My One Season Obsession with Football Kits
Richard White on his early fascination with 'the shirt'
For some reason, and I’ve no idea why, I became obsessed for one season with the football kits worn by teams visiting Vicarage Road. I’ve never done this since, and I promise to never do it again.
But for that single, epoch-marking season of 1969/70 when Watford had the excitement of playing in the Football League Second Division for the very first time, I returned home as a young lad from each home game and dutifully drew the strip worn by the opposition team in a notebook – showing that round collars were the style of the day, and taking care to try and record each colour tone exactly as I remembered it, using the crayons at my disposal. Sadly, this was for outfield players only. The goalkeepers never got a look in – but they’re not proper footballers anyway, are they?
Including friendlies and cup games, this totalled 29 matches, including visits from Liverpool in both the League Cup and FA Cup. For the League Cup second round game, won 2-1 by Liverpool, the Scousers wore an all-white strip with red trim, whereas for the FA Cup quarter-final game a few months later, they reverted to their home strip of all-red with white trim. It didn’t bring them any luck, as Barry Endean & co powered the Hornets to a 1-0 victory.
By the standards of today, the kits worn by English League teams back then were generally mundane. Seven of the away teams visiting Vicarage Road that season wore a (let’s be honest) boring all-white change strip, with only two (Liverpool and Oxford United) lifting the tone slightly with a coloured trim on collars and cuffs (blue for Oxford), which saved me a lot of colouring effort I suppose. The prevalence of allwhite away kits was possibly in homage to the similarly clad Leeds United, who were arguably the foremost English team of the age.
Most of the kits, apart perhaps from Blackburn’s blue and white halved shirts, QPR’s blue and white hooped shirts, and Aston Villa’s striking red and blue away kit ensemble, could have been obtained from any manufacturer’s standard catalogue, with club badges then sewn on. The advent of shirts being allowed to feature sponsors’ names was still over a decade away. Twelve teams wore plain blue or red shirts, sometimes with a white trim on cuffs and collar. Only three teams featured kits containing more than one colour other than white. They were Villa, Sheffield United (striped red and white shirt, black shorts, white socks) and Portsmouth, who included a snazzy red, white and blue trim on their blue shirts, shorts and socks. Blackpool provided a touch of winter sunshine with their white shirts and dashing tangerine shorts, with white socks featuring two tangerine hoops.
A couple of the more interesting visitor strips came in friendly games. Bohemians of Czechoslovakia arrived for a preseason match (the first of three friendly games with Watford over two years), as a result of Watford having hosted an official Czech football delegation a few months earlier. Hailing from Prague (and now called Bohemians Praha 1905), they were weirdly nicknamed the Kangaroos, the consequence of a lengthy tour of Austra undertaken in 1927. They paraded in a non-matching green strip, possibly unique in the world of football. The striped shirts, shorts and socks were each of very different shades of green, and I took care to reflect this in my notebook. In truth they were probably all meant to be the same colour, but were likely to be the result of mixed strips of different vintages, with new kit possibly being more difficult to come by in communist Czechoslovakia.
A December friendly against Gornik Zabrze brought another welcome splash of colour, with the visitors flamboyantly clad in purple shirts, white shorts and purple socks topped with a chequered purple and white band. This leading Polish team had proved tough opponents for Manchester United in a European Cup quarter-final tie 20 months earlier, with the Reds squeezing through 2-1 on aggregate on their way to lifting the European Cup in 1968. Gornik had also just knocked Glasgow Rangers out of the European Cup Winners Cup 6-2 on aggregate, shortly before visiting Watford. The game at the Vic resulted in a 0-0 draw in front of over eight thousand supporters, a creditable achievement for the Hornets. Mid-season ‘prestige’ evening friendlies against foreign or Scottish opposition were very popular in the 1950s after floodlights were first installed at Vicarage Road, but by the time of the Gornik match they were a much less common occurrence.
It is strange how English kits had become so relatively workaday by the late 1960s, particularly as the Victorians had no end of fun designing kits with garish colour combinations including pink, chocolate brown and even white shirts with red spots (at Bolton!) Watford themselves played in shirts of red, yellow and green hoops with black shorts between 1901 and 1909. When Scotland demolished England 6-1 in an international match at Kennington Oval in 1881, they wore primrose yellow and pink hooped shirts representing the horse racing colours of the Earl of Rosebery, honorary president of the Scottish FA, and they wore them on at least eight further occasions up to 1951.
Whilst the old curmudgeon in me now resents the way that football clubs change their kits each year, purely for the purpose of selling more replica shirts to a gullible public, I do have to concede that modern kits and printing technologies can add a welcome dash of spice and colour to proceedings. And even goalkeepers were allowed their psychedelic kit phase around the 1990s – but please, let’s not go there again.