Today, kit manufacturing is a multi-million pound industry and Liverpool have always been way out in front when it comes to getting shirty. They’ve had some truly iconic designs in the past, but as retrofootballblog.com explains, they could have looked so different if one kit maker had managed to muscle in.
Admiral kits just looked fantastic, didn’t they?
A look at the Leicester-based kit manufacturer’s heyday in the 1970s and 1980s produces some really eye catching results.
If the hype that surrounds kit unveilings today existed back then, it’s likely Admiral launches would be more akin to a glamorous red carpet event where absolutely nobody from Love Island would be allowed in.
Never mind queues around the corner at the Nike shop, supporters would have set up camp outside Admiral HQ if it meant getting their hands on those epaulettes first.
Back then the firm had associations with the biggest clubs around and they almost had Liverpool, too. In fact, during the mid-70s, manager Bill Shankly even signed a contract confirming as much, according to the company’s former chairman Bert Patrick.
Allied with Umbro at the time, Patrick felt Liverpool were ‘ripe for Admiral to sponsor’ and was told Shankly was the man to deal with about making this happen.
However, the sales team were warned he could be a difficult character, so it was decided they would meet the players first and show them their designs. If the likes of Keegan, Toshack and Hughes were on board then they’d approach Anfield’s supremo.
“The players were of one voice in insisting that Steve Heighway, who they claimed was the boss’ favourite, should model the designs,” Patrick explained in his book Admiral: Kit Man.
And when Shankly entered the Anfield lounge where Heighway was modelling, Patrick explained you could not only feel his commanding presence, but also the respect his players had for him.
“It’s nay a bloody circus, Stevie!” he shouted. Nevertheless, the players liked what they saw and so Shankly agreed to the terms and signed a contract.
Things turned sour quickly though, and it was believed, according to Patrick, that defender Tommy Smith let the cat of the bag in his weekly newspaper column.
“Not only were Liverpool fans up in arms, but the directors, as soon as they learned, were furious with what was to them a little known East Midlands sports firm who were claiming an exclusive contract with their club,” Patrick wrote.
So he was summoned by Sir John Smith, the chairman, for a meeting at Anfield to sort the matter out and, despite brandishing a letter bearing Shankly’s signature, Patrick was left in no uncertain terms who was in charge.
“The chairman told us: ‘Contrary to what the great British public believe, Shankly does not run this football club,’” indicating it was not the first time an embarrassing situation had come about from Shankly acting without authority.
Patrick then decided the best thing to do, for the sake of good relations with Liverpool and the football fraternity in general, was to walk away.
Patrick also revealed he offered his apologies to Smith on each occasion they bumped into each other following the encounter, but his words fell on deaf ears. The last time he saw him was at a Wales game in Wrexham.
“You know Mr Patrick,” he said. “Liverpool Football Club will never forgive you for what you did without first asking the directors.”
Shortly afterwards in 1974, Shankly stunned everyone when he resigned as manager, while Umbro remained on the club’s shirt for three of their first four European Cup final triumphs in 1977, 1978 and 1984 (they were obliged to cover the logo in 1981 because of advertising restrictions on TV).
And in 1979, Liverpool became the first top flight English side to include a shirt sponsor when Smith signed a deal with Hitachi.
Still, the 70s was a golden era for kit sponsorship, in particular for Admiral. The business-savvy Patrick had hit on the idea of commercialising kits after the 1966 World Cup and the introduction of colour TV.
Essentially, if kits could be uniquely designed and branded then pretty soon young fans would be pressuring their parents to buy Admiral gear instead of the plain stuff on offer back then.
As a result, a company which began as an underwear manufacturer at the start of World War I, soon had their nautical logo on, among others, Man United, Leeds United and England’s kits.
It was a pioneering move and the revolutionary deal with the national side in 1974 was the birth of a monster; Admiral’s first deal cost a mere £15,000, while the current Nike deal is said to be worth in excess of £400m.
But while Admiral’s epaulettes were being exposed to a large TV audience, by the time the 1980s rolled around, the likes of Umbro and Adidas had taken over the industry and it’s their designs on Liverpool shirts during the decade which are fondly remembered by fans and kit connoisseurs.
Oh how things could have been different.