How vintage football shirts became big business
Decades-old replica kit is no longer charity shop clutter – it’s a style piece.
In 1974, Admiral began producing the official England kit. Replicas were sold for a fiver (or £9 including the shorts and socks). Today, football kit has become a multi-billion pound industry. Manchester United alone shift nearly two million shirts every year – worth more than £120m. In other words, nearly one-and-a-half Paul Pogbas.
But it’s not just new kit that’s worth something. United might charge £65 a pop for a brand new replica but that’s mere pocket money compared to a 20-year-old shirt with “Beckham” on the back, which now fetches £350. Or take this outright bonkers 1995 quilted-padding goalkeeper jersey: swirling; blue-upon-blue colourway — yours, for a cool £1,250.
In 2019, old shirts are bringing in big numbers and that doesn’t necessarily mean match-worn kit, either – given a few years to age, a bog-standard Sports Direct replica has the potential to capture the imagination of fans. That crumpled England top in the bottom of your wardrobe? Yup, it’s probably worth something. Because woven in with the polyester is a priceless thread of nostalgia.
Classic Football Shirts is one of the UK’s biggest traders in the game. Founded by two students in 2006, today they sell vintage kits into the hundreds of thousands. Fans have grown tired of sterile, template designs and three Premier League kits being churned out every season. They want shirts that feel individual and exciting – ones that remind them of a more innocent time.
Brands have been quick to jump on the trend. Patta now collaborate with Umbro rehashing Nineties Ajax kit. Nike released a USA 94-referencing Nigeria shirt, sending hypebeasts wild. Even the kit manufacturers themselves are drawing inspiration from the designs of yesteryear.
Reselling vintage football shirts is a booming business. Dealers are springing up all the time, stocking everything from Premier League classics to niche J League one-offs. Here, four shirt dealers tells us about everything from the rarest kits to the ones most likely to fetch big numbers, and why a Dutch shirt from 30 years ago is the collectors’ holy grail.
Gary Bierton, Classic Football Shirts
“Since 2006 we’ve built what we believe to be the biggest football shirt collection in the world. The oldest we’ve sold was a 1935 West Brom FA Cup Final shirt and the most expensive went for £10,000: Juventus’s classic blue-and-yellow strip, match-worn in the 1996 Champions League Final. The most sought-after vintage shirt is the Holland Euro ’88 shirt – insanely popular for the crazy Adidas design as much as Marco Van Basten’s goal.
“One of the first gems we ever unearthed was a Mark Hughes match-worn 1988 Man United third shirt. We were sat in an old student house, playing Pro Evo on a rubbish TV, trawling through eBay on our laptops when we came across it. We were like, ‘Shit, