The history of Matchwinner, part 1

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  • By day, Ray Hyland is a top film-maker; by night he’s a sound judge of football kits and when he suggested a look at the impact of Matchwinner, we were more than happy. The piece has been ready to go with a while – the delay was due to our tardiness drawing the kits. Part 2 will be a bit quicker, we promise…

What do Birmingham City, Motherwell, Greenock Morton, Swansea City, Sligo Rovers, Shamrock Rovers, Hull City, Torquay United and Carlisle United, among others, have in common?

Questionable European pedigree? Absolutely. But aside from that, what these teams did was to provide a canvas for one of the most creative and colourful sportswear brands of the late 1980s and early 1990s. We are talking about Matchwinner!

Matchwinner are a company steeped in the tradition of Lancashire, another proud member of the textile industry that can count the likes of Umbro and Bukta in its number. Today, they exist mainly as a figure of fun and fodder for worst-kit lists. But they have left a remarkable legacy, infamous as it was.

Part 1: Early days (1986-88)

I will spare you all a long-winded history lesson but, to cover it all very briefly, the emergence of polyester as the choice fabric for football kit manufacturing in the mid-to-late 70s was arguably the turning point for everything.

As a synthetic material, it had made the process of making garments a more affordable one since after World War II. It took a long time for football to catch up to its potential but when it did, a new industry was born from a virtually non-existent market. And in that new industry, many young upstarts attempted to challenge the market leaders.

There is no true measure of discerning when the exact point of kit culture began with fans. Replica kits have been available since the late 1950s but generally were seen as something a lucky young boy (or frustrated man-child) might get at Christmas, to supplement his school PE kit. If you look back at old games on YouTube and see the fans in the stadium, most of them were quite satisfied with a peaked cap or scarf for most of the time, certainly in the cold British winters. This gradually began to change in the late 1970s but a replica jersey was still an expensive item. The advent of this new material no doubt would have made mass production of jerseys much easier.

Along with clubs now almost fully on board with having a club sponsor on the chests of their jersey, the breakthrough of more cheaply sourced material made producing large amounts of replica kits not only possible but financially beneficial to teams.

Not all teams are created equal, however, and what might have been offered to some of the more illustrious names of British football certainly was not on the table for those on the fringes.

Umbro, Adidas and (in Europe more so) Puma all had generous pieces of the cake up until the mid-80s, with Le Coq Sportif a distant fourth and perhaps Bukta still retaining domestic contracts in the UK. Other brands, too many to name here, came and went, with only the likes of Spall managing to maintain any kind of foothold. It was an industry that required not only ingenuity in its fabrics and fashion but also a keen grasp of finance and the market. Step forward, Matchwinner!

Contrary to the above clip, MW’s first professional contract with a club came in 1986, with Birmingham City the first team to agree a deal with the company.

The result was moderate and solid but others would follow quickly. With the advances in technology and more materials being available, jerseys were moving along quickly and in a more shiny fashion.

The new weave technology first introduced by the likes of Umbro and Adidas in around 1984 was a real breakthrough for kit design. This took jerseys into a new two-dimensional sphere. Now we could see that fabrics could have shadow patterns, with columns, lines and even checkerboards throughout the shirt and shorts, all while maintaining the primary colours. Matchwinner were one of the first to copy this new technique.

This new fabric pattern alongside the crossover crew neck (see Arsenal 1984, Scotland 1986, Rangers 1984-86 and Celtic 1985-87)  were staples for the mid-80s. And if you look at Matchwinner examples from that time, you can see that they were taking their inspiration from the likes of these.

Looking back at some of the earliest MW kits, one might wonder if the they had any kind of originality. There were tidily placed bands and large panels(or bibs) on the chest or indeed panels on the shoulder but aside from that nothing too distinctive. All in all, they were playing it safe and being respectful of each club’s tradition.

Of course there are exceptions to that ‘respectability’. In 1987, MW decided to bring a candystripe design, which was used by Huddersfield and St Mirren – these were very unpopular with fans – that Huddersfield’s was worn in the 10-1 defeat at Manchester City meant that the yellow and black checked away failed to gain a cult following.

History has kind of forgotten the Terriers one because the team weren’t up to much around that time. But St Mirren had just won the Scottish FA Cup (note the adidas goalkeeper shirts!). They would be bringing the bib into Europe! To the Saints’ credit, they remained loyal to the brand for many years afterwards, retaining MW until 1994.

Which brings me to a notable statistic about the brand in those early days. If you have a look at the lists of MW contracts below, you will see how much of a reach the company had around both England and Scotland.

However, in those early days, it was Scottish clubs rather than English ones where MW found most success and a foothold in the manufacturing market. From 1985-88, they made kits for about a dozen teams and two-thirds of them were from north of the border.

England (All)

Birmingham City (1986-91)

Bolton Wanderers (1988-93)

Bournemouth (1992-95)

Bristol Rovers (1993-95)

Bury (1992-95)

Carlisle United (1992-95)

Chesterfield (1990-96)

Crewe Alexandra (1990-94)

Doncaster Rovers (1992-96)

Exeter City (1992-95)

Hereford United (1991-94)

Huddersfield Town (1987-89)

Hull City (1988-93)

Lincoln City (1990-94)

Notts County (1989-94)

Oxford United (1991-94)

Preston North End (1992-94)

Reading (1989-92)

Rotherham United (1991-95)

Stoke City (1990-93)

Swansea City (1992-95)

Torquay United (1991-95)

Wigan Athletic (1991-95)

 

Scotland( All )

Airdrieonians (1993-95)

Alloa Athletic (1988-92)

Brechin City (1988-94)

Caledonian Thistle (1994-95)

Clyde (1991-94)

Clydebank (1989-95)

Cowdenbeath (1986-88)

Dundee (1987-92, 1994-96)

Dunfermline Athletic (1994-96)

Falkirk (1994-96)

Forfar Athletic (1988-92)

Greenock Morton (1989-95)

Hamilton Academicals (1986-95)

Kilmarnock (1986-95)

Montrose (1990-95)

Motherwell (1987-90)

Partick Thistle (1994-95)

Peterhead (1989-90)

Queen OT South (89/96)

St Johnstone (1986-89)

St Mirren (1987-94)

Stirling Albion (1993-95)

 

Ireland ( selected)

Derry City (approx. 1993-95)

Sligo Rovers (approx. 1993-95)

Shamrock Rovers (approx. 1993-96)

In my opinion, the replica shirt craze really kicked off post Mexico ’86. Yes, there was definitely a lot of love for the England Admiral shirt at Espana ’82 but the company was going through something of a nervous breakdown at the time and while a fair amount of schoolboys and older fans had managed to secure a replica of the iconic design, availability was not what it could have been.

Post 1986, however, Umbro knew they had something big. Many fans had worn replicas in the stadiums, taking advantage of the arid weather over there. The relative success of the team had made wearing an England jersey outside of game time more acceptable. In the next couple of seasons, fans of league teams would gradually start wearing their club replicas to games too. It was maybe a final salute to the summer sunshine, grown men happily bedecked in polyester, as a new season kicked off in mid-August.

While Umbro still dominated Division 1 and much of Division 2 as well as holding the contracts of the Old Firm in Scotland, adidas now had the big red three of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal. They weren’t going to be losing much sleep over the Readings and Bolton Wanderers of this world. But in typical footballing parlance, someone could do a job there.

Soon, many clubs were seeing the value in going into contracts with these up and coming brands. Spall, Scoreline and Ribero were no doubt able to offer cheaper alternatives to the behemoths of adidas et al. Presumably the percentage of profit was a better option for this clubs too.

Matchwinner had gotten their start, they were still feeding off the scraps that the big boys didn’t want or need. But at least they were at the table. And the real fun was soon to begin.

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