The modern football fan wears many hats. They’re a tactics junkie – casually throwing about terms like ‘gegenpressing’ and ‘false nine’ – a financial expert on the spending of their clubs (and the dangers of Financial Fair Play regulations), a statto who loves trivia about the game and probably an astute gambler, with a keen eye on picking out the best odds with the likes of Betway.
But what about their actual attire? Is a replica shirt an appropriate display of your devotion to your club, or a slightly sad way for a grown man to dress?
In some circles, it’s fair to say that there is a stigma about the football shirt. Perhaps it hasn’t been helped by the image of a portly pie-wielding chap of a certain age who has squeezed an ill-fitting top over his tummy and is seen hurling abuse at players and officials from the stands.
It’s probably with that in mind that football shirts joined tracksuit bottoms, comedy ties and white socks on the Daily Mail’s list of 25 things that men over 40 should never wear. There’s certainly been little suggestion that a replica shirt is something to consider if you want to be fashionable.
Yet, as fans try to move away from the stereotype – and put hooliganism and abuse in the dustbin of history – could they reclaim the replica shirt as something that is acceptable to wear?
It’s certainly the case that more people are being seen in football shirts. Yet the drive for this probably comes from two places.
Firstly, among younger people, football shirts have become synonymous with a street culture that is defined by the dominant genre of music.
Website Idle Man noted: “Football shirts have now started to place more emphasis on street culture than ever before, more so few rappers and grime stars. People like Stormzy, AJ Tracey, Dave, Drake, Pusha T, Meek Mill, The Game and many, many more have taken the football shirt from the pitch into gigs, festival performances and tours to show just how big football shirt culture now is.
“Football and grime is a connection that is synonymous with London street culture. As most rappers come from different areas, meaning they support different teams, there has always been a level of competition. Not only would MCs battle in the streets via clashes, they would also argue about football, just as many guys in the capital do. Now, these same MCs are launching full football kits, posing in pictures with football stars like Paul Pogba, and doing more for the culture of the football shirt than ever before.”
This association with music and wider culture is important, especially for shirts to be seen as ‘cool’ if that’s to be defined by the tastes of the young generation.
But this isn’t the only area of renaissance for the humble shirt, however. Among older fans, there’s a growing group of people who might loosely be defined as ‘football hipsters’. These people read and contribute to niche fan publications, watch obscure foreign football on the TV, listen to podcasts and celebrate the beauty of football shirts.
For this group, older shirts are perhaps better. There’s a strong ‘90s nostalgia’ element to this too, with fans now in their 30s and 40s harking back to the early days of the Premier League, Euro 96 and Football Italia on Channel Four. Random away kits from clubs in Italy and Germany or those worn in World Cups gone by carry more cache than more modern strips.
Indeed, Football Italia host James Richardson was probably an apt choice to host ‘Fabric of Football’, a recent exhibition run at the National Football Museum by Classic Football Shirts. The 500 or so kits on show were used to look at the history of the game, acting as colourful curios to be cherished, preserved and revered.
Plus, every year April 27 is now earmarked as ‘Football Shirt Friday’, with fans being encouraged to take selfies wearing their shirts at work to raise money for Cancer Research – adding a good cause to the increasing appeal.
We probably also shouldn’t lose track of the context of ‘fandom’ in the modern day. As film buffs and gamers celebrate the love of their niche with cosplay creations and merchandise, there’s no difference for the football fan, whose shirt enables them to outwardly display their fandom. Wearing a shirt also gives a fan a sense of togetherness and belonging with their tribe, a sense of community that is often lost among outside observers who don’t experience the positive side of the atmosphere inside a football ground.
Shirt manufacturers and clubs have become wise to all of this – using the association with grime, love of nostalgia and traits of modern fandom to fuel their marketing campaigns and to shape the designs of replica kits themselves.
Whether all of this makes shirts ‘cool’ or not is still debatable. It’s certainly not high fashion and probably never will be. However, whether it’s youngsters on the streets or hipsters in craft ale bars, football shirts are gaining in popularity and losing some of their style stigma.