From £15,000 to £15m in 40 years: the man who taught the FA and Nike how to make money from England football shirts

Elland Road in the Seventies, home of the infamous Dirty Leeds team of David Peace’s The Damned United, is regarded by most football fans as a dour, bleak and violent ground. A “Hateful, hateful, hateful place; spiteful, spiteful, spiteful place,” as Peace’s version of Brian Clough says at the beginning of Peace’s novel. The spit-and-spite notoriety was partly deserved, but it obscures a different story, about the beginnings of football’s Big Money, the nature of football supporters, and some very weird-looking football kits. In the era of Keegan and Bremner, of glam rock and punk and the three-day week, this story led from Elland to a small textiles factory in Leicester, to the England football team and the USA, and back to denunciations using biblical language in the House of Commons. It is the story of how the modern, multi-billion-pound industry of branded football apparel was pioneered by a small British firm that started out making underwear. It really did, in that overused phrase, change British football forever. And it began with a three-inch badge, and a football manager’s niggling need to feel liked.

By the start of the Seventies Don Revie, the Leeds United manager had a problem. His team dominated English football, and were arguably the best club side in Europe, but the press and the sport’s establishment thought the manager and players were cynical and overly-physical on the pitch, and disliked them. Even worse, the people of Leeds weren’t all that keen either; Leeds was a rugby league city rather than a footballing one, and even as league champions United could only fill the ground when the bigger clubs visited. Revie was a big, bluff, gruff Yorkshireman, and like all bluff, gruff Yorkshiremen he was oversensitive to criticism and convinced he wasn’t earning enough respect, popularity and money. To improve the situation, he employed a maverick artist called Paul Trevilion, illustrator of Shoot! Magazine’s now-classic You Are The Ref comic strip, and ideas man for showbiz acts such as Leo Sayer, Norman Wisdom and Tommy Cooper.

Trevilion had worked for the legendary American sports agent Mark McCormack, and been inspired by the razzamatazz of baseball, basketball and American football matches. “In England, no one was selling the game, selling the entertainment value,” he says. “I realized it would help the clubs to do that, and to have more affinity with the fans, because then it didn’t matter as much if you won or lost.” To establish affinity with the Leeds crowd, he introduced choreographed players warm-ups based on Busby Berkeley routines (yes, seriously), players names on the back of tracksuit tops, and, famously in West Yorkshire, tags that hung from sock ties, showing the players shirt number; at the end of games, each player was supposed to untie this tags, and toss them into the crowd where boys would scrap for them. It was like the industrial North’s answer to the Harlem Globetrotters, but it seemed to be work – which made it inevitable that attention would turn to the kit. Trevilion wanted red crosses on the shirts “so they’d look like Crusader knights going into battle”, but Revie didn’t want to compromise the all-white strip he had introduced in 1961 in homage to Real Madrid. He needed another idea, and was looking for it when he met the boss of a small textiles company based in Wigston, Leicester.

 

In those days, football kits were mostly plain, perhaps with contrasting collars and cuffs, or unspectacularly striped, hooped, halved or contrast-sleeved. Clubs rarely changed the design, and wore a different strip only if there was a colour clash with the opponents. The Cheshire firm Umbro had the market virtually to itself (at the 1966 world cup, Umbro had supplied 15 of the 16 finalists), though very rarely added its logo to the shirt. Clubs and countries purchased blank kit from a retailer at the start of the season, and stitched on the badge and numbers themselves; one of the heavy, absorbent cotton shirts, one pair of cotton shorts and saggy socks was expected to last a player all season.

Paul Trevilion had worked for Umbro before going to Leeds, and had introduced the idea of selling boxed, boys’-size kits through sports shops, but neither the kits nor their packaging were endorsed by the club. your dad would ask for, say, “Liverpool” and get the all-red one, but that was it; no badge, no royalty to Anfield, no need for an Umbro badge on the official Liverpool kit. It is these early strips that the Brian Glover and lads are wearing in the famous football scene in Kes, though where Glover got his Manchester United top is anyone’s guess because, incredible as it seems now, no one had thought of retailing adult sizes either; the only men you saw in football shirts in those days, Trevilion says, were those short enough to buy the largest boys’ size.

