The significance of style: why the switch from Umbro to Nike matters

Nike’s apparently imminent dethroning of Umbro as England’s technical supplier has been a popular talking point this week. With England’s Umbro deal not due to expire until 2018, and having been in place almost continuously since the 1950s, it’s something of a watershed moment for those of us who are into this kind of thing.

But what’s the big deal? It’s just a football kit, isn’t it? Just polyester and cotton combined to cover up the players’ modesty, help them differentiate friend from foe and – in the modern era at least – enhance their performance.

Typically there are two logos on one’s international football jersey. On the wearer’s left on England’s latest home shirt is the famous three lions crest, bled of blue in order to honour the St George’s flag. Above it rests a single star, which commemorates England’s World Cup triumph in 1966. These are the trim items that mean the most to any supporter.

The kit manufacturer’s logo is significant too. For some supporters, especially at club level, it’s a kind of status symbol. It can be about distribution capabilities, marketing firepower or straight-up numbers, but for many it’s simply a question of wanting the perceived biggest and best brand producing kits for one’s team.

But a technical supplier is more than just a logo, at least culturally. It’s not important to everyone, of course – many football supporters couldn’t care less, in fact – but if we accept the significance of identity in football then the football kit is a central facet.

Just like identity, one specific part of it – tradition – is important to me. Football’s global support today is fractured and fragmented, divided into endless types and breeds. Somewhere along the line the football world shrunk and the home-grown, match attending supporter is no longer the only focus for clubs. It’s understandable that some fans yearn for an earlier time, when football was different.

I count myself amongst their number, and keeping traditions alive in the face of relentless modernisation is a big part of that. England’s partnership with Umbro, for all its modern aspects, is an English football tradition. I’ll miss that.

Umbro must also take credit for its own take on football tradition, and in particular its extremely sympathetic treatment of its partners’ tradition in recent years. England are not the only beneficiaries and Umbro has rightly been taking plaudits for a seemingly endless production line of kits that honour tradition. Sometimes it’s a nuanced, element-by-element homage to a team’s tradition, sometimes it’s a rethinking of a classic design, but tradition has been a big part of Umbro’s thinking.

As a haggard traditionalist, that’s hugely endearing. And it comes from having truly great partnerships, where the brand and the team have a mutual understanding and a good working relationship. That certainly seems to be the case with England and Umbro, and the products created suggest that Umbro get England. The sponsorship of St George’s Park is a perfect example of how these relationships extend beyond mere kit design.

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