In the last few weeks we’ve seen how Leeds United’s iconography matters in ways that go beyond decorative. What the kits look like, what parts of our history should be celebrated and what our club means are more important than aesthetics, but lean heavily upon them.
Three events in particular have highlighted this: the centenary celebrations, Jordan Stevens’ six-week ban for betting on football, and the Leeds United Supporters’ Trust’s new pop-up museum in the Merrion Centre.
The last one is a triumph. It’s a tenner: if you can, book a place, pay it and go. On walls, in cases, on screens and along racks are heaps of memorabilia sparking an impossible number of memories. And, everywhere, shirts.
Shirts, shirts, shirts. The exhibition benefits greatly from the kindness of two shirt collectors, Ben Hunt and Dave Moorhouse, and whether behind glass or on a clothes rail the shirts they’ve loaned evoke nostalgia, fascination and longing. There’s a tattered survivor from the 1950s, an airtex shirt from the 1972 FA Cup final, the well-known and lesser-known Umbro Burton shirts, the Top Man kits, a Yorkshire Evening Post title shirt as worn by Gary Speed, the rare all-gold Thistle Hotels kit by Asics, and fine examples from the Packard Bell and Strongbow years. You can also see Paul Rachubka and Felix Wiedwald’s gloves, but we’ll gloss over that.
More important is the language we slip into to describe those shirts to each other, and what it says about the way sport is intertwined with business and image. As readily as we might refer to the Revie era, the Wilko years or the Champions League season, we use kits as guideposts through our history, and use sponsors’ logos to tell them apart.
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The extent to which we’re locked into these references can be seen by the unexpected success of two shirts in our centenary season. We Are Leeds have produced two alternate-reality shirts, one yellow and blue sourced from Kappa, one all black from Nike. Neither is a design Leeds have ever worn, but by adding a Leeds United white-rose badge and a Yorkshire Evening Post logo, We Are Leeds have added a United lustre that, judging by the number of them on show at Elland Road, a lot of people have found irresistible.
We Are Leeds are superb at reading the zeitgeist, and these are very in. Last season I saw limited numbers of a blue and white version of the kit Adidas produced for the Netherlands in 1988, with an owl added, that were fetching huge sums from Sheffield Wednesday fans, despite their team wearing Umbro during those years. It’s a what-if sales pitch that plugs into a nostalgia for something that never happened: a 1980s Adidas Sheffield Wednesday shirt is a sort of retro wish-fulfilment.
We Are Leeds took the idea further. What makes their shirts stand out is not just the retro choice of badge, but the decision to include the sponsor from 1992. That confuses the nostalgia even further: it’s as if Leeds won the league wearing a kit that couldn’t have been designed in the same century. But without the Yorkshire Evening Post logo front and centre, I don’t think the shirts would work. If anything there’s more of the YEP about them than LUFC, but that’s what makes them uncanny possibilities from a real past, what links them to a precise moment in Leeds United’s history that they’re meant to evoke. I was reminded of them in the LUST exhibition, where there is a newspaper photo of Lee Chapman and Gary McAllister celebrating the league title in blue sweatshirts with the YEP logo on the chest in yellow and white. You have to look twice before noticing there’s no Leeds United badge on there: those colours and that sponsor are enough to say, this is Leeds.
In that context, one of the complaints about the centenary kit Leeds wore against Birmingham City — that it included the logo of sponsors 32Red, in white against white — feels weird. The implication was that it contributed to an overall feeling that the kit, available to fans only in limited quantities, in one size, for a high price, was too sold out; that it wasn’t unique, or respectful enough of our identity, to properly celebrate 100 years of Leeds United. But given how often you’ll hear fans talk about the ‘Lazio blue Packard Bell kit’ as one of the club’s best, it’s hard to understand where the line is, or how the centenary kit crossed it.
The way kits, sponsors and designs are jumbled up with our club’s identity is difficult to unpick. There are concerns building that the rumours about Adidas taking over our kit supply will lead to identikit off-the-shelf designs, because only their most prestigious clients get bespoke designs. Leicester City, for example, are playing away in a pink version of Germany’s World Cup kit.
But that sort of thing has never stalled the love for some of Leeds United’s iconic shirts. The yellow Umbro away kit from 1988-92, that won promotion with Top Man on the front and the First Division with the YEP, was another we shared with Lazio. The home kit from 1988-90 was worn in different colours by Ipswich and Nottingham Forest, but as the Top Man shirt, is intrinsic to our history. Before that, the famous Burton home and away kits of 1986/87 were templates shared with several clubs in Scotland; right now on eBay you can find our away version, in gold and blue, described as ‘Leeds United style’ with no badge and ‘National Plastics’ emblazoned across the front by the non-league team that must have shared the design.
In 1992/93 Admiral forced Middlesbrough into a white and black version of our ‘vomit’ away kit; while it was unsettling, at the end of the Champions League season, to be knocked out by Valencia, whose home shirt was a white version of our yellow away kit by Nike.
Regardless of templates or rivals, we generate our own myths to make these designs ours, and then use the sponsors to talk about them, because that’s what makes the difference: the colours are obvious, the badge is a given, so what’s left is Burton over National Plastics, Top Man over Fisons, Strongbow over a theme park in Spain.
Perhaps this is what 32Red are making difficult, by sponsoring so many teams that we can’t distinguish ourselves by talking about our ’32Red kit’ — Derby and Preston have their own versions of those, in the same colours, Swansea had them, and that’s before you get to Middlesbrough, Rangers, Aston Villa. We never had that with Thistle Hotels.
