the square ball week: tearing stripsBack
The appeal of watching twenty-two players kicking a bag of wind around is hard enough for the unitiated to understand, but when you add on all the ephemeral extras that go along with being a football fan – the songs, the trivia, the tribalism – the whole undertaking seems downright weird. The finer points are lost outside the tunnel vision of your own fandom. You can’t really communicate, as a fan, why Michael Brown’s contract extension should make you so angry – don’t you complain when your team sells players, too? Aye, well, this is just different, and you wouldn’t understand. And then there’s the kit, which is also different, and which I don’t understand.
Macron’s new effort doesn’t represent the first time stripes have made their way on to what we can still just about call the famous all-white strip. Umbro were the first to venture from the margins of Admiralesque trim to the core areas, but even their unobtrusive pinstripe was enough to get us relegated. They had another crack in 1986, with a kit that somehow, although blue and yellow triangles should have no place on a Leeds shirt, worked, and inspired devotion, not least from me. Asics were bolder: a blue and yellow hoop, straight from the world of rugby league, but thin enough not to detract from the overall all-white.
Macron, however, have been pushing their luck. The vertical stripe of 09/10 was a strange armpit growth borrowed from seventies Luton rather than historic Leeds; it’s fortunate that the trend for playing the last game in next season’s kit meant the defining match against Bristol Rovers was played in a more dignified all-white. This Saturday, though, the vertical stripe is back, and it’s twice as thick, and it’s straight down the middle of the shirt, and it looks like a fag packet or a Chelsea away kit or a motorway sign but not, importantly, nearly enough like a Leeds kit.
Leeds fans will take anything where the away shirt is concerned: although all yellow would be preferable, digital puke, blue and green stripes, a Lazio tribute and black with neon have all been accepted to some degree, as designers step away from the home template and make their mark. But the home kit is the home kit, and the home kit is white shirts, white shorts, and white socks, with the minimum of blue and yellow trim. It’s a classic, and it should be easy.
Whether it should matter or not is another question, and one very likely to be asked by people who don’t quite get what football is all about. A fair few who do love the game will shake their heads too – what does it matter? Isn’t it what the players wearing the shirt do that counts, not how this year’s polyester has been glued together? Maybe so, but that’s to ignore the strong links between football and fashion that have been forged over many years on the terraces. Andy Peterson wrote a terrific two parter for The City Talking, here and here, about Leeds fans and their clothing decisions, and the Wish You Were Here guys have travelled the world with exhibitions and a book that have this connection at their core. If the fans can get their dress sense squared off, why shouldn’t the players be made to turn out in something that at least respects the club’s one simple dress code?
Respect is perhaps a crucial term here. I suspect that in the days since its announcement, Leeds fans have spent more time and effort analysing and thinking about the design of the new kit than anyone at Macron or Leeds United spent actually making the thing: Rob Atkinson and Amitai Winehouse have gone in for analysis, while The Scratching Shed are running a poll.
The presentation is a dead giveaway. The shirt “features retro vertical stripes,” according to the official blurb, although that word “retro” is never qualified with reference to which particular part of our history the blue tyre track is a throwback to. It’s a meaningless term, a throwaway to excuse something that has its roots more in last season’s Macron templates than in a bespoke recall of our club’s heritage. Take a close look at the detail, too: an “appliquéd Leeds United rose” on the “back neck” is all well and good, but the badge, the stripe and the sponsor’s logo bring three clashing shades of blue together in the centre of the chest, in a depressing expression of a “sod it, they’ll buy it anyway” design ethos. Press, I mean really, really press Macron on the reasoning and process behind the “retro stripe” and I bet that, when it really comes down to it, the answer will be: ‘Well, we couldn’t just leave it plain white.’
A video from 1990 about the fans’ part in our second division title win was uploaded to the SteakandSid YouTube channel this week – here are part one and part two – and around the eleven minute mark in the first part the legendary Howard Wilkinson nails it:
”A lot of people like to think that the football experts are on the field, and then you’ve got these other people who to pay to watch it but really don’t know anything about it or contribute to it. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
And nothing could be further from the truth than that a “retro stripe” has anything at all to with a retrospective take on our football club. I’m sure these things will sell in good numbers, they always do, and the club and Macron should be bloody grateful for it. But if anyone had asked a Leeds fan before this week what they wanted to see on a home shirt, not a single one would have said, “a dirty great stripe down the front.” And that’s exactly the reason why it matters.
Also on sale this Saturday, but much more stylish, is the new issue of The Square Ball – our tenth and last of what we’d call "a momentous season," except we all watched too much of it to try and fool you with that. You can relive the, er, glory, though: we’ve a fourteen page player by player review of the season, so you can analyse along with us the crucial contributions of Andy Gray and Alan Tate. We’ve also got articles welcoming Brian McDermott, fondly remembering the welcome given to George McCluskey, recalling winning the title in 1969, and about sitting down with a nice cup of tea. There’s also an end-of-season thank you note that might or might not have been written by David Haigh. Plus loads more across 56 pages of full colour and no stripes, all for just £1.50 outside the ground on Saturday, or from our online shop where the digital version is only £1. Look out too for the second issue of Leeds’ free paper The City Talking, due out any time now, with more blather from me on the back page under some excellent artwork from Joe Gamble.