By David Breach
Few love affairs first established at Southampton Sports Centre have survived until the following morning, let alone 40 years later. Mine does.
It was in the late summer of 1980 at the Centre’s Pitch 2, while watching my father play cricket, that I first saw Southampton’s Patrick-made kit – and immediately feel in love with it. It was so different, so revolutionary, so polyester-ey and I knew that it had to be mine. Eighteen long, long months later, my parents obliged with an over-sized Saints shirt the focus of my seventh birthday and I don’t think it left my back for the next three years.
The kit is still much-loved by us Saints fans, summing up a time when Southampton were a glamour club – a statement that must seem an oxymoron for more recent generations. It was the kit worn when Saints had seven past and future England captains on their books in the same calendar year. It was the shirt they wore when they headed the top flight for the first ever time in November 1981 and became perennial European qualifiers, and the kit worn when they finished runners-up by just three points to Liverpool in 1983/84.
Many great and iconic goals were scored in the shirt too – from Ivan Golac’s screamer versus West Brom through Danny Wallace’s goal of the season live on the BBC against Liverpool to Steve Moran’s last minute winner against Portsmouth in the 1984 FA Cup. No wonder the kit brings back such happy memories.
For us youngsters at the time, wearing the kit meant being Kevin Keegan, Alan Ball, Steve Williams, Danny Wallace, and – after my mother’s three monthly hacking of my hair – David Armstrong, and the kit seemed to be universally worn by us schoolkids at Upham Primary School. Teams for the lunchtime kick-around were divided between those wearing the home version and those in the away strip, with non-wearers put into the team their t-shirt most resembled.
Identity may have helped the kit become so popular. It hit the sweet-spot between maintaining the traditional stripes (sort of) of the club while still being different to similarly attired teams. To glance it even quickly on television or in a magazine was to immediately recognise Southampton – no chance of mixing us up with Sunderland, Sheffield United, Brentford, Lincoln City, Exeter City and the others who match red and white stripes with black shorts.
The design was a Patrick template shared by Birmingham City, Reading, Derby County, Bradford City and Wrexham among others. However, whether through coincidence or planning, none of the clubs shared the same colour scheme. It meant fans of these clubs could also recognise their team quickly and obviously.
The away kit used the same template but in two shades of blue – the colour of our very loud and angry Portsmouth neighbours. Of course, no fan wishes to associate with the identity of their fierce rivals, but the memories being made while wearing this blue kit means it remains fondly remembered even today. Unfortunately, my parents felt that having one shirt was enough, so ownership of the blue kit remains only as a future goal of mine.
The home kit also offered something for the true connoisseur. The Patrick logo on the sleeve of some of the players’ shirts featured a red and blue stripe within the ‘P’-type device, but only a few of the replica versions did. The sleeves, meanwhile, seemed to be all red but featured a thin white stripe underneath, and to see that underarm stripe on television was almost a form of titillation for those of us in the know.
Three different sponsors featured on the shirt – each sponsor coinciding with a different narrative of the early 1980s Southampton team. The first versions were sponsored by Rank Xerox, with the sponsors name seeming to take up a huge space. The company was a collaboration of two large companies of the time, somewhat reflecting the big names Southampton were signing during this period.
Air Florida followed Rank Xerox as shirt sponsor for one season, though the company actually went bust before that season started. Despite this, their name remained emblazoned across the kit and the cheapness of their flights and holidays to Florida mirrored the cheapness of the fuzzy-felt-like sponsors name applied to the shirt. Ironically, though the sponsor failed as a business, this proved to be Saints’ most successful season which featured a cup semi-final and the league runners-up spot.
Draper Tools were the final sponsor of the kit, a company that was growing a national presence but remained a local business. Saints too were showing themselves to be similarly provincial, a few big names left the club to help balance the books and despite a couple more semi-finals to look forward to, they never really challenged the traditional big names for the league or impressed the national audience again.
Why do I still love the shirt today? I’m not sure if it was because it was the first Saints kit I remember, or because of the great football played in it, or because it was one of the few kits that was recognisably Southampton and no one else’s – living in a village outside of a provincial city, perhaps I was yearning for an identity that the shirt gave me.
It’s a love that lasts to this day and has survived my occasional affairs with, most notably, the Denmark 1986 kit and various River Plate shirts. Marriage guidance counsellors will no doubt point out that Saints actually used both these designs in later times showing that at least one of us needed to change to appease the other. But it’s still the Patrick kit that holds my heart.
Under Armour tried to use the template recently, but the design seemed too fussy and it lacked the simplicity of the original. But this might be me being very picky because I remain extremely loyal to that first ever Southampton shirt by Patrick. It was my first love, after all.