the time, but yet over 40 years later are much loved by fans. The original maker of these now classic tops? A Leicester firm called Admiral.
Get Shirty: The Rise & Fall of Admiral Sportswear by Andy Wells tells the story of how the company “helped pioneer today’s multi-billion pound sportswear industry” and “invented the replica football strip and revolutionised the worlds of football finance and street fashion alike.” Wells was the director of the ITV film Get Shirty, and the documentary is the basis for this book, with unused material and interviews seeing the light of day through the pages of the story which is totally open in detailing the meteoric rise and calamitous crash of the company.
Wells uses a traditional timeline within the book to chart the history of Admiral’s predecessor company Cook & Hurst founded in 1908, through to its demise in the 1980s. Cook & Hurst essentially were known as a manufacturer of underwear for the armed forces, but under the ownership of Bert Patrick and Managing Director, John Griffin, wanted to expand the business into sportswear and so began a 1970s revolution that changed the football landscape both on and off the pitch.
Before Admiral came along, replica shirts were only made for children and were essentially generic. So for instance a red shirt with a white colour and cuff could have been a Barnsley, Manchester United or Liverpool top. These were without club badges and manufacturers logos and shirt sponsors were nowhere to be seen. Indeed it wasn’t until 1987 until all clubs had some form of shirt sponsorship.
Admiral’s big break came with what is described in the book as a chance meeting with then Leeds United manager Don Revie in 1973 at Elland Road. Revie was considered a tactical innovator and his vision extended to other areas of club business. He negotiated with Admiral a deal which saw them pay the West Yorkshire side to design kits and tracksuits with Admiral also producing replica kits for the children’s market. The Revie link was to prove invaluable when in 1974 he became England manager with Admiral picking up the contract to provide the Three Lions kit, which they continued to do up until 1984.
The book details how with their vibrant designs and new materials, including the use of the distinctive Admiral logo at every opportunity on shirts, shorts, socks, tracksuits etc. they came to sign up vast numbers of clubs and challenged the bigger more established brands such as Adidas, Bukta and Umbro. It helped too that certain managers were getting a ‘fee’ to ensure that Admiral was the choice of the club and indeed when players realised that some of this money could be channelled their way, they too would put pressure on the club hierarchy to take on the new kids on the block. During the rise it is evident that the Admiral set-up had a real community and family feel to it. Many of the workers interviewed in the book, detailed that those times were the best of their working lives.
However, the reality was that Admiral were punching above their weight, and once the other major firms realised that the replica market was a viable and lucrative business, the writing was on the wall. But it wasn’t just that Admiral were outmuscled by the big boys, Wells is frank in explaining how expansion plans that failed and other poor management decisions also contributed to their demise. Additionally, the situation wasn’t helped as goods could be manufactured abroad far more cheaply in a period which saw the decline of the clothing industry within the country.
Whilst the brand has survived through various licence sales since, those heady days of Admiral’s domination are long gone, but it should never be forgotten that they changed the landscape in terms of kit designs and the replica market we have today.
This is another excellent well researched, engaging and wonderfully illustrated addition to the Conker Editions stable, which once again understands and conveys the importance of history and nostalgia in telling the story of the game today.
(Publisher: Conker Editions Ltd. September 2022. Paperback: 200 pages)
Buy the book here: Get Shirty