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‘Show anyone a red shirt with white sleeves and they think of The Arsenal’: A brief history of Gunners kits

PUBLISHED: 18:25 11 August 2017 | UPDATED: 18:53 11 August 2017

Arsenal squad photo at Highbury, 1968. Picture: PA

Arsenal squad photo at Highbury, 1968. Picture: PA

PA Archive/PA Images

Modern day football gripe, number 2,376. Premier League clubs having preposterous kit launches at the start of every season.

Tony Adams and Ian Wright launch the 1994-96 kit at Highbury Picture: John Stillwell/PA Tony Adams and Ian Wright launch the 1994-96 kit at Highbury Picture: John Stillwell/PA

Arsenal had one in Sydney last month. For the new third kit. Hands behind backs, Laurent Koscielny and co posed for dramatic pictures against a moody skyline. Commercial departments take it much more seriously than in 1994 (see above).

After all this, the team will probably wear the third kit about four times over the coming 2017/18 season.

It wasn’t always this way.

In its original Woolwich Arsenal guise, the dark red shirts would be used for up to six years at a time, rather than changing every year. And they certainly weren’t on sale to fans in the club megastore.

What is great, however, is that the modern day home shirt – red, with white sleeves – is undeniably Arsenal.

Ashley Cole, Thierry Henry, Sol Campbell, and Freddie Ljungberg model Arsenal's home and away strips in 2002. Picture: PA Ashley Cole, Thierry Henry, Sol Campbell, and Freddie Ljungberg model Arsenal's home and away strips in 2002. Picture: PA

Gunners historian Paul Matz says: “The Arsenal red shirt with white sleeves is iconic. There are few other teams in the world who wear these colours.

“Sparta Prague is one – and they were inspired by Arsenal. But if you show any football fan a plain red and white strip, the first thing they will think of is The Arsenal.”

There are many myths, Paul says, about the origins of those famous white sleeves, first introduced in 1933.

“It’s often repeated that someone watching a game in the crowd was wearing a red shirt with white sleeves, and [legendary Gunners manager] Herbert Chapman liked it.

“The truth is more complex. One of his friends, a chap named Tom Webster, was a newspaper cartoonist and designed the same concept for Chelsea: blue shirt with white sleeves. The Chelsea manager wasn’t interested.

Arsenal legend Ted Drake, pictured in 1934, was one of the first players to wear the red and white shirt. Picture: PA Arsenal legend Ted Drake, pictured in 1934, was one of the first players to wear the red and white shirt. Picture: PA

“After an Arsenal match, Webster went for a drink with Chapman and told him about his Chelsea rejection, and that he was annoyed.

“Chapman said: ‘I like the idea, show me a design in red.’ He liked it and went for it.

“The first time they wore this new kit was a game against Liverpool, and the white sleeves were worn separately to the red shirt. It was a bit like wearing a three-piece suit. They developed the idea and the following season Arsenal took it on permanently.”

Ever since, Arsenal’s home shirt has always been red and white: with the exception of 2005/06, when it was dark red to celebrate the club’s centenary, and two seasons from 1965 when it was all red.

It was at the suggestion of legendary defender Frank McLintock, but the club reverted back to red and white in 1967.

Dennis Bergkamp in action for Arsenal in 2005/06, when the Gunners had a limited edition dark red shirt to mark the club's centenary. Picture: Sean Dempsey/PA Dennis Bergkamp in action for Arsenal in 2005/06, when the Gunners had a limited edition dark red shirt to mark the club's centenary. Picture: Sean Dempsey/PA

That was the year when the club’s iconic cannon graphic first appeared on the shirt, which was previously plain.

It was followed by the first kit designer logo (Umbro) in 1978 and first shirt sponsor (JVC) in 1981.

So began a new era where kit designs would change nearly every season – and became a money-spinning opportunity for clubs to sell replicas to fans.

“We’re in a different world now,” says Paul. “You see these special kit launches, and Arsenal now has three different kits every season!”

Arsenal’s away kits followed the same pattern in terms of club crests, kit designer logos and shirt sponsors.

Frank McLintock, George Graham and Charlie George celebrate the 1971 FA Cup final in the famous yellow away shirt. Picture: PA Frank McLintock, George Graham and Charlie George celebrate the 1971 FA Cup final in the famous yellow away shirt. Picture: PA

For Paul though, the 1969-75 design will always be the most iconic.

“This was yellow, and has always been the most popular away colour. That’s to do with the ‘Charlie George final’ in 1971 [the FA Cup final where Gunners legend George smashed a stunning goal and fell to the ground].

“Wearing those shirts, Arsenal secured the double. So it’s always the most popular away colour to this day.”

Paul Matz is the editor of the Arsenal History Programme, which is available from vendors before every Emirates Stadium home game. For more information, email paul.matz@aisa.org

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