The History of United´s kits since 1878

There is no photographic evidence of the early United kits in the days they were known as Newton Heath LYR FC, and few contemporary reports. We have made every effort to ensure that the information contained in this web site is accurate, and any assumptions we have made are factually based.

The early kits

The earliest recorded colours worn by Newton Heath appear in the ´Sportsman´s Year-book 1880´, edited by published in 1879 by Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co. The colours are listed as "white with blue cord". The colours were unchanged in the 1881 edition of the book, which sadly was the last to be published.

In the view of Dave Moor, who runs the Historical Kits website, white shirts were a popular choice at a time when most players were expected to provide their own kit, as they were the cheapest. To distingusih themselves teams often wore coloured caps or, as we believe in this case, a blue cord. The cord would have been worn either as abeklt or a sash across the shoulder. It is entirely reasonable to assume that the Newton Heath players would have taken to the field wearing different coloured pants; white, black or navy being the most popular.



Extract from the ´Sportsman´s Year-book 1880´

We have been unable to find any further contempoary evidence of the club´s colours until the 1887/88 season. Brian Landamore, joint author of ´The Definitive Newton Heath F.C.´ with Alan Shury and published by SoccerData) discovered the club´s colours were listed in the rule book for the Manchester and District Football Association for 1887-1888 as red and white. We assume the shirts would have been red and white quarters from later photographs of the team. Further evidence of the ´Heathens´ wearing red and white can be found in a match report from the game against Bolton Wanderers on September 7th 1889. The report, included in ´The Definitive Newton Heath F.C.´, makes reference to "Powell and his men in their familiar red and white costumes".

We have yet to discover contemporary reports of the colours worn by the club between 1881 and 1887, although it is generally accepted by almost all of the club´s histories, the players wore green and gold quartered shirts. None of the histories offer compelling evidence as proof however.

Allegedly a match report from Newton Heath´s game against Bolton Wanderers on November 2nd 1880 included a reference to the ´Heathens´ playing in green and gold shirts, although we have been unable to trace this reoprt. This would be the earliest contemporary reference of these colours that we know of, if it proves to be correct. Our own research has uncovered the following on the club´s web site (retrieved in September 2005): "Attock also organised a collection from workers within the Wagon and Carriage Works to purchase club shirts, and with help from the Dining Room Committee, a set of green and gold cashmere jerseys was purchased." The reference has since been removed.

Into the Football League

The "Athletic News Football Annual 1892/93" confirms that the club registered red and white quartered shirts and blue shorts with the Football League for that season. These colours are listed again as the registered club colours by the "Athletic News Football Annual 1893/94", but contemporary evidence suggests the club made a late decision to change to green & gold striped shirts. The Association of Football Statisticians 1894-95 Annual (published in March 1983) lists Newton Heath´s colours as green & gold, which we know from team photographs were a sold green shirt with gold trim. From the 1896/97 season Newton Heath played in plain white shirts, probably as a consequence of their worsening financial plight. White remained the club colours until the club´s reformation as Manchester United in 1902, when red shirts and white shorts were chosen as the club colours. They have remained so, with two notable exceptions, ever since.

Clubs were first required to register their colours with the Football League from the start of the 1891/92 season. At that time it was the home clubs that changed kits whenever a colour clash occurred and the League instructed them to have a set of white shirts available for this purpose. The modern convention of away sides changing their colours was introduced in 1924/25.

Goalkeeper Kits

Since the advent of organised football, teams have always employed a goalkeeper, although it was not originally the specialised position it has become. Just as the offside law, and the changes to it, proved decisive in the development of tactics in the game, so the rules governing the handling of the ball have shaped the goalkeeper´s role. The Laws adopted by the newly formed Football Association in 1863 allowed any of the players to handle the ball, and as a consequence the goalkeeper was simply the deepest lying defender. This rule was changed in 1872, where after just one player per team was allowed to handle, but could do so anywhere within his own half. Although the differentiation between the goal keeping position and outfield players was now more clearly defined, it would take another ten years before players could be regarded as specialist goalkeepers. Subsequent changes to the Laws further defined the goalkeeper´s role. Crossbars and nets were made compulsory and in 1894 charging a goalkeeper was only allowed when the ´keeper was playing the ball or obstructing an opponent. This effectively stopped the practice of charging a goalkeeper over the line as he jumped to catch the ball, although the exceptions to the new rule still allowed some brutal challenges. In 1912 the F.A. finally restricted goalkeeper´s to handling the ball within the confines of the penalty area.

Since the goalkeeper had originally been the last defender, he wore the same colours as the rest of his team mates and it was not until the start of the 1909/10 season that goalkeepers were required to wear different colours. Initially the options were either royal blue, scarlet or white. Royal Green, added for the 1912/13 season, quickly became the standard for all League clubs. The League´s rule was frequently ignored by both clubs and match officials until the League threatened to fine offenders in 1913.

Goalkeeper shirts were soon being made from a much heavier wool than the outfield players´ jerseys, perhaps after they had been restricted to the goalmouth, and usually had a polo top neck. This style of jersey was worn by goalkeepers until the mid 1950s.In 1921 a new ruling that goalkeepers must wear a deep yellow jersey in international matches was approved.

Shirt Numbers

Shirt numbers were not required by the Football League until the start of the 1939/40 season, although it is believed they had been used as early as 1928. Players were numbered 1-11 based upon the old 2-3-5 formation (which teams had almost entirely abandoned by 1939). The system remained unchanged, although it had been revised following the advent of substitutes in the ´Sixties, until the adoption of a squad numbering system in the Premier League for the 1993/94 season, and the inclusion of player´s names on the shirts.

 

The birth of modern kits

Hungary´s 6-3 victory at Wembley on November 23rd 1953 proved to be a watershed in the history of the game in England. It was the first time a continental side had won on English soil, and seven months later Hungary´s superiority was emphasised in a 7-1 victory in Budapest, England´s heaviest defeat. The manner of the defeats led to a full scale evaluation of all aspects of the national game; England´s tactics, training and technical ability had all been visibly shown to be lacking. Even the lightweight, modern kits worn by the Hungarians, which had initially drawn a quizzical and derogatory response from commentators, were seen as further evidence of England´s decline. There had been few developments in kit design and materials since the First World War. but now new materials and technology were embraced as the English game fought to catch up with the continentals. Leading the way was Matt Busby and the Manchester based kit manufacturer Umbro. In 1955/56 United experimented with new kits for the outfield players, and a year later introduced a new goalkeeper´s kit. The traditional heavy wool shirt with rolled neck was replaced with a more lightweight jersey with rounded collar, similar to the shirts worn by the rest of the team. By the end of the decade this new design had replaced the more traditional polo neck woollen shirts.

For decades goalkeepers had worn tracksuit bottoms when the pitches were frozen or covered in snow. The proliferation of under soil heating at modern stadia has largely ended this tradition although there are still the odd occasions when trackie bottoms are still worn. Peter Schmeichel wore them at Rapid Wien in the Champions League in 1996/7 and in the F.A. Cup tie against Wimbledon. More recently Massimo Tiabi sported them in all three of his games for United in September 1999.

Further reading

Historical Football Kits has a more comprehensive history of football kits in general. England Football Online has a more detailed history of shirt numbers.