Arsenal: the adidas years, part 1
- This piece was first published in February 2016, but with adidas joining forces with Arsenal again from the summer of 2019, we felt it was worth revisiting, with updated graphics and added information.
It has been 25 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.
When shorts- or socks-clashes arose in away games, Arsenal wore their change strip, but that wasn’t an option at Watford. Games at Vicarage Road 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.
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).
The goalkeeper shirt was in the traditional green, using adidas’s attractive geometric pattern. There was an odd variation with the trefoil logo and Arsenal cannon on opposite sides, while blue was used against Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup in 1987.
The arrival of adidas coincided with George Graham’s appointment as Arsenal manager and he set about improving the Gunners’ fortunes. The club reached the Littlewoods Cup final in 1986-87 and 1987-88, beating Liverpool and losing to Luton Town respectively, with two different inscription styles used.
The tracksuit used in 1986-87 was navy with red and yellow panels – West Germany had exactly the same style, but with black instead of navy.
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. However, the tracksuit was refreshed for the 1987-88 season. Again, this was a template, with Liverpool having similar in red/white/grey.
When the kits were changed, the alterations 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 by issuing the shirts in a raglan sleeve, which made the shoulders white for the first time. The JVC logo was now outlined, but 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. Again, the home shorts were used when required.
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, so much so that it was kept for a third season when the kit launches were eventually staggered.
While adidas did have a new goalkeeper shirt style featuring blocks laid out diagonally, John Lukic remained in the older style. Oddly, the layout of the logos changed, with the adidas much higher than the cannon.
For 1989-90, Lukic did change to the newer style, which had raglan sleeves and white piping as well as a slightly different collar. Another meeting with Plymouth, this time in the Littlewoods Cup, saw the blue called into action.
Also new for 89-90 was a tracksuit which took its cues from the West Germany shirt, though with navy instead of black. The design featured on sweatshirts too, with Liverpool and Manchester United having similar.
When a new home kit arrived in 1990, again it was 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. Clubs now had Football League patches on their sleeves too.
A new departure was how the goalkeeper strip now matched the style of the outfield shirt very closely.
Blue was again the back-up choice, worn against Norwich City in 1990-91 and 1991-92, though it was a little bit of overkill as other clubs wore green against them with no problems.
There were two variants – both were in the same style as the green but in 90-91 black was the secondary colour with no trim or adidas stripes while the latter version more closely followed the green, albeit with a red crest.
As Arsenal moved towards a second title in three years, games away to Southampton and Sunderland saw the new home shorts worn with the nearly-three-years-old away shirts, the red panel jarring.
Off the field, as well as a tracksuit – this time a unique design, featuring a section with the same pattern as the home shirt and asymmetrical yellow flashes – Arsenal now marketed a shellsuit. Navy with red panels and white and yellow trim, it was favoured by George Graham for the team pictures in 1990-91 and 1991-92.
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.
Both the new shirt and the home featured small banners beneath the crest marking the fact that Arsenal had won the league the previous season.
While the champions text was on the home shirts used in European Cup away games against Austria Vienna and Benfica (UEFA changed the kit rules that season so that home sides changed when there was a clash), for the home legs the away shirts were without it.
Another difference to the yellow and navy kit for Europe was with regard to the numbers, with greater clarity demanded so a clear yellow patch was used. These shirts were then used domestically after a 3-1 defeat to Benfica at Highbury saw Arsenal exit the competition.
For the first time, bespoke yellow alternative shorts were available, used for games at Southampton and Sheffield United in 1991-92.
The bruised banana was retained for the first Premier League campaign in 1992-93 – the last shirt in English professional football to have the adidas trefoil logo. Because the Premier League ruled that shorts-clashes were allowed, the yellow shorts weren’t used in that second season.
Arsenal were the pre-season favourites to regain their title and 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 while the new adidas logo and Arsenal crest were placed centrally.
A new goalkeeper shirt template was launched by adidas in 1992 and quickly became ubiquitous.
Perhaps cognisant of the factt that Premier League referees would be wearing green, Arsenal had a blue first-choice goalkeeper shirt, though the green – largely used in domestic cups, where officials still wore black – was available to buy too, the first time that had happened.
When the blue clashed with opponents, grey was favoured though, oddly, David Seaman wore a red shirt for the game away to Blackburn Rovers.
Arsenal reached both the Coca-Cola and FA Cup finals in 1993, coincidentally both against Sheffield Wednesday, winning both 2-1, the latter after a replay. Special inscriptions were place on the left breast of the shirt.
Those games also saw squad numbering used by the two clubs. Whereas Arsenal had used a traditional style in the league, a blockier font was employed for the games at Wembley.
As in 1990, there were two tracksuits. The jackets were pretty much identical in construction, with the red version marketed as a ‘travel suit’. It didn’t have pockets while the trousers were cuffed.
Squad numbers came into force in the Premier League for 1993-94. Arsenal used the same lettering but this time the numbers were a more common adidas style. In the European Cup Winners’ Cup, the older, rounder numbers were initially used before the adidas type – without the logo, which wasn’t allowed by UEFA – replaced them.
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. While initial advertising showed the stripes on the shorts to follow on directly from those on the shirt, this was modified.
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, in the same style as the new Liverpool kits. 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.
Due to UEFA rules, the black goalkeeper kit wasn’t seen in Arsenal’s successful European Cup Winners’ Cup run, with the green 92-93 shirt used most often.
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 were worn. Note how David Seaman had now taken to removing the collar from his shirt.
Again, there was a special inscription, this time below the crest.
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.
As Puma’s deal is set to expire, though, it seems the the three stripes are about to return.
12 thoughts on “Arsenal: the adidas years, part 1”
Enjoyable article, Denis. I hadn’t realised that variance in the blue 90-92 keeper top. Fyi, there’s now a clip of the 89-90 blue keepers shirt in action (away at Plymouth) on YouTube.
Denis, would it pain you too much to write about Tottenham’s kit history? Please?
Appreciate the details and information. I am working on a post regarding the worst Arsenal stripes of the Premier League era. This is a nice summation of the kits just before that. Would love to see more of these.
Nice article, Denis. Yellow shirts with the white shorts… somehow it never quite looks as good as I hope it will!
Yellow shirt, white shorts. Antrim kind of make it work. Brazil not so much. I recall Southampton doing it back in the Hummel/Draper days and then again in the Admiral years. Hard one to get right for sure!
Yeah, thankfully Arsenal now tend to wear specialised change away shorts, though they do wear their away and third far too often.
Hey Denis, I am on a roll today… There was recently an Arsenal reserve team sheet from either 1986-87 or 1987-88 sold on eBay. Sadly, I didn’t buy it, nor did I grab the photo from the listing before it disappeared, and I don’t even remember who they were playing, but it definitely listed the Arsenal colours as being “All yellow”. This was clearly during the first 2 years of the Adidas era. Any ideas?
Did you all know that there were also red shorts from the 1990-92 seasons? With a big white stripe on the side and the 3 Adidas stripes inside the white stripe. In other words, the reverse of the home shorts. This is not an April Fool, but they were never worn by the 1st team in a competitive game. I have proof – I own a pair.
Interesting Peter, have you a pic?!
Working on it… I found the shorts, and took some pix, but now my PC won’t recognize the memory card from the camera!
Would love to see any verifiable evidence, Peter!
Hi Jamie, Peter provided a pic, the article is here: https://museumofjerseys.com/2018/07/20/unworn-red-adidas-arsenal-shorts/