Cold War Classic no. 7 – Bulgaria v Republic of Ireland, 1977

At the end of our last CWC, we left you with a cryptic clue regarding this episode’s topic of a kit feature that debuted long before its generally accepted debut.

As promised back in CWC5, we are once again in Bulgaria (we know you’ve been clamouring for more Bulgaria in general) but, while their kit is notable, it is the visitors who are our main subjects. It’s a country that was not directly involved in the Cold War -or technically any war – neutral Ireland.

Compared to other western nations, this neutrality may have slightly lessened the intensity of trips across the Iron Curtain – such as the World Cup qualifier in Sofia in 1977 that we will be looking at – while no doubt also still a daunting task.

But with such journeys almost unheard of to the general public at the time, the athletes were probably more enlightened than most in being able to witness first-hand that locals from the ‘monstrous’ communist countries were actually friendly humans, just like at home.

On the kit front, the 1970s had already thrown up a couple of interesting situations for Ireland that have been covered on this website previously. With the likes of the French, Dutch and Germans leading the way in new concepts and designs, it was a time for change facilitated by new production techniques and a general creative freedom not seen in past generations. While the one-off changes referenced above were forced, Ireland’s kit was evolving too since the minimal 1960s with the addition of the popular v-insert wing collar in 1974.

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By 1976, the v-insert was removed and an O’Neill’s logo added, along with adidas-inspired sleeve, collar and cuff stripes.

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The changes would continue into 1977 with an even more drastic step: a new crest. Up until now, Ireland was in a similar position to West Germany in that the crest of the team and the crest of the football association (the Deutscher Fußball-Bund in Germany’s case – any excuse to include that name) were different.

Ireland’s old ‘shield and shamrocks’ badge, used on the shirt since the Irish Free State days of the 1920s and 30s, was simple, well-known and loved by some to this day. More forgotten to history is the old crest of the Football Association of Ireland, featuring the Gaelic translation ‘Cumain Peile na hÉireann’ and the coats of arms of the four provinces of Ireland in an unusual design set-up, as seen on programmes of the era.

But, starting with a friendly at home to Spain in February 1977, these two crests disappeared from the shirt and programme and were replaced with only one badge, representing both team and football association. The new design was circular, featuring a main green shamrock on the middle white background and three smaller white shamrocks in the outer ring. The ring itself appeared green on the progamme, but orange on the shirt – the first appearance of the colour on an Irish jersey. The text ‘FA Ireland’ in between the three shamrocks completed the design. It was a sleek and modern concept…nearly TOO modern for 1977 Ireland.

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As for Bulgaria, the era was marked by their seeming willingness to accommodate visiting sides by altering their kit at home.

Of course this is also because in those days teams were more likely to only bring one kit, so, in the case of some sort of accidental clash upon arrival, it was often up to the home team to change. However, just as big a factor was their use of white, red and green, which clashed with a number of sides for various reasons.

An all-white kit had been used in the 1960s before white-green-red became first-choice, but when Northern Ireland became the first Irish side, North or South, to play in Sofia in 1973, the away red-white-red – strangely also used against the orange Netherlands in the 1974 World Cup – to eliminate any sort of visual clash with Northern Ireland’s green shirts and socks.

Ironically, a visit of West Germany in 1975 – mentioned in CWC5 – saw the Germans change to green and white, resembling Northern Ireland, as Bulgaria stayed in their usual home kit with the Germans’ white socks being enough to prevent the need to change.

As we also covered in CWC5, future home ties with West Germany saw Bulgaria avoid any potential clash in red-green-red with the Germans unchanged, while red-white-white was also used at least once in the mid-70s. A home friendly against Switzerland in September 1976 gave a somewhat rare example for the time of Bulgaria in their full first-choice kit at home.

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When France arrived in October for the first game of the 1978 World Cup qualifiers, their usual blue-white-red configuration produced a sock clash and Bulgaria switched to white-green-white, a look they would occasionally use as first preference.

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As for the manfacturer, Bulgaria had been in adidas kits since 1974 – an early ‘victim’ of the wave of domination from the West German brand over Eastern Bloc kits that we have talked about before. By 1976, they were in the standard/classic template of the time with the crest positioned centrally. Red trim had originally been used, and would return, but for now the stripes and collar were green.

Back to World Cup qualifying and the only other side besides France in Bulgaria’s World Cup Group 5 was Ireland, as Albania had withdrawn for their own internal Cold War reasons and spent several years in the international wilderness (for more info, check out episode 1 of my own Politics On The Pitch series).

Ireland, having worn their new crest for two more games (at home to France and Poland in a qualifier and friendly respectively), would travel to Sofia in June 1977 for their first-ever match against Bulgaria and the first appearance of the new crest on foreign soil.

But, like in 1973, the visit of a green-clad Irish side was again a problem due to Bulgaria’s green shorts. Of course, Ireland’s only alternative to wearing green was white and this obviously wouldn’t do. Instead of resorting to the full away kit again, Bulgaria resolved the situation by adding the white away shorts – with their red trim intended to match the away shirt – to the white home shirt with its green trim – they would do something similar against Mexico at the 1994 World Cup.

As white-white-red wouldn’t have made much sense, white socks were used instead of the home red and so Bulgaria inadvertently returned to their all-white home strip of the 1960s and won 2-1 against the Irish, who wore a short-sleeved version of their new-crested shirt for the first and, as it turned out, only time.

 

When the two sides met again for the return game in Dublin four months later, Bulgaria were prepared and used yet another of their kit combinations in red-green-white – enough colour variation to allow Ireland to use their usual home colours without issue. However, the home side’s badge had reverted back to the shield and shamrocks – albeit one fewer than before – as well as the less-important removal of the cuff stripes.

 

Perhaps, like the infamous green and gold shirt worn against Norway in 1985, the Irish, in classically old-school style, ‘weren’t ready’ for a fancy new crest. Or, considering the political situation in Ireland at the time, maybe the addition of orange was a step too far for some, despite appearing on the Irish flag. It’s a complicated situation, which we definitely don’t have time for here. Either way, gold would be introduced the following year as a third colour instead.

And now, for the big reveal that many of you will already know, the crest in question is the very same design that would be revived and made slightly sleeker on Ireland shirts by 1987, during the first phase of their adidas golden age.

While it was absent from the shirt for those 10 years since 1977 (with another aborted mid-80s badge design in between), it did continue to be used as the logo of the FAI and remained on programme covers, sometimes in interesting colourways such as in blue, yellow and green on the cover of the England vs Ireland 1985 programme.

Its second stint on the shirt, while not as brief as the first, was also criminally short, lasting only until 1991. The follow-up crest was iconic in its own way, but the current iteration is an abomination of modern corporate branding that unfortunately is inseparable from football these days.

However, in true Cold War Classic-style, we shall definitely stand up to that fact by commemorating and saluting the simple beauty of Ireland’s ‘Cold War crest’, 1977-1977 and 1987-1991.

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