When it comes to winners and losers in the beautiful game, forget the trophies, the players, the managers, we all know the real competition is in the shirts. And this is a competition all fans get a say in. Let’s be honest, there’s nothing better than your team rocking an absolute beauty – even if the football on the pitch doesn’t match – and even more so if your rivals are sporting an absolute stinker. Undoubtedly, throughout the course of footballing history, there have, without question, been the good, the bad and the very, very ugly. Although, in truth, most football shirts are neither universally revered or hated – there will be some fans who think the bruised banana is the epitome of cool and others who think shirts couldn’t get much worse. But the thing about football shirts is that they will always cause discussion and debate, and Neal Heard’s, The Football Shirt Book adds brilliantly to that dialogue.
As a football shirt collector and a rather talented designer (his Newport County 2019/20 design deserves a place in this book), Heard is well placed to curate this collection and he selects some 150 iconic shirts that every collector should have or want. His focus is largely on the older shirts after 1966 which have had more time to reach iconic status, but there is a range of clubs and countries represented, with Stockport County lining up alongside Tibet, and Greenbank Under-10s, sitting side by side with Margate FC. With literally thousands of shirts to choose from, I don’t envy Heard the monumental task of whittling the shirts down to a book-sized selection, and inevitably there will be those shirts that fans will find missing. After all, whilst there is a degree of consensus in terms of collectables, judging a football shirt is subjective. The iconic label does help to some degree – who in their right mind could ever exclude England’s 1966 World Cup winning number or Brazil’s 1970 offering, but fans will certainly have their own opinions on which shirts should and shouldn’t make the cut.
The selection of shirts is split into different sections, including those that mix pop culture and football, those that have iconic branding and those that are chosen purely for their beauty. For me, the majority of these sections worked, but it was a shame that, perhaps because of sheer dearth, the politically minded section was a little lighter on offerings – not because I have any political interest, but the stories and aesthetics of these shirts were particularly interesting. Part of me did feel that it would have been nice to have shirt categories visually as well, i.e. hoops, stripes, colourways, and additionally perhaps dedicated pages for particular teams/nations known for iconic strips, but this is just personal preference. Again, purely subjectively, I wasn’t always sure on how or if shirts were ordered in a particular way and felt that a chronological order may have been useful in some instances.
The styling and design within the book are both great and each shirt is given substantial space with only minimal text to introduce it and offer some interesting titbits. For fans who are purely interested in the aesthetics of the shirt therefore, the shirts are clear and well-presented. Indeed, the whole book, in keeping with the sartorial focus of the subject matter, is extremely stylish, including page layout and colour, which really add to the quality of the book. In addition to the shirts themselves, there are some brilliant features which supplement the main sections, including ‘favourite five’ selections from various contributors, as well as interviews with a designer and collector, and I would have welcomed even more of these. I did think the ‘favourite five’ features could have been slightly better displayed with accompanying shirts, especially those not given much focus in the main body of the book, but the feature itself is a really fun one and one that fans can engage with and debate.
Indeed, one of the great strengths of this book is how accessible and interactive it is, so much so that you don’t even have to read the text if you don’t want to, to be able to enjoy this book – you could literally just look at the shirts. Although the book is pitched as a connoisseur’s guide, and shirt enthusiasts will probably have greater familiarity with most of the shirts featured, to me the book works regardless of your knowledge. In fact, for someone unfamiliar with a lot of the shirts, I think the book works just as well, if not better, allowing them to discover shirts for the first time. As something of a novice myself, whilst I have to admit that I disliked more shirts than I liked and therefore fail miserably in the connoisseur stakes, there were a handful of shirts I fell in love with that I wouldn’t have known about if I hadn’t read the book, and I imagine most fans will find the book worthwhile in introducing them to at least one hidden gem.
A few points where I thought the book could have been improved included having more shirts from the lesser nations, leagues, and teams, but obviously these are not necessarily iconic in a wider context. Goalkeeper shirts, on which designers tend to let loose even more, are lacking – admittedly fewer football fans hanker after a No:1 shirt, but there have been a few iconic ones historically, albeit perhaps for the wrong reasons, including that England 1996 away monstrosity. However, as I said earlier, it’s clearly an unenviable task trying to whittle down the thousands of shirts on offer, and whether your favourite team is featured or not, whether your favourite shirt makes an appearance or is conspicuous by its absence, whether you love the choices or hate them, this book is a great starting point for anyone interested in the world of football shirts and wanting to not only learn about some of the most iconic jerseys in history but also sharpen up the sense of their own preferences.
So whether you’re a shirt collector or just a casual observer, a season ticket holder or an armchair fan, an England supporter or an Estonia supporter, a Premier League follower or a Primeira Liga follower, this book will certainly be of interest and will get readers responding, be it in agreement or disagreement with the shirts on offer.
(Ebury Press. September 2017. Hardcover 144pp)