The fan

In footie’s first flush, players wore a riot of colours, like salmon pink and cerise, complete with

Have you noticed England’s new shirts? I could hardly keep my eyes off them, even though I was distracted by Nationwide’s new adverts: “Proud to be a building society.” Quite cheeky, suggesting banks must be ashamed to be banks. In years to come, the reference will be lost.

The shirts are ever so ducky, little plain white numbers in what looks like Aertex, as worn by primary school kids in hot summers long ago. I like the lack of clutter and logos. The theme is retro, going back to how England used to dress.

In that first flush, when football began in the 1860s, the players wore a riot of colours, like salmon pink and cerise, complete with caps and sashes. This all came from the public school influence, when different houses had gay colours and patterns. Caps were still being worn on the pitch as late as 1875: a programme from a match that year between Queen’s Park and the London Wanderers gives the colours of the caps the players were wearing.

In the 1880s, by which time professionalism was coming in, albeit under the counter, or in your boots after a game, there were still some very jazzy shirts. Preston North End in 1884 were wearing white shirts with red spots, which was said at the time to “have a tendency to make the men appear much larger”. Notts County, that same year, appeared in chocolate and blue. Good enough to eat. Hearts, the Edinburgh club, had a large red heart on their left breast. Nice enough to kiss.

The actual design has always varied, at least round the collar, with either ribbons or buttons. I like to think I can date old football teams by their collars. Shorts are easy to date because, up to 1904, all players wore knickerbockers. The FA insisted on it, saying they should be long enough to cover the knees in case female fans got carried away by the sight of a bare manly knee and started fainting all over the shop. OK, I made that last bit up, but it was an FA rule, though I’m not sure what the reason was, except again it probably went back to the public schools, which always wore knickerbockers. After 1906, the players started appearing in what we now call shorts – though until as late as the 1960s, you still see them referred to in football programmes as knickers, a diminution of the old term.

Shin guards were invented in 1874 by Sam Widdowson, who played for Notts Forest and England – but they were worn over the socks until around 1900, when they got smaller and were tucked inside.

Manufacturing football equipment came in almost as soon as football got organised. The earliest catalogue I have for football stuff dates from the 1880s and was produced by a firm called

Geo Bussey of Peckham, London. It’s 60 pages long and offers a huge variety of balls, boots and shirts, but also special football bags to carry your gear in, football braces, and something that never quite caught on – football ear guards. They went round the forehead and over each ear. Could be handy today if you were trying to dodge the manager’s hairdryer at half-time.

This catalogue also offered two types of goalkeeping gloves, one with rubber pimples on the palm – something I thought had come in only recently. I am sure, by the way, that the size of goalkeeper’s gloves has got even larger this season – probably illegally, behind Fifa’s back. David James’s current gloves are almost the size of pillows, the sort Kenny Everett used to wave about. Soon they’ll be as big as the goals themselves – which should ensure clean sheets for ever, until they change the rules.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009