The gap in the market had been spotted by an ex-local newspaper and radio journalist in Leicester. In his late thirties, extrovert and sporting floppy blond hair and cream suits, Bert Patrick was an innovative, entrepreneurial sort who had just set up Britain’s first local radio station for the BBC. With family connections to the hosiery industry (his wife was from a manufacturing family in nearby Hinckley) he had joined Cook and Hurst, a Wigston company formed in 1914 to make underwear for the World War One troops. Quickly rising to chairman, he diversified the underwear business to manufacture sports kit for other manufacturers, and then, in 1972 he created the company’s own sportswear brand, calling it Admiral after Cook and Hurst’s original trademark for their long johns and pants, which used a line drawing of a doughty British naval officer). According to Tim Gardiner, the current owner and Managing Director of Admiral, “According to Tim Gardiner, a current Director of Admiral “Bert was a force of nature, very popular and a very good networker. He could convince people of his vision of the future, and he was also very innovative in this thinking, and Admiral was a pioneer in football kit designs – maybe because Bert came from outside the industry in the first place.”

Bert had a particular vision of the future for football kits, formed in the years following England’s world cup win in 1966. Helped along by television, he thought, the sport would boom in popularity among boys. And colour television (Match of the Day began broadcasting in colour in 1969) would make armchair spectators aware of kit colours beyond black white and grey. Clubs would be able to use colours more inventively, kids would want those inventive kits, and dads would buy them. The problem was, anyone could make a red top and sell it to dads in Liverpool, or a white one for Leeds. How did you become different, or even better, become the only supplier? He worked out a solution, but then needed that rare thing; a club that was big and successful enough to sell thousands of shirts, but also hungry for new ideas. A club like Leeds United.

Bert went to talk to Don Revie – back then, managers often did the kit deals – and, getting on well together, they struck a radically new kind of deal. Admiral would redesign the strip, and copyright it so only they had the legal right to supply retailers. The strip would carry an Admiral badge, based on the stripes on an Admiral’s sleeve, so that kids knew their kit was real Leeds. They would also redesign and copyright the tracksuit and change kit, and Leeds would wear it to most away games, thus establishing two official kits. And a few years down the line, they would redesign both, creating a new market out of nothing. For this five year deal, Admiral would pay Leeds United £10,000, or a ten per cent royalty on each kit sold, whichever sum was greater. In 2013, the equivalent figure would be approximately £95,000; the scale of what Bert and Revie had started can be illustrated by a comparison with Liverpool’s January 2012 deal with the US brand Warrior. Over six years, the club’s revenue from the contact will be in the region of £150m.

 

The new arrangement, and the tracksuit with its arm hoops, the away kit with its stripes, did little to dispel the haters idea that Leeds United were a bit cynical and Don Revie was fond of brass. Luton Town did an Admiral deal too, swapping their traditional black and white for orange and blue with a single stripe. Some in the football establishment tutted and carped, but the kids, however, loved the kits, and for several years the shirts and tracksuit tops became coveted birthday presents. At other clubs, managers noticed that in a struggling economy wrecked by inflation, strikes and oil crisis, £10,000 was a useful sum, and some began to get in touch.

In July 1974, the Football Association sacked Alf Ramsey as  England manager after he failed to qualify for the World Cup, and appointed Don Revie in his place. To revitalize the national team, Revie deployed Trevilion-esque ideas, supported by a new, entrepreneurial FA General Secretary called Ted Croker. The mass singing of Land of Hope and Glory before games was introduced. The players’ wages were increased.  And the England kit, with its plain white shirt and navy shorts, was put out to tender.

Dunlop and Adidas, then an established footwear company who had recently begun making apparel, were among the bidders, but the winner was Admiral, who had offered more or less the same terms they had agreed with Leeds United, but with a fee of £15,000 over five years. When the England team ran out for the first match under Revie, a European Championship qualifier against Czechoslovakia in the autumn of 1974, the players kit and tracksuits carried a manufacturers badge and, for the first time ever, the shirt was not pure white with the three lions crest. The adornment might have been limited to stripes down the sleeves and a contrast collar, but the old guard was appalled. “We cannot approve,” wrote  Danny Blanchflower in the Sunday Express, “of a manufacturers name emblazoned across the England strip. If the FA took £200,000 at the gate, surely they can buy a strip of their own. [I] have a vision of some future occasion with the Queen shaking hands with a team of manufacturers of the England strip instead of the players.” “Hideous! said Jimmy Greaves, veteran of the 1966 world-cup winning squad. “It is a break with tradition, and they look as if they’re playing in pyjamas. I hate it.” “In the past, said the now-defunct Football News magazine, “a young kid could have pulled any old white shirt over his head and pretended he was in the England strip, now youngsters of a similar mind would need to pay through the nose to obtain the new strip.”

Most of the players, meanwhile, rather liked it. Norman Hunter, who had played in the kit at Leeds under Revie, says they were “not really aware of the controversy, or of Revie trying to change things, though some of them didn’t like change. But the [polyester cotton] material was new, and that was welcomed because it meant the shirts didn’t get heavy with sweat or rain like the old cotton ones did.”

