First off, a couple of important things to clarify.
Manchester United lost 3-1 at The Dell on April 13, 1996, the day of the infamous half-time kit-change – this incident is sometimes erroneously applied to the 6-3 defeat at Southampton in October of that year, when they wore blue and white for the entire game.
Secondly, the bulk of the shirt is actually white, but a series of black dots give it the appearance of being grey (similar to Reading’s ‘TV interference’ shirt, which was white and blue).
Thirdly, Manchester United didn’t change their ‘grey kit’ at half-time – which is why it is part of the Mashup series. On the left is the kit launched in the summer of 1995.
The Southampton game saw a different configuration used, with the white home shorts and white home alternative socks worn. While there was no compulsion to change shorts, United almost always do so and it must have been felt that grey-white-grey wouldn’t have looked good – or else that they would help to alleviate any visibility issues.
It’s that combination which is the one in the mind’s eye, because of the interval switch after United went 3-0 down in the first half.
While they went on to lose the game, they ‘won’ the second half in their blue and white third kit as Ryan Giggs scored a late goal. A side-effect was that Peter Schmeichel, who started the game in a blue goalkeeper strip, also had to switch, to yellow and green.
As pointed out by the brilliant United Kits, the shirts featured Premier League patches with ‘Champions 1993-94’ on them – the only games where blue and white had been used that season up to then were against York City and Sunderland in the domestic cups, where a patchless 1-11 set was worn.
When questioned afterwards, United manager Alex Ferguson cited the problem of spotting team-mates:
The players don’t like the grey strip, it is as simple as that. I think they find it difficult to pick each other out.
It is very difficult for me to discuss because we have great respect for Umbro, who have been marvellous sponsors of our.
But, enough is enough. As far as I am concerned, we had to change the strip.
The result meant that the shirts had had five outings with no wins registered – a draw in November at Nottingham Forest was the only game they didn’t lose. The superstition element was cited in some quarters as the reason for the kit’s abandonment, but the fact that they brought the third kit with them would seem to indicate that there were misgivings about the grey before the Southampton game.
As revealed by Gary Neville on the podcast Quickly Kevin, Will He Score?, consultation with vision specialist Gail Stevenson had convinced Ferguson of the unworkability of the grey.
He hated that kit but there is a science behind it. Sir Alex had employed a professor on sight, a vision specialist.
She brought in a lot of eye and alertness exercises and said to Sir Alex to imagine a crowd behind you, there are colours you can see more than others.
It is the reason people wear bright yellow on a motorway. She believed when you saw these grey kits that the players won’t pick each other up at a distance.
It had been going on for months and he had rejected this kit a couple of months before. He wasn’t having it.
When some of us made mistakes, it was ideal for him. He was a master of distraction and taking the headline away from the players.
For the final game of the season, the win over Middlesbrough to clinch the title, the blue and white kit was worn, while a new white change shirt was launched in the summer of 1996. At the start of 2017-18, grey returned to the United palette on the new third shirt. Worn eight times, the team beat Basel, West Ham United, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth in it and there were no identification difficulties reported.