Design of Football 2011/12: Umbro

posted on August 4th, 2011 by Anthony

I’ve been holding off this post for a few days because I knew Umbro were about to unveil their latest take on Manchester City’s home shirt. There is quite an interesting parallel between Umbro and Manchester city, even outside of the fact they’re both from Manchester. Both of them have a long history (in fact Umbro’s first ever football kit was for Manchester City in 1934.).

Both found the 90s and 00s tough going at times. Both are enjoying a resurgence due to foreign investors with a few quid to spend.

Evolution of the Umbro Logo

Humphrey Brothers Clothing set up shop in 1924. They tailored general clothing for a few years, before noticing that sportswear would be an interesting sector to get involved with. So Humphrey Brothers was renamed to a more snappy Umbro and before long they were supplying kit to the burgeoning professional game of football. By 1954 they were supplying the england national team, and have been ever since (bar a decade when Admiral were given a go). That makes them the oldest suppliers around, and during that time they have mostly been consistently… OK.

During the 90s they committed some of the most horrific design atrocities known to football. Even Umbro themselves acknowledge that fact… but historically they have been fairly, well, average. They certainly found themselves left behind the likes of Nike and Adidas for a long, long time. Actually by the time the noughties were finishing up things were looking a bit grim for Umbro.

Then Nike bought them.

Within months Umbro released the gorgeous 2009 England shirt – Tailored by Umbro – and it was obvious a fundamental change had occurred.

They haven’t looked back since.

Well, actually they have. But in a good way.

Universitario de Deportes

You’d be forgiven for asking “who?”. Universitario are Peru’s most prestigious club. They play in ‘cream’. It didn’t start that way, it should be white. Legend has it that they once ended up having to play in stained kits after they rushed the washing at an away match. They forgot to to take off the red badges, which leaked a yellow pigment into the wash, and the ‘Garra Cremas’ were born. I’ve chosen this shirt first because it sums up exactly what Umbro do so well.

It is exactly what a Universitario shirt should look like. I know nothing about the club, I’ve never seen the team play, but I know that’s the case. This shirt is as pure as they get.

There is very little concession to the manufacturer brand (bar the tasteful, on-scheme complimentary logo). The base template is not used as an excuse to impose any flashes of colour or stripes that have no place on the shirt. It is simply a cream shirt, with crimson highlights. It is exactly what a Universitario shirt should look like.

As I discussed in the Nike post, simple designs like this are incredibly difficult to get right. Simple all to often just looks like the designer couldn’t be arsed finishing up. The detail like the embroidered badge and logos make all the difference in giving the shirt a quality look.Then there is the base template shirt itself.

This is Umbro’s main strength – the Tailored by Umbro ethic. Shirts that are designed to fit properly (they come in proper chest sizes rather than just S, M, L, XL, XXL, XXXL, etc etc etc). The fabric has a thick, quality, cotton feel – yet is still a proper complex sports friendly mix that wicks away sweat and keeps you cool. The panels and cut are designed with sports and movement in mind – they are incredibly well thought out. Aitor Throup seems to be the designer who has had the most influence on all of these changes, he seems to be incredibly good at what he does. I’d go as far as to say his work has changed the game in terms of football shirt design.

Huddersfield Town

Despite all of that, the best thing I like about Umbro’s strip is the way that they treat the history of the teams they create for. At least for the teams that allow them to. (Or perhaps ,more accurately, pay them to.)

Huddersfield are one of the oldest teams around. 125 years old to be exact. So they decided to have a really nice kit to mark the occasion. So Umbro gave them a shirt that looks exactly like a good Huddersfield Town shirt should look like.

It looks to the past for inspiration, and updates for the modern football era. OK the sponsor does dampen down things a touch, but overall this is exactly what you want. It’s a timeless shirt, for a team with bags of history.

Hadjuk Split

Hadjuk Split are also celebrating a birthday, with them turning a spritely 100. So Umbro have repeated the trick.

If anything the trick is a little bit too close. It’s a very similar same base template, although with this one they have gone the whole hog with the retro vibe, with full on classic stripes. On the face of it it does look like a bit of a lazy job, but there are bags of detail to elevate the shirt from that sort of status. Again all the elements are embroidered, and there a little embellishments commemorating the centenary, all topped off by some tasteful gold stitching.

It works well, but possibly not as lovely as it could have been.

Nottingham Forest

Oh look it’s the same template again…

Forest Home 2011

I’m not doing a good job here of selling Umbro am I? Admittedly they do seem to be using templates more and more.

You have to keep in mind that these three shirts have all been produced for smaller teams. Teams that haven’t got the cash for Umbro to really go to town and produce something special for. You have to give them credit for at least trying to inject some personality into their shirts, and still show respect to their fans. That is something more than Adidas can say with their indentikit shirts for the Premier League clubs.