It is measure of the furore that in his autobiography published twelve years later, Ted Croker still felt obliged to offer a three-page defence of the deal (by comparison, the sacking of Ramsey, the only England manager to win a World Cup, merited six). He pointed out that the England team was under-earning, and from the vantage point of 2012, it is hard to disagree. In 1973, England earned £24,000 (£226,000 in todays’ money) in commercial enterprises and royalties, and £80,000 (£755,000) in broadcast rights. Bert Patrick’s Admiral deal was the beginning of a change that, forty years later, would see commercial enterprises making a reported £27m, and broadcast rights worth £575m.

Sales of replica kit exceeded all expectation, and after the England deal, Bert signed up with club after club. By 1975 he had struck deals with, among others, Manchester United and several clubs in the North American Soccer League, then attracting high-profile stars such as Pele, Beckenbauer and Best. According to Dennis Tueart, an Umbro-wearing Manchester City player who wore Admiral for England, and now works with the company, most younger players approved of the new shirts. “Footballers are young men, they’re conscious of fashion, and they like looking good,” he says. “Remember, this was an era when George Best was still playing, he had been the first football fashion icon, and players had noticed what he’d achieved through his style. And the Admiral shirts were designed with athletes in mind – better material and they fitted better, and there was more variety in the sizing. The old ones were a bit one-size-fits all. We thought we looked and felt better in them, and the better you feel, the better you play.”

This is disputed (“rubbish, frankly!”) by Norman Hunter, but Bert agreed. “Remember,” he told one reporter, “these are the days when many consider themselves veritable Beau Brummels off the field, and they dress up in all the mod gear and fashions. Many of them want to look the part at play also.” League players began to contact him to ask him to get the clubs into Admiral. “Some of the present [Spurs] players have actually asked me to do what you can to get the club into a new strip,” he said. “ Change the image and breathe new life into them.”

Noting Admiral’s success with its branding and redesigned-and-copyrighted kits, other manufacturers such as Umbro and Bukta adopted similar techniques, and at the same time Adidas were entering the British market with its own similar branding models. The establishment looked on in dismay and disgust; on the February 4 1977, Roy Hughes, Labour MP for Newport in Wales and Chairman of the All-Party Sports Group, stood up in the House of Commons to began a debate he had sought about the profit margins on sports equipment. He specifically denounced “Mr Bert Patrick” and his firm’s abuse of the copyright law, “which was intended for such items as jewellery and motor car accessories.”

“The wife of a prominent citizen in my constituency of Newport phoned me to say that the shirt, shorts and socks for her 10-year old son with this Admiral emblem, and so on, cost no less than £9. Quite naturally, parents are disgusted with this practice, (£51),” he railed. This company is able to exploit the market in trendy children’s football gear. The price of its products is excessive. It is about double that of similar products without the emblem. It is as if the biblical incantation “suffer little children” had been taken literally.”

Perhaps Hughes had a point. Once the England shirt had belonged to everyone, and now it belonged to those who could afford to buy it. On the other hand, he was also resisting a basic law of economics, ie most fathers would secretly like their son to be professional footballers, and will spend loads of money to make him look like one. Anyway, far from being curbed, Admiral now led the other brands on into English football kit design’s baroque period. Realising that the more experimental and striking the kits were, the more they were noticed and commented upon, and simply taken with the decade’s modernizing spirit, Bert and his design team persuaded clubs to accept unprecedented stripes, tramlines, flashes, yokes and collar-and-cuff details on their traditional strips. The high (or low, depending on your point of view) point came in 1978, with an infamous Coventry City away strip in chocolate brown with curving white-and-blue stripes down the front. It has featured in worst-kit-ever lists ever since, though of course in the way of these things it also has cult status among Coventry supporters. The press comment at the time, said Bert, was simply “all good publicity for our marketing and sales.”

Presumably inspired by Admiral, other manufacturers got with the spirit. For four years in the mid-70s, York City had a huge Y on the front of their shirt, as if someone worried the players might get lost and need identification. Leicester City had strange rings, inset with Admiral logos, at the shoulder, as the players had got quoits stuck on their arm. West Ham’s home shirts resembled an upside down Citroen radiator grill. If these kits don’t look all that odd now, it is a measure of how much they changed things; in 1976, for some people, they looked like how Marc Bolan had sounded, and for the exploited young football fan, it was a golden time, not to be repeated until the jacquard madness of the early 1990s. There was a spate of books cataloguing football strips, new ranges of Subbuteo teams to collect, and new kits to be imagined for your own club. Tim Gardiner  recalls loving the new kits so much that, growing up in Cheshire, he spent hours in his bedroom designing his own. “It made me want to work in the industry, and that’s what I did.  I’m aware that it will sound mad to some people, but that’s the effect those kits, and the way they showed how you could be creative within set limits, had on some people. Strange, but there it is.”