There’s also the issue of what 32Red represent, highlighted this week by the Leeds United squad lining up for a photograph in their Unibet branded training gear at the end of a seminar on the dangers of gambling. A slide projected on the wall behind them asked, ‘Having attended today’s session, are you likely to gamble?’ Presumably the right answer was ‘no’. But for those of us who haven’t attended the session and can only look at the information on their shirts, the answer wanted is yes, yes, yes.
Perhaps there would have been less angst had our centenary shirt advertised cheap suits, cheap newspapers, cheap PCs or cheap cider, rather than an expensive habit that cost Jordan Stevens six weeks of his career, until he was allowed to return to football, and to advertising his own downfall. Football sponsorships reflect the economic shift from making things to providing abstract services that many people find unsettling: what even is a ’32Red’, anyway? At least you knew where you were with two litres of Strongbow.
In some ways our centenary celebration suffered from Leeds’ late entry to the world of association football. Had we reached our 100th year in the 1980s, like some of our peers, the commercialisation might have been easier to parse. Selling 100 programmes at £100 each was the sort of quaint Bill Fotherbyism that, in 1988, would have bought two-thirds of Mike Whitlow: the value overcomes the crassness. In 2019, it paid Kiko Casilla’s wages for two days. The sums involved in football have become so great that it’s hard to involve the fans in fulfilling them anymore.
At the meetings held to organise the newly founded Leeds United Football Club, in 1919, pledge forms were handed out to fans, asking them to prove their support with cash to get the club going. Asking the fans for money on the club’s 100th birthday was in keeping with a sort of tradition on which football has always been based, of fans paying into clubs that pay players to entertain them, but in 2019 few among us are fortunate to have the sort of money that would keep a club going, and being asked for it anyway breeds resentment. Before the First World War, Northampton fans used a ‘shilling fund’ to raise the money required to prevent their winger Fanny Walden following manager Herbert Chapman to Leeds City; the best we could offer Kalvin Phillips would be paying for his weekly shop now and then.
That problem of economic powerlessness pushes fans towards dangerous solutions. Another of the centenary’s controversies was the presence of an Eleven Sports logo, advertising Andrea Radrizzani’s sports TV channel, in the ‘dream scene’ painting depicting important players and symbols from our club’s history. This was not an oblique but a literal Fotherbyism: he sold paintings of the Kop to sponsors, with their logos prominently displayed, to raise transfer cash. But on a painting meant to be displayed at Elland Road forever, and reproduced for fans to take home, the logo was an unwelcome sore thumb. One sore response on social media caught my eye, though: that, after breaking the camel’s back with this logo, Radrizzani should sell up immediately and let Qatar Sports Investments take over.
The implication was that QSI wouldn’t be so cheap or tawdry as to put their logo on such a painting. But the misunderstanding was that they wouldn’t need to, because the only reason QSI would buy Leeds United would be to increase the international prestige of the state of Qatar. They wouldn’t use a logo to promote their regime: they would use the entire Leeds United Football Club as an advert for Qatar.
The problems with Qatar ‘sportswashing’ like this have been well-rehearsed, and it turns a lot of fans off who just want their gas money to make our team better, which is fair enough, if only it was that simple. But a new warning has been heard in the last few weeks from the NBA, which after growing its audience in China until its viewing figures are larger than in the United States, has its players and staff caught between upholding their constitutional American right to free speech, and the Chinese state’s threats to end its lucrative support if they speak freely about the protests in Hong Kong. Like Radrizzani and his mission to Myanmar in 2018, the NBA believed that sport can be used to do good around the world; now they’re finding that ideas flow in two directions, and money is what controls the tide.
Which takes us a long way from RF Winder putting their logo on Leeds United’s shirts in 1981, but not to a conclusion to these thoughts, so you’ll need to take this as commentary rather than critique. There isn’t a right or wrong stance to be found among the above, and I don’t have any answers to offer, only a rubber band ball with a football hidden somewhere inside.
As someone opposed to the commercialisation of football, I’m confused by my own nostalgic affection for the brands that have associated themselves with Leeds United’s history: I don’t understand my feelings for Packard Bell. I’m caught between wishing for a return to pre-modern football when it was less brazenly commercial, while understanding that all that has really changed in 100 years is not whether fans have parted with money to pay for the game, but how much. I’m appalled by what we’ll meet in the Premier League and can’t wait for us to get there so I can love it and hate it. I’m fascinated by the sincerity of a review I read in the excellent football and fashion magazine Season, assessing Paris Saint-Germain’s collaboration with Chanel. Instinctively, a PSG x Chanel perfume doesn’t feel like something that exists in my understanding of the sport of football. To that writer, the key question was whether it smelt like PSG.
And they were not wrong to think that way, because it’s how football fans have thought for years, perhaps without realising or acknowledging it. PSG’s perfume should smell like PSG. A retro Leeds United kit should have the proper sponsor on it. If the newest home kit isn’t all-white, this isn’t Leeds United: the brand is the brand, and has been ever since Don Revie wanted to associate us with Real Madrid, and that was the easiest way: to copy their iconic kits. And don’t even get me started on the conceptual similarities between Leeds United selling a £100 hardback limited edition programme, and Rihanna selling a 500-page book of photographs for a standard $150, with special editions available for up to $5,550. That book is being sold to fans who love Rihanna for her music, but while she’s not making any of that, make do with following her on Instagram, buying her make-up and wishing they could afford her book. It’s like the social media, replica kit and season ticket of a young Leeds United fan’s dream of supporting their club, with the wish of an executive box somewhere in the distance.
What we do, as fans of football or music, is strange. It’s getting stranger. And it’s amazing how often it isn’t what we want. Some fans want a new Rihanna album and some want Leeds United to win the league, but we’ll all settle, in the meantime, for thinking about what they’re both wearing. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)