The launch of football kits is now a major media operation for elite clubs all over the world.
Celtic release new strips during meticulously-planned unveiling ceremonies at Celtic Park, where players from their first team and women’s sides model their outfits to the onlooking public and national media amidst a backdrop of light-shows and fireworks.
The fashion parade footage is streamed live and broadcast on the club’s online TV station, and images of pouting and stern-faced players are thereafter emblazoned all over the club’s numerous social media channels for weeks and months on end.
New kit ‘reveals’ have become annual events, which almost rank alongside new signing announcements and Christmas adverts as the most eagerly-awaited campaigns in the club’s marketing calendar.
But launching a new kit wasn’t always such a keenly-anticipated and glitzy affair on Kerrydale Street.
Back on 29 July 1972, when Celtic turned out for their first encounter of the 1972/73 season, a home tie with Dumbarton in the short-lived Drybrough Cup tournament heralded the beginning of a new era in the club’s kit history.
The 2-1 victory will be remembered for all the usual football reasons – Tommy Callaghan and Billy McNeill got the goals; promising 19-year-old defender, Donald Watt, made his debut; and Jimmy Johnstone was dropped again by Jock Stein. But this match was also notable for the introduction of the club’s first new home jersey in nearly a decade.
This development failed to merit even a footnote in the club’s weekly newspaper, the Celtic View, never mind an official launch or photoshoot.
Gone was the iconic round-neck jersey that had graced two European Cup finals and the World Club Championship, and in its place was a quintessentially seventies set of hoops.
Those among the 28,000 in attendance when this new outfit made its debut may have noticed the introduction of the ‘v-insert’ collar, or the peculiar sight of Celtic wearing green socks with this new-look strip (a temporary measure on account of their usual white stockings clashing with Dumbarton’s), but there was no immediate coverage of the kit change as Celtic embarked on their quest to win an eighth consecutive league title.
Despite being a major European force on the football field in the early 1970s, Celtic were a commercial minnow compared to the colossus they have since become.
Although more ‘Celtic’ kits were sold than any other team in Britain at that time, the club themselves lost out on thousands of direct sales by failing to announce or effectively advertise their strips within the only media outlets they had available to them, namely the match programme and weekly newspaper.
When a supporter finally took to the letters page of the Celtic View to complain six months after the new kit was launched, it was with a polite request to ditch the white socks for the more “traditional” green stockings with two white stripes (as had regularly been worn from the 1930s up to the early 1960s).
Fan engagement may have been in its infancy at Celtic Park when it came to planning commercial endeavours, but the club seemingly acted on this correspondence immediately. Three days after the letter was printed, Jock Stein’s charges appeared from the Celtic Park tunnel to face Falkirk in a league match on 31 March 1973 wearing the aforementioned and rarely-seen green-and-white socks of a bygone age.
The Celtic board took this approach one stage further the following summer, as the vast commercial value of football kits finally dawned on the club’s powerbrokers.
A novel idea was devised that allowed fans to get even more closely involved in the development of the club’s away strip by submitting their own designs for consideration by Celtic and Umbro. This resulted in a fan-designed black-and-green-striped away kit that was manufactured for the 1973/74 campaign.
Although this change in style proved popular with young fans, it was not endorsed by manager Jock Stein, who privately told anyone in earshot that he hated the new outfit. There has been at least one other example of a fan-designed Celtic kit in the shape of the 1986/87 third jersey, which was the brainchild of a young Glaswegian by the name of Simon Weir.
Fan consultation continued into the nineties, when the club’s saviour, Fergus McCann, asked Celtic supporters to design a new crest.
McCann wanted an updated corporate brand that would appeal more readily to Scottish businesses, and there was even mention of thistles and Celtic tartan making an appearance. The then PR officer, Peter McLean, explained at the time, “We would like a Scottish / Irish image, because we are very proud of our history, and I don’t see us moving far away from our traditions.”
Perhaps McCann underestimated just how dearly those traditions were held by the support, who vehemently vetoed the removal of the four-leaf-clover from the breast of the Celtic jersey.