As John Devlin, editor of the truecoloursfootballkits.com site, points out, Admiral’s influence on design was unusual in that it came about through commerce rather than new tools. “Technology often creates design trends in sportswear and clothing generally,” he notes, “but in this case it was a commercial idea that was the catalyst. Admiral’s impact on the world of football kits was massive – Bert  Patrick’s business model created an entire industry.”

 

It seems almost inevitable that a mercurial, creative figure like Bert Patrick should, having created an entire industry, run aground for principled reasons. As the Seventies drew Admiral faced greater competition from other brands, including the powerful Adidas, but it also won more new business, moving into other sports like cricket and hockey, and expanding into other factories around Leicester to manage the capacity. But factories in places like Leicester were now being drastically undercut by factories in places like Hong Kong, and companies who manufactured in Asia were squeezing those who didn’t. Colin Hyde, the Head of the East Midlands Oral History Archive, who is currently researching into the  company’s history, says the Admiral story is in many ways typical of the Leicester, where small textile companies with a good idea could once flourish. The problems of being undercut by foreign manufacturers was common to the Leicester textile and clothing industries by the early 1980s, but Bert wouldn’t give up on what were now four Leicester factories and staff. The company fell into financial trouble, Umbro won the England contract back from them, and in 1982 it was sold to Frisol, a Dutch oil company; the BBC made a documentary about the company, using it as an example of the problems facing British industry.

Frisol employed Bert to do Admiral’s international marketing for a while, but he soon struck out on his own again, with a new leisurewear company selling corporate merchandise to the public sector. He campaigned to have football stadia improved many years before Hillsborough, and worked on an early London Olympic bid, before forming an artificial sports pitch company. Now retired, he still lives in Leicestershire where he is writing a book about Admiral and football in the 1970s.

The brand changed hands again in the 1990s, but never recaptured its glory days, though there were moments; Madchester veterans may recall it took the interesting decision to sponsor The Happy Mondays in the late 1990s, and the England cricket team wear wearing Admiral whites when they finally beat the Australians in the test series of 2005. In 2011 a new company, with Gardiner, a former executive at Umbro and JD Sports, a director, acquired the rights to the Admiral brand for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and lovingly set about restoring it to its former exalted status. They now have a casualwear line, Admiral Gold, and ambitions of signing kit deals with British clubs, and of manufacturing limited runs in England. They already have deals with some of Admiral’s former NASL clubs, including the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Minnesota Stars, and are reissuing retro replicas for British clubs including Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester City, QPR, Coventry City, Dundee and Motherwell – many of these, of course, selling to people who first wore them as kids in the 1970s.

 

Would it be possible to do a Bert Patrick in England 2013? Not unless you were a sheik or Russian oligarch to begin with, no. For one thing the deals were just done differently; it is hard to imagine Manchester United’s kit deal being done in a meeting between Alex Ferguson and Nike’s CEO. Adidas and Nike changed the game in the Noughties by leveraging the exposure from a big club against sales of all their apparel all over the world; one reason you’ll hear footballers referred to as athletes more often these days is that big sportswear brands want to leverage them across all their sports ranges in all countries. And because they sell all over the world, they can offer sums that other brands cannot compete with. Interested parties are now looking to see if Warrior’s parent company New Balance  can leverage their investment in Liverpool – the world’s fourth most popular shirt after Barca, Man U, and Real Madrid.

Current players mostly take the Norman Hunter view on what they are asked to wear, but they do occasionally take exception. Certain kits and fabrics become notorious for clinging to the skin; one ex-player told me, off the record, that while they know the frequency of the kit changes “is taking the piss these days, sometimes they’re glad of it, because it means they get rid of some of the experimental fabrics and cuts that just don’t work.”

In 2007, Bert’s old competitor Umbro was bought by Nike. Last year (2012) Nike sold Umbro, but kept the rights to the England football shirt. A succession of horrible kits in recent years ensured that there was little grieving for the disappearance of an English brand from the English shirt, and in fact, compared to the reaction to addition of the Admiral badge one night in 1974, there was next to no reaction. Perhaps in Leicestershire, however, a pair of canny grey eyebrows may have been raised at the value of the England shirt,  which, from £15,000 (roughly £150,000 in modern money) in 1974, had risen to a reported £15m; an increase of some 133,000 per cent.

 

Thanks to Gary Aspden and John Devlin for their help with this feature. You Are The Ref: A Guide To Good Refereeing  by Paul Trevilion (Bloomsbury) is on sale now.