Football kit expert John Devlin is not prone to exaggeration. Therefore, when he mentions three times in True Colours 2 that the Republic of Ireland’s kits during their tenure with O’Neills featured more than a few variations, you know that something strange was afoot.
A quick glance at the Ireland Soccer Shirts Museum, curated by Eddie O’Mahony, confirms this, and it was correspondence with Eddie which prompted further research. He had added another O’Neills Ireland away shirt from the mid-80s to his collection and was seeking to nail down which exact game it was and that in turn led us to examine the eight matches in the country’s unsuccessful qualifying campaign for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Placed in a group with Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and the USSR, Ireland wore green in their four home games and changed to white for all of their trips abroad (meaning that, with the other four countries favouring red, 16 of the 20 group games were red v white, with Ireland’s home games – green v white – the exceptions).
Incredibly, though, each of the eight games featured a unique shirt style for Ireland, and even then there were further variations within matches. Here is the story in full.
Ireland began with a home game against the USSR in September of 1984 and while Mickey Walsh’s second-half goal would give them victory, it was one of just two games they would win.
The game was the last competitive outing for what is regarded as the ‘classic’ O’Neills Ireland kit, featuring alternating gold and white pinstripes, and three-stripe collar motif.
However, Mark Lawrenson wore a long-sleeved shirt with two differences to what his team-mates had on.
It had a v-neck rather than a collar – similar to what the team would wear in friendlies against England and Spain in 1985 in the pinstriped style’s final outings – and also the pinstripes were laid out slightly differently rather than being centred.
While Liam Brady switched from short to long sleeves in the second half, his shirt had the same collar as the short-sleeved shirt did.
Ireland’s next game was away to Norway in October and a white version of the pinstripes was used. Unlike the usual strip, though, they also featured on the sleeves and the back of the shirt. The socks were also different, reminiscent of the Le Coq Sportif style.
Ireland lost that game in Oslo 1-0 and a month later they would also suffer defeat in Scandanavia, going down 3-0 to Denmark.
This was the more usual style, with the raglan sleeves not featuring the pinstripes. The shorts had three white stripes rather than two white and one gold, while the socks were plain. The shield housing the shamrocks on the crest was also removed.
It would be a full six months before the next qualifier, at home to Norway, though Ireland did play friendlies in between, with an all-green look seen at home to Italy in February 1985.
The Norway game at Lansdowne Road on May 1, 1985 saw Ireland play in a kit unlike any seen before or since. Seeking a change in fortunes – they had had four losses and a draw in all games since beaten the Soviet Union – the FAI asked O’Neills to come up with something different, and the manufacturers did that.
A gold band across the chest called to mind the style favoured by Kerry, the most successful county in Gaelic football. Ironically, at the time, Kerry were the only county playing Gaelic games who didn’t wear O’Neills as they had a deal with adidas, but strict GAA rules prevented their logo from being shown (see how it’s taped over on the subs’ tops here).
The narrower stripes added to the somewhat-continental look, while the gold socks were another completely new departure as was the crest. In and of itself, it wasn’t a bad kit at all, but it failed to inspire a turnaround in fortunes and it was retired after the 0-0 draw.
As mentioned above, the pinstripes returned for one last time against Spain in Flower Lodge in Cork at the end of May and then, at the start of June, a simpler kit was worn for the 3-0 win at home to Switzerland.
Stylistically, it was quite similar to the new adidas kit that Liverpool had worn for the first time in the ill-fated European Cup final against Juventus at Heysel in Brussels, and it retained the newer crest and neck from the shirt against Norway.
The two-bar sock style was the same as that which O’Neills gave to their Gaelic games teams, while the right sleeve featured something very unusual – perhaps the first-ever (and perhaps only) example of sponsorship on an international shirt in a competitive game.
It’s not easy to discern, but there was a logo on the right sleeve, that of Bord Fáilte, the Irish tourist board (now known as Fáilte Ireland – ‘fáilte’ is the Irish for ‘welcome’). That fact that it was a shamrock might have meant that Ireland avoided censure, but its inclusion was an isolated incident.
The next game was the return fixture against the Swiss in September. Here, a reversal of the new home kit was worn, albeit without a contrasting neck, with the previous shamrock crest remained.
In Moscow in October, we almost had the only example of the same kit being worn twice in the campaign, but there had to be one change and it was on the shoulder stripes, with the inclusion of one gold between the two green.
That was another loss, 2-0, officially confirming that Ireland wouldn’t qualify. There was one game remaining, at home to Denmark in November, in many ways a watershed game for the country.
The 4-1 loss itself wasn’t all that memorable, but the game proved to be manager Eoin Hand’s last game in charge. Again, the kit was almost the same, but ‘new’ crest was jettisoned and the shamrocks returned.
Ireland’s next game would be a friendly at home to Wales in March 1986. By then, Jack Charlton would be in charge and adidas kit would be worn. But that’s a story for another day.