How a small Midlands underwear firm changed football forever

New ITV documentary Get Shirty reveals the story behind Admiral football kits – the 70s phenomenon that transformed the sport

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“How a small Midlands underwear firm changed football forever” is the subtitle of tonight’s excellently named Get Shirty on ITV. And it’s no overstatement. In the 1970s Admiral Sportswear transformed the way football looked – not least, what fans wore on the terraces – and the tale of how they did so makes for the kind of odd, loveable doc that will strike a chord with anyone, football fan or not.

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To appreciate the story fully, it helps if you can picture how football looked in the 1950s and 60s (if you can’t, there’s archive footage). You didn’t have a shirt then, you had a plain, one-colour football jersey, probably made out of much the same material used in army blankets and wartime blackout curtains. And in the crowd, men stood on the terraces wearing suits, coats and hats in varieties of brown and grey. And smoked pipes. 

Enter Admiral. This was a small Leicester clothing firm that made, amongst other things, big pants for older ladies. They hit on the idea of a sideline making football strips. The key moment came at an accidental encounter in 1973: Admiral’s owners had just had a disastrous meeting when they chanced upon a Leeds Utd training session and managed to convince coach Don Revie to let them design the team’s away kit.

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The deal they struck allowed them to sell replica kits in different sizes to sports shops – and, crucially, to kids. Other clubs signed up and soon, every football-crazy schoolboy could have a kickabout looking like his club hero. And thanks to Admiral’s head designer, one Lindsay Jelley, his club hero now wore something brightly coloured, with a big collar and badges and logos and chevrons and a “yoke” across the shoulders – all in that zingy, static-prone, nipple-chafing seventies man-made fibre.

Jelley and others recall how their business took off like a rocket – though after a brief imperial phase it crash landed like a rocket too. But while the going was good, Admiral was a British marketing triumph. And a happy place to work too: Women who were employed stitching the kits remember how the factory would shut down at five to eleven each day to listen to Our Tune on Radio 1 for “a good cry” – and how the best operative each month would get a free hairdo as incentive.

Jelley’s one misfire was a Coventry away kit, in an ill-advised shade of chocolate brown. It became a laughing stock at the time, but a shirt collector/historian (some people take this quite seriously) tells the programme they now change hands for £500. And Admiral? These days, after several changes of ownership, they mostly make cricket kit. 

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Get Shirty is on ITV tonight at 10:40pm