- Jay Mansfield is back – see here for his wonderful blog featuring lots more Rangers content and here for his previous MoJ output
In the occasional hit-and-miss world of football kit design, there is a very real chance that your club or country is landed with a strip that is, to be frank, a bit of a clunker, despised by fans and snarky online listicle writers alike. But, wait! Redemption is possible, because a bad kit can become a good kit, and a good kit legendary, if your team achieves some form of success while wearing it.
There’s Arsenal’s 1988-91 away kit, immortalised by being worn in a dramatic, championship-winning performance at Anfield, West Germany’s 1990 geometric arrangement that became enmeshed with their World Cup triumph, the European special kit that Manchester United wore on their way to their first European Cup in 31 years.
If Celtic equal their own record of winning eight Scottish top-flight championships in a row next season, no doubt their eigh home shirts and 15 change shirts will be (Lisbon) lionised for the memories they invoke. As a Rangers fan though, the notion of Celtic-equalling nine-in-a-row is a pretty grim prospect. Instead I want to look at alternative versions of the two home strips that bookended Rangers’ own nine-in-a-row run in the late 1980s to mid0-90s, and became iconic in their own right.
Rangers’ crack at beating Celtic’s record for winning consecutive championships began with a fairly routine 2-0 victory over Hamilton Academical at Douglas Park, the second of three seasons wearing their grandad-collared checkerboard Umbro shirts. While manufacturers in the modern era are criticised for an over-reliance on templates, it’s worth noting that the design Umbro unveiled for the new England strip in the spring of 1987 was also used for Derby County, Aberdeen, Celtic, and Rangers, among others. Each of these strips utilised variants of Umbro’s innovative shadow fabric patterns, an exciting development at the time.
Like Nottingham Forest’s new strip, launched in the summer of 1986, Umbro had moved away from the simpler shadow stripe to a more complex weave based on checks; Forest and Aberdeen’s were large checks, Rangers’ small, while England, Derby, and Celtic saw theirs rotated 45 degrees to form diamonds. So synonymous with 80s has this design become, it’s almost like the football shirt version of the Telstar football. Want to invoke an 80s football strip? Chuck in some checks.
As noted by Chris Oakley in the Football Attic’s 50 Greatest Football Shirts feature, the checkerboard effect was more pronounced on the Rangers shirt than any of the others, and made this shirt what it was. It’s unthinkable to consider this design without all those little squares, right?
Surprisingly, there was a version produced that didn’t have them. It’s existence is not common knowledge I think, partly because it was only worn once (as far as I’m aware) in a pre-season friendly against Tottenham Hotspur that is more widely known for being the home debut of Mo Johnston.
While Glasgow has a reputation for being rainy, I’m not sure a sunny Sunday afternoon in August 1989 quite necessitated a version of the home strip that discarded the familiar checkerboard weave for a lightweight Aertex-like material, similar to that made famous when England’s 1970 World Cup kits were made from it.
In addition, the players’ numbers on the back were also different, being a thinner, rounder font than the usual blocky outlined numerals.
The exact provenance of these shirts is unknown; I wonder if they’d been ordered for the European Cup campaign, on the off chance an away leg was to be played in a far warmer country. We’ll never know as they only played two European games that season and didn’t wear it in either match. And to my knowledge it was never worn in a competitive first team game, with the club switching to Admiral at the end of that season.
We move from an alternate version of the first home strip worn during nine-in-a-row to a variant of the home strip worn during the final season. All five of the Gers’ jerseys during this period had been based on widely used templates, and the 1996-97 kit was no different, being almost identical to France’s Euro 96 effort.
As they had been sponsored by a brewery between 1987 and 1999, Rangers occasionally fell foul of continental bans on alcohol advertising (2018-19 saw a return to such European travails, this time with gambling sponsors being proscribed). One of the first examples was a match against Everton in 1987, in the Dubai Champions Cup, a short-lived annual friendly match between the champions of the Scottish and the English leagues. With alcohol being restricted in the United Arab Emirates, Rangers’ away shirt eschewed the usual ‘Lager’ part of the McEwan’s branding.
Nine years later, Rangers played Auxerre in France in the last matchday of the group stages of the 1996-97 UEFA Champions League. As McEwan’s Lager could not be carried on the strips due to a French ban on alcohol advertising, the club switched to carrying the wordmark of one of Scottish & Newcastle’s other subsidiaries instead, that of Center Parcs (Newcastle United promoted the resort against Metz that season, too). Changing the sponsor’s logo required manufacturing a fresh set of shirts though. While I can’t say for certain what happened next, I think it was along these lines:
A modern football shirt is made of several pieces of fabric joined together. This fabric often has magical wicking powers and patterns woven into it. In order to put shirts together, the various world wide factories are given the fabric and what’s known in the industry as a ‘pattern’, essentially a blueprint that tells them what size to cut the material and where the seams should be joined. Often the fabric is made and the strips assembled in different factories.
While Rangers should have known roughly three months in advance that they’d need shirts with an alternate sponsor, there was apparently some kind of snafu because when they lined up in the Stade Abbé-Deschamps, they did so wearing a very unusual shirt. While the 1996-97 home shirt normally had a shadow pattern of various positive and negative renderings of the RFC monogram crest within a shield, these shirts had a strangely familiar woven repeating motif of the monogram, three stripes, a Rangers wordmark…
Exactly what had happened is a bit of a mystery, but I suspect it was something like the following:
Rangers: Hi, we need a few dozen player shirts made up with a different sponsor logo for December. Can you help?
Adidas: Sure, let me speak to the factory that assembles them.
Factory: Well, we could make some new shirts, but we’ve run out of this season’s fabric. Get us some more and it’s no problem.
Adidas: Hmm. Is it worth ordering more fabric from the Far East? It might take a while to ship back over to Europe, and besides we already know they’re going to Nike next season…
Factory: We do have a fair bit left of the 94-96 back and sleeve fabric. That any good?
Adidas: Aye, that’ll do.
As I say, I’m not sure if that’s exactly what happened, but I don’t think it’s far off: some kind of error regarding lead-in times led to Adidas providing Rangers with a set of jerseys with Center Parcs branding and the last hurrah of the amazingly detailed 1994 vintage woven fabric (notably however, these inter-generational mashups didn’t have the previous shirt’s frontispiece, which featured a larger version of the motif over the right side of the chest).
Rangers’ special kit at Auxerre (left) and the 1994-96 home strip
While the mainstream version of each of these shirts is associated with Rangers’ greatest achievement of the last 40 years, the alternative versions are not so fondly remembered. That’s not surprising with the Aertex version, worn only once in a pre-season friendly, even if the club won the match.
Incidentally, Rangers were allowed to wear white shorts despite Auxerre having the same – also that season, the group game away to Ajax saw the Gers have to switch to all-blue.
While wearing shirts with Center Parcs logos instead of the usual McEwan’s logo could qualify these as great one-offs, Rangers’ record in the Auxerre game and a further two occasions advertising the resort the following season isn’t great. Two defeats and one victory against an Faroese side in a Champions League qualifier. Such patchy form is not how a kit becomes iconic.