Recently, I’ve found myself – when I’m looking for something to take my mind of the general awfulness that has been 2020-22 – watching YouTube videos where people pressure wash driveways, or wash cars, or clean and service broken watches.
These types of videos could be categorised as ‘broadly satisfying’, a genre of often beautifully shot and edited films of people taking something that is in a poor state of repair and making it functional, or just aesthetically pleasing again. There’s something incredibly relaxing about watching a time-lapse video of someone moving and edging a garden with two-metre high grass back into something resembling normality. Personally, I think is partly down to human beings’ struggle to accept they have no control over entropy; we might not be able to change the direction of time’s arrow, but we can restore things to how they once were.
Over the last week, my choice of viewing has been videos about the restoration of old guitars. Stratocasters, mainly. Despite my first guitar being a Strat, I’ve never been a fan of them. They’re too light, too friendly, too inoffensive. A guitar with all the rough edges (literally) planed off. It’s also the musical instrument equivalent of the adidas Telstar football, a design that has become generic and somewhat bland due to its own ubiquity, which is why they feature in so many of the aforementioned clips. As soon as I could afford to upgrade my guitar I did, buying a Gibson SG Standard from a music shop in Wolverhampton which I still have to this day, and which I adore.
(It occurs to me that football is unique among the major ball sports – while the basic design of cricket balls, American footballs, basketballs, baseballs, and hockey pucks are all fairly standard, soccer balls can change from division to division, country by country, and year by year. In this regards, it’s perhaps no surprise that the Telstar, used in the early days of NASL and widely televised sport, has become visual shorthand for a football.)
And yet, despite not liking how Strats look, or how they play, and acknowledging the fact nary a few of my favourite guitarists play them…I still find myself drawn to the idea of the Stratocaster. Sometimes their proportions don’t look completely infantile to me. But then, sometimes I do like things I don’t actually like.
I can’t really explain what I mean by this. We all have preferences in life (I personally like Adidas clothing, rock music and German cars) but we live in a world where we quite often have to be pragmatic and settle for something outside those preferences, which might be something we dislike. There is the odd occasion though when we venture out of our comfort zone for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to us; we just fancy a change – iPhone to Android, Volkswagen to Toyota, blinds instead of curtains. I once bought a pair of Nike Total90 Astroturf trainers as I quite liked them, and wanted a change. Never again. Like the Stratocaster, there are a number of football strips from days gone by that as a dilettante collector I would never, never consider buying, and which I think are a bit tacky, which I would be embarrassed if I saw my team wearing them, and yet…and yet I’m quite fond of them.
There’s an (in)famous picture of Phil Babb during his time at Coventry City, wearing the 1992-94 away kit (it’s quite often licensed when newspapers and websites want to run a story on the worst kits ever). In the image, Babb is taking a throw-in at what looks like it could be Goodison or Boundary Park, Ribero logo on his right breast, a sponsor you can actually identify, his shirt neatly tucked in, and a Mitre Delta balanced in his right hand. There’s something strangely magnificent about that red crazy-paved Ribero shirt, the white shorts, and the red socks.
I really, really love the colourway. In the Euro 2020 edition of the Football Kit Podcast, both Denis of Museum of Jerseys and John Devlin of True Colours stated their preference that a club’s set of kits should utilise a standard palette of colours in order to retain the team’s identity across the various alternates. While I appreciate this viewpoint, I must demur. When I was first getting into football, it was uncommon for either of my teams (Rangers and Scotland) to wear change strips that actually referenced their first-choice colours. As a result, I quite enjoy when a team wears an away strip that looks absolutely nothing like their home kit. In fact, I find it kind of apposite. It’s a change kit, after all; why not change your appearance altogether?
But, while I’m tickled by the colour of this kit, my feelings about the design are a little more complicated. By the summer of 1992, Europe’s big two kit manufacturers, Adidas and Umbro, were continuing to push boundaries of football kit design. The former were in the heart of their Equipment phase and the latter were experimenting with strange 1930s-inspired collars and baggy shorts, so by contrast Ribero’s regulation wing collar and graphic print combos seemed quaint even then. In fact, one could argue that the firm’s offerings for Coventry in 1992 looked more old-fashioned than the Asics kits they replaced, something that was far more noticeable in the days when clubs retained kits for two or three years.
A recurring theme in the guitar restoration videos I’ve been watching is that the luthiers don’t want to replace yellowed pickguards and pick up covers or try to clean the patina of sweat and dirt that’s accrued on the body because they’re part of the history of the instrument. Perhaps historical football kits acquire their own patina, formed of trophy wins and defeats, giant-killing exploits, legendary players, changes of fashion, and the march of time. Would Norwich’s blood relative Ribero home kit be as well-regarded if it weren’t for that night in Munich in 1993?
Of the 22 teams that formed the 1992-93 FA Premier League, two wore adidas Equipment and 11 Umbro. The remaining nine were dressed by Asics, Ribero, Bukta and Admiral, with QPR sporting what appears to have been an in-house design. I loved the adidas and Umbro kits, and liked the Asics and Admiral strips, but the remainder didn’t really click for me. They didn’t seem very inspired, particularly if your head was turned by what their rivals were doing.
Looking back from 30 years on, what their contemporaries were producing is less of a consideration when re-appraising the Coventry away kit. The 12-year-old me, who was already developing a shirt collection habit, would probably never have looked twice at a Ribero kit at the time, but I like to think I’ve always had some respect for the lesser lights of football kit design. We can’t have light without darkness, and equally we probably wouldn’t appreciate the great football strips quite the same way without the existence of kits we don’t like. So here’s to Coventry’s red Ribero away kit; you might not win any (good) awards, but you were alright.