Over the last 95 years, Umbro has forged a connection with football culture like no other brand. Synonymous with the best players, the greatest teams and the most iconic moments, the Manchester-founded company has stayed true to its ethos, to “bring a tailoring touch to sportswear to stylishly serve the practical needs of the modern, competitive athlete”. Marking their diamond anniversary, Umbro are celebrating in style.
After unveiling a 10-metre-high mural in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, made up of tweets from Mancunians explaining what football means to them, Umbro teamed up with MUNDIAL Magazine and Classic Football Shirts to host a week-long exhibition of their 95 best shirts. A project showcasing the brand’s influence on the beautiful game, it sounded right up our street at The Culture Division, so we headed down on opening night to check it out.
Arranged in a clockwise circuit, the shirts, ranging from the heavy cotton of the 50s to the slim polyester designs of the present day, via the unique patterns of the 90s, created a walk-through timeline of the history of Umbro. To understand the significance of the Double Diamond is to understand the brand’s history and indeed the evolution of kit design, so information cards were provided to compliment the exhibits.
Umbro began life in the early 1920s, run out of a room above their Mother’s pub in Mobberley by brothers Harold and Wallace Humphreys. Their big break came when they produced the kits for Manchester City (twice), Everton and Portsmouth for the 1933 and 1934 FA Cup finals, and soon they were pioneering the industry of replica kits for fans. Connecting fans with their footballing heroes like never before, Umbro produced the ‘Umbro Soccer set’, a junior version of its football kits that arrived in an illustrated presentation box.
The sixties saw Umbro partner with Celtic’s Lisbon Lions and Sir Matt Busby’s all conquering United side, before they secured the rights to produce the kits for 15 of the 16 teams competing at the 1966 World Cup. The USSR was the one that got away, but the sight of Bobby Moore lifting the Jules Rimet Trophy in that famous red Umbro shirt more than made up for it.
The 1970 World Cup in Mexico saw the company embrace new technology, producing their ‘Aztec’ kits with Aertex material to combat the sweltering Central American heat. England’s 1-0 defeat to Brazil produced one of the game’s most iconic images, Bobby Moore swapping shirts with Pele at fulltime. Both were wearing Umbro kits.
At the end of the 70s regulations on sponsorship and jersey design were relaxed, affording Umbro endless possibilities to explore football culture and push kit design into a golden age. It was these shirts that formed the bulk of the exhibition, and my word were some of them stunning. Here are the best of the best.
Wolverhampton Wanderers 1975-77, Home
Umbro’s first foray into bold design came with the ‘taping’ of shirts, a repeating pattern of the double diamond logo running along the shirtsleeves and shorts. This Wolves home shirt is one of the earliest, and best, examples. The Wanderers had a mixed two seasons wearing this shirt, suffering relegation from the first division in 1975/76 before winning the second division at the first attempt, but the shirt is undoubtedly a belter. With black taping, a full black collar and cuffs standing out boldly against a vibrant orange body, three wolves sit proudly at the centre of the chest, flanked on either side by an old style Umbro logo and the initials WW. Magnificent.
AFC Ajax 1989-90, Away
An outlandish design for late 80s football, this shirt is just mad. Yes, it may be a bit headachy, and yes it may look like they’ve changed designer halfway through, but the beauty really is in the madness. Starting at the top of the shirt, understated navy-blue pinstripes suddenly descend into a whirlwind of red and white geometric shapes. The two patterns seem totally at odds with each other, but at the same time they fit together seamlessly. Complete with a classy grandad collar and the simple ‘TDK’ sponsor, the strip perfectly encapsulates the essence of that young Ajax team. Teenage prodigies Dennis Bergkamp and the De Boer brothers balanced flair, skill and excitement with grit, composure and finesse, a balancing act which propelled them to the pinnacle of the game. Ajax would win their 23rd Eredivisie title wearing the shirt, a precursor to their 90s golden age which brought both UEFA Cup and Champions League triumphs.
England World Cup 1990, Home and Third
Italia 90. Gascoigne dazzled in the Italian sunshine, England fell in love only to end up heartbroken and ‘World in Motion’ filled the airwaves. And all of it was done in perhaps England’s most iconic kit. The home shirt features the famous taping on the sleeves, shorts and stylish single button collar, while an abstract double diamond graphic graces the fabric of the jersey. The Three Lions badge sits on the left breast, with special detailing of the relevant fixture stitched below it. A superbly detailed anthem track jacket completed the look, featuring of course taping and diamond patterns.
The third kit, while never used at the tournament, passed into football shirt folklore thanks to its use in the video for New Order’s World in Motion. With the same collar and taping as the home shirt, the shirt’s crystal blue colour and bold diamond pattern is effortlessly cool, making it an instant classic. It’s probably the best football shirt to only ever be worn once (vs Turkey in 1991).
SS Lazio 1992-93, Home
Quite simply, this shirt is Football Italia. Worn by Paul Gascoigne during his spell at Lazio, the shirt is remembered fondly by those, including Mundial Content Editor Sam Diss, who grew up watching Channel 4’s Gazzetta Football Italia, the cult football magazine show that inspired a generation’s love of European football.
“God, it’s gorgeous!”, Sam tells me. “The badge, the sponsor, the collar, the 3D "LAZIO" typeface and snowflakes peppering the design throughout the shirt... it has the lot”.
“Little Gazza, all sunburnt and blonde, in white shorts with this resplendent ice-blue shirt and dribbling in circles … it opened up a whole new world of football for fans”.
They may not have many Scudettos to their name, but I Biancocelesti may just come out on top in the shirt stakes. It’s not a bad consolation.
Manchester United 1992-94, Away
One of Umbro’s crowning achievements is their success in marrying tradition and class with innovative and daring design. And as Classic Football Shirts owner Doug Bierton tells me, Manchester United were the main benefactors of this.
“Umbro were so innovative in the 90s. From a United point of view, we went from a laced-neck shirt to a shirt with a stadium printed in the background to one with a big oversized collar and ‘Theatre of Dreams’ embroidered on it. And the next thing you know, there’s a zip-up collar!”
Umbro certainly didn’t play it safe. To celebrate United’s Newton Heath roots, they successfully navigated the design minefield of pairing green and gold, in a half and half design, with a lace up collar.
“The first Umbro shirt I ever owned was the Newton Heath shirt”, Doug recalls.
“I had the full kit with ‘Giggs 11’ on the back. I’d wear it to football practice and I even won a sports day three-legged-race wearing it!”.
With 95 brilliant shirts on display, it was nigh on impossible to whittle them down to the best five. But that’s the beautiful thing; this top five will likely be different to anyone else’s, and that difference of opinion is why we all love football. But one thing is for certain. Without Umbro’s innovation and willingness to push the boundaries, football shirts would not be the pillar of football culture that they are today.