By 2003, another fan-led intervention influenced the make-up of the Celtic crest when it was suggested during a Parkhead forum that the club should permanently commemorate the Lisbon Lions with a star above their badge.
Ironically, or fittingly, this practice was introduced by the Italians in the 1950s, and the five-pointed star would be emblematic of Celtic’s 1967 victory against their legendary ‘Nerazzurri’, Inter Milan.
As the Scottish football star system is not governed by any ruling body, other clubs have adopted a number of stars for various domestic and overseas endeavours. However, as Celtic is the only Scottish side to win the European Cup, it could be reasonably contested that our star shines brightest.
New Balance continued this trend of fan engagement in 2016, and their brainstorming meetings led to Celtic’s pink third kit, which was claimed to be a nod to the ticket used for entry to the Estadio Nacional for the 1967 European Cup final.
Also pitched to the group of fans was the secondary colour of that famous admission stub – brown – which would have appealed to the substantial number of ultra-minded St Pauli fanatics within the Celtic support.
Remarkably, the third design palette presented to the think-tank was a blue Celtic strip. Regardless of the vast number of global units shifted of the USA’s classic blue-denim 1994 World Cup kit, this proposal was a bridge too far for any discerning Celtic fan, and the concept was promptly shelved… hopefully permanently!
The making of a modern Celtic jersey
One such jersey that sank without a trace down the ‘Tail O’ The Bank’ was the 2016 home top of another Scottish side who sport the hoops – Greenock Morton. A “huge number of emotional appeals” were made to the Cappielow side’s board after they released an Ajax-inspired home shirt that moved away from the traditional blue-and-white hoops. The club relented to fan-pressure and scrapped the new top after only four days.
Social Media has become an important and universally-utilised tool for football clubs and kit manufacturers in the modern age. It is a powerful means of engaging with fans and determining instant opinion. In advance of new jersey releases, throes of creative fans now take full advantage of the advances in design software to produce their very own ‘concept kits’ with varying degrees of success.
These alternative designs, like all football jerseys, are viewed subjectively, but it does prompt shirt enthusiasts to look back on their club’s most controversial designs and question what might have been.
Some of the designs in the Celtic jersey archive have divided opinion for years, but with some careful consideration, fan engagement, and a few design tweaks (sometimes just by changing the colour-way), these calamities could have been classics.
Take the 1989-91 yellow-and-green away kit as the first example. Had Umbro employed the black, white and green colour-scheme so loved by Celtic fans in later years, then the strip worn by Paul Elliott would have been as classy as the English defender himself.
Celtic fans summed up the radical new design at the time with such disparaging comments as, “It doesn’t look like Celtic at all… It’s not The Bhoys without the hoops… It’s just like 40 shades of green… I think it’s bogging, it’s horrible.”
Martin Prothero of Umbro unsurprisingly disagreed, and insisted that the new release had been an unwavering success, “Without a doubt, it’s the best-selling strip we’ve ever had. Not just in the UK but internationally… People are buying it (in Italy) as a leisure shirt.”
Could the infamous zig-zagged effort of the early nineties be saved by a modern makeover inspired by the 2018/19 third kit?
Had Umbro loosened their nineties penchant for psychedelic flashes of colour and stuck to a simple Irish tricolour-inspired design, then this could have been a bonafide classic.
If this design was more simple in its style, it would have worked far better.
From Gourock to Zurich, the Celtic shirt is an instantly recognisable beacon of inclusion and community. Whosoever decides to wear the jersey is representing the club, and no greater responsibility can be bestowed upon a follower of Glasgow Celtic.
It should come as no surprise then, that new Celtic kits can divide opinion. That much is true about our latest home outfit from Adidas, which has broken with tradition by skewing the hoops’ edges, much to the annoyance of the traditionalists (myself included).
Would it not make sense to involve those expected to buy the merchandise – the Celtic supporters – in the design process for future kits?
Perhaps when sales of next season’s home jersey are compared to previous seasons, the club and our kit manufacturers will consider more fan engagement in the future.
Words: Paul John Dykes
Art: Made by Frankie