The football shirt has outgrown its original market.
For so long an off the peg, throwaway item, with a one-or two-year expiry date, they are now at the height of popularity. Some are even art forms.
It hasn’t always been that way. But Neal Heard has always been hanging with the cool kits.
The exhibition, The Art of the Football Shirt, proved a huge success in Brick Lane last summer
Neal Heard has obsessed about football shirts for almost as long as he can remember
‘Football shirts are really hot right now. They have never been more trendy,’ enthuses brand consultant, author and exhibitionist Heard.
‘You see them on catwalks, you see people wearing them in the street, you see people wearing them who never would have worn them. I like the way that they transcend all the boundaries.’
Heard has obsessed about football shirts for almost as long as he can remember.
‘We could sit down in a pub and rave all day about football shirts. We’d remember stories, we’d pictures off the television, we’d remember goals, we’d remember instances. That’s what I love about shirts. We could sit in the pub. And a Danish guy would sit with us and he’d connect with us and talk to us about shirts. And remembering Roger Milla dancing round the flagpole. You’d see the shirt and talk about it. That’s what turns me on about them. The connection, that universal language of shirts which I think is a great thing,’ Heard says.
(L-R) Juventus and Italy from the 80s; AC Milan and England’s away shirt from 1966; and Celtic and Holland from 1988
(L-R,top) Arsenal from 1991, Tokyo Verdy from 1992, Holland and Arsenal; (L-R, bottom) 1998 Mexico, 1992 Manchester United away, 1989 – 1991 Liverpool away and Germany from 1994
He was hooked since the late seventies when an Admiral Wales shirt caught his eye in 1977, but it was a French fancy which gave him goosebumps.
‘The Le Coq Sportif St Etienne 81 shirt started my romantic attachment to shirts. It seemed so exotic and glamourous. That big Super Tele logo. The Flock.
Johnny Rep and Michel Platini were playing for St Etienne at the time. It was a rare green, it’s got the pinned hoops going round it. I still adore that shirt to this day,’ Heard enthuses. He’s going off to another place.
It sparked something. While others were always looking to the next kit, Heard appreciated — and began to collect — the classics.
‘I started back in the old days. It’s easy now to type in the shirt that you dream of to type it in on eBay or one of the big sites. I try not to do that, again going back to that thing of it being a bit easy. I mostly got mine back in the day when you went around in charity shops and vintage shops. Even in the early days of eBay when it wasn’t so popular to buy shirts.’
(L-R) These football shirts were on show at a well-attended exhibition held in London last year
An Arsenal away football shirt from 1991 called the ‘bruised banana’ on show in Brick Lane
Over 5,000 people went to event in two days
As a brand consultant, Heard knew what worked and looked good. With ideas swirling round his head for 25 years, he released The Football Shirts Book: A Connoisseur’s Guide. Through its 143 pages, it is an homage to the not-so humble football shirt.
‘My book was more looking at it from different angles, from the branding history angle, The way that shirts have developed. The aesthetic point of view and then the link to popular culture. There’s sections on politics and shirts, music and shirts. It’s for shirt lovers in that traditional geeky way but it’s also in that modern way.’
And from that came the exhibition, The Art of the Football Shirt. It ran for two days in Brick Lane last summer. It was a hit.
‘It was unbelievably, insanely popular. We had 5,000 people through the doors in two days. I was interviewed by Brazilian newspapers Moroccan newspapers. On Sky on the BBC on the Radio. Canal Plus, Russia. It was massively popular with the media but it was also massively popular with people.’
His obsession with the not-so humble football shirt has allowed him to travel to further fields
That success has led to the exhibition travelling to further fields later this year.
‘I’m taking it on the road this year it was so popular. Someone approached me so it’s going to Amsterdam, Mexico, Copenhagen, Paris, Tokyo, Manchester Liverpool, London, trying to get Glasgow. And a few others. Germany I’m talking to Milan. It’s basically going around the world.’
With around 200 shirts in his collection, is there still one that takes his fancy?
‘I do buy the odd one now. It’s more eclectic. There are some on my hit-list, which I still have saved because they are so rare.
‘I’d love to get the 1978 Mexico shirt which was made by Levi’s. Just because it was made by Levi’s. I find that amazing. You see all these pictures, there’s this famous Mexican player Leonardo Cuellar who had this crazy afro. There’s pictures of him wearing the Levi’s top. I’d love to find that.’
The brand consultant has around 200 shirts in collection and wants to show them to the world