I’m not actually too sure about this shirt. I think it’s the contrasting colour collar. It reminds of the shirts worn by 80s stock brokers. It’s not awful, but it does just miss the mark for me.

England Away

I’m assuming this shirt is the ground zero for that template.

England Away 2011

Seeing as England are Umbro’s most high profile clients, it make sense that shirt was designed first, and then rolled out as a template later on.

To be fair, if you look closely at all of the shirts feature so far you will see that the panels and cut are all slightly different… there is just that underlying current of familiarity in the overall look.

This is as interesting England away shirt, mainly because it’s dark blue. Red is the most associated change colour, very occasionally a very light sky blue. It’s not a bad shirt, but it doesn’t scream England. Or football shirt for that matter. It all looks a bit casual for my liking.

The collar doesn’t jar quite as much on this shirt though.

Eire

Dear God, another one.

Eire Home

I can’t even be bothered discussing the interesting move of making it stripy. Let’s move on eh?

Hearts

OK enough of the classic shirt collars…

Hearts 2011

There you go something a little bit different. OK it’s a lot like the Universitario shirt. OK it is the Universitario shirt, but in Hearts’ rather fetching deep burgundy.

But again  it is exactly what a Heart’s shirt should look like. It’s a really classy looking shirt that ticks all the right boxes. I’d be well happy with that as a Hearts fan.

Atletic Bilbao Third

Now here’s a different sort of collar again. Maybe I should have discussed Umbro’s collars rather than their shirts?

Bilbao 3rd

This has the sort of granddad style collar found on the current England shirt.

Let’s ignore the collar for now, those colours are brilliant. Green doesn’t get used very much in football shirts… maybe because it would give managers too easy an excuse about the players not being able see each other on the pitch…

Anyway the way they’ve extracted colours from the club crest and used them on the shirt is great, it works really well.

It’s a trick they’ve used a few times this season.

Rangers, Lille, Sunderland

Rangers Lille Sunderland

Ok, Ok, Ok. This really isn’t going well. They aren’t really doing much in the way of bespoke tailoring here at all are they?

I still think they are decent looking shirts, and it’s unfair to look at them all at once. But it does come across as being a little lazy.

Man City

So let’s go back to the start. Machester City certainly have a couple of quid to splash around, they also have a few fans. Plus a long, long history of making kits together. Let’s see what that kind of influence gets you.

City 2011

On the face of it looks very simple. The first thing you might notice is that the template is a very plain, slightly different cut to the other ones seen so far.

The collar is different again. This with a classic V-neck, but with a sort of second layer collar around the back in blue and white checks. This is apparently to acknowledge the fans and their flags.

The most interesting part of the shirt – and obviously where the money comes in – is that the shirt has subtle pattern on the fabric. It’s not a random collection of dots, it a graphical representation of a soundwave of the City fans signing their anthem Blue Moon.

Not just any soundwave, they went a specifically recorded stuff. This video explains it best…

It all gets a bit “designery” with the justification, but you can’t deny the fact the put a lot of effort into this shirt. There are little touches all over the place.

As a fan you want to know the people making the kit for the team you love are making an effort.

When given the opportunity Umbro know exactly how to go about that.

England Goalkeeper

I can’t let this one pass.

Over the past 36 months or so Umbro have gone a massive way to bury their God awful 90s past. As we have seen they turn out classy shirt, after classy shirt – regardless of how template based they are.

Then they released this.

England Goalkeeper

No.

Just.

No.

First that colour. A green that should be described as ‘Evil Piss’.

Then there are the crosses. I love the subtle Peter Saville designed crosses on the current England home shirt. But not not like this. The big crosses aren’t totally awful, it’s those horrid tiny shoulder crosses that totally kill it… and why do they stop halfway?

It’s just all sorts of wrong. There’s an idea in there somewhere, but it got lost under that sea of crosses.

At least it’s different.

Conclusion

Halfway through writing this I found myself getting a little disappointed by Umbro. They have recently churned out quite a lot of shirts based on templates that all look a little familiar.

You can’t really blame them for this though. They couldn’t justify pushing the boat out massively every time like they do for England and Man City. There’d be no return in it for them if they went to town on Forest’s third shirt, they would never, ever sell enough.

You have to hand it to them though. They still put more effort into their smaller teams than some of the other designers we’ve seen put into their Premier League teams. They might be a bit samey, but they generally find a way to link back to the fans. And that’s a good thing.

The best element they have going for them is the shirts themselves – regardless of how they are coloured. They are quality shirts, and totally look it. Most football shirts are that horrible shiny polyester. Umbro’s are that, but they have a cotton blend which makes them softer – and more importantly – look much better.

You only have to look at that gorgeous Universitario shirt to see how how important having that base foundation done properly makes to the overall quality. Without that you are always going to be struggling.

With all that in mind, I still think Umbro are the best football shirt designers in the business at the moment.

Though that England goalkeeper shirt needs some explaining.