Strip Off

By Dave Woodhall.

A few years ago, when we used to pretend that football was still a game and two live matches every weekend was as bad as it got, Villa started to have a new kit every season. In response to complaints that they were ripping off supporters, the club’s then-commercial manager Abdul Rashid said “Fans complain if they don’t have a new shirt to buy every summer.” I used to think that was the typical reaction of a moneyman more interested in the bottom line than in the interests of the club’s supporters – but now I think if he wasn’t right then, he was probably just a bit ahead of his time.

Strips for saleThe all-pervasive influence of commercialism on football grows by the year. Us traditionalists might not like it, but supporters are forever being persuaded to spend our money on multi-national leisure corporations. Last year there was a furore when the new Villa kit wasn’t on sale until November. If the club had announced they were going to stick with the same design for the forthcoming season I can well imagine a similar outcry. As soon as January comes round messageboards and websites are abuzz with rumours of what the new kit will look like and when it will be available. It’s almost as hot a topic as transfer speculation.

Supporters, it seems, do want to buy something they don’t really need, at a price that makes a match ticket seem reasonable, and they want to do it as often as possible. They want to buy home shirts, away shirts, European and goalkeepers shirts. And clubs, naturally, are happy to satisfy the market. I’m sure that if the league’s rules allowed, they would have a different shirt for every game.

I thought of all this while watching the launch of the new kit at Star City last night. In front of the world’s media (well, Sky Sports and Midlands Today), Darren Bent and a few of his colleagues wandered down the escalators like they’d just watched a film and were off to Nando’s. A crowd well into four figures cheered the arrival of their own forthcoming bit of unnecessary expenditure.

I can’t see the point of replica football shirts. I can’t understand why they should be a de rigueur annual purchase and I’d vote for any party that proposed making their wearing by adult males illegal on non-matchdays. Most of all I’m truly mystified by the opinion, which I’ve heard more than once, that it’s better to spend £50 from an official outlet on the polyester t-shirt a market trader would struggle to sell for a quarter that amount without badges and advertising stuck all over it, than £35 from a sports retailer because “The club gets the extra.” Why someone who in all probability isn’t too flush will happily hand over £15 to a business owned by a billionaire and which pays seven-figure wages as a matter of course remains one of the great marketing victories of our time.

Replica kits are just the most extreme example of the insistent pressure that football clubs place on their supporters. Whatever I might think, the new Villa shirt will be bought in its tens, if not hundreds, of thousands by supporters convinced that it’s not just something to wear, they’re doing their bit to help the club find the money it needs to compete in the Premier League. That it’s part of being a ‘proper’ supporter. Those who turned out at Star City will have left with autographs, photos and good memories. They enjoyed themselves. And at least they’ll be buying a Villa shirt that looks like a Villa shirt. The monstrosities of the Ellis era, the stripes and strange colours that fitted in with the ‘looks good with jeans’ mentality then prevalent, have thankfully been binned.

But most of all I’m left once more with the belief that if a corner shop-keeper could somehow harness the brand loyalty of a football club, they would rival Tesco within a few years.