In May, it will have been 22 years since Arsenal last wore adidas kits, but for fans of a certain age – certainly this quarter – they hold a certain cachet.
The German manufacturers began making the strips in 1986 and remained for eight years, with each home kit having navy trim and each away being a mix of a rich yellow, navy and red, but the timeline encompassed big changes in English football and kit design.
According to the excellent @TheArsenalShirt, Arsenal’s board were initially resistant to the idea of adidas putting their famous three-stripe mark on the equally famous white sleeves . Eventually, they were persuaded – apparently due to a fear that the stripes on the shoulders only would resemble too much the Liverpool shirt which had been released a year earlier when they partnered with adidas (see below right for our impression). The revised conditions were the stripes could only appear on the sleeves.
The away strip took a lot of its cues from its Umbro predecessor, with a navy v-neck and red trim, with the design identical to the home apart from the contrasting sleeves and the lack of pinstriped shorts. The far-from-ideal scenario of mixing the home shorts with away shirts reared its head at Southampton (the combination was worn as Alan Shearer scored hat-trick on his Saints debut) while away games at Watford in 1986-87 and 1987-88 provided the only examples of Arsenal wearing anything other than red socks with the home kit during their adidas tenure.
With kit marketing still in its relative infancy, this was an era of changing after two years, with no ‘staggering’ of home and away kits. Even the changes weren’t all that drastic, with the 1988-90 Arsenal strips having a very similar design to those that went before.
On the home, adidas took advantage of their permission to use their stripes on the sleeves only but issuing the shirts in a raglan sleeve, which made the shoulders white for the first time. Otherwise, the kit was unchanged apart from the large blue panels on the shorts. On the away strip, contrasting sleeves were used for the first time – perhaps surprising, given how the look had become so associated with Arsenal.
Funnily enough, on its launch the away kit wasn’t greeted with universal approval, but the fact that it was worn when Arsenal beat Liverpool 2-0 to win the league in 1989 meant that it soon became a favourite. Indeed, when adidas eventually decided that home and away kits should be released in alternate years, the away was retained for a third season, 1990-91, as Arsenal won a second title in three years.
They had a new home kit that season, again more evolution that revolution. The white shoulders remained, with the adidas stripes switching from red to navy, while the neck was more rounded. More eye-catching was the change in fabric, with red ‘patches’ of varying shade.
A new departure was the goalkeeper strip now matched the style of the outfield shirt very closely. For away games against Norwich, blue was worn by David Seaman but with small differences between 1990-91 and 1991-92 – the latter version more closely followed the green design with the earlier edition having plain black padding and neck.
Again, the home shorts were paired with the away kit in games away to Southampton and Sunderland as Arsenal inched towards the title, though the red panel jarred somewhat.
The summer of 1991 saw adidas make their boldest move with Arsenal’s kit, an away kit which would come to be known as ‘the bruised banana’, for obvious reasons and also became a regular fixture of ‘worst-ever kits’ articles (we won’t link, you know where to find them). That it was worn as Arsenal lost 2-1 to fourth-division Wrexham in the 1992 FA Cup third round didn’t help.
One small mercy was that, for the first time, an adidas Arsenal away had bespoke yellow alternative shorts – though they would only be worn in 1991-92.
The bruised banana was retained for the first Premier League campaign, 1992-93, with Arsenal the pre-season favourites to regain their title. They would won both domestic cups but slumped to 10th in the league, the tone set with a 4-2 home defeat to Norwich City, having led 2-0.
They were decked out in a new home kit, with the white sleeves being eroded to a greater extent by three blocks, two red and one navy, the same style as had been worn by Germany at the European Championship. A tonal three-stripe motif ran through the fabric.
A new goalkeeper shirt template was launched by adidas in ’92 and quickly became ubiquitous – however, it was first used by Cork City in 1991, and you can read about that here. For the first PL season, the referees began to wear green shirts with black pinstripes, which meant almost every goalkeeper had to switch from the colour they had worn since time immemorial.
For Arsenal, blue was the first choice with green the second (but largely limited to the cups, where the refs still wore black), while grey also received an outing. Oddest of all was a red version, worn at Blackburn Rovers when Arsenal played in their away kit.
The last new Arsenal shirt produced by adidas was the 1993-94 away, which continued the pattern of aggressive branding that they had instigated in 1991 with the over-the-shoulder stripes on the Liverpool kits. One oddity was that, in the kit’s first outing, the 1993 Charity Shield penalty shootout defeat to Manchester United, the socks had navy tops but they had reverted to yellow for the trip to Old Trafford in the league in September.
For the first time, the Arsenal goalkeeper kit featured its own shorts and socks, with black the favoured colour. An unusual feature that the fabric pattern was in the style of the famous adidas Tango football. For the game at home to Manchester United (who had an all-black kit) in March 1994, David Seaman wore the previous blue goalkeeper shirt with the black shorts and socks.
The black goalkeeper kit wasn’t seen in Arsenal’s successful European Cup Winners’ Cup run, however, with the green 92-93 shirt used most often, with the same shorts and socks as the outfielders. This was also the case for the final against Parma, though UEFA’s rules at the time prohibiting shirt sponsorship in finals, so special editions (with an inscription marking the occasion) were worn.
By that stage, it had already been announced that Nike were to take over the adidas contract from the 1994-95 season. The American firm announced themselves with a ‘halving’ of the white sleeves and a navy blue away kit, but did produce some classics over their 20-year association.
When their departure was confirmed, there were strong rumours that adidas and Arsenal would link again, but ultimately they didn’t materialise as Puma became the new suppliers. Some day, though, the three stripes may be back on an Arsenal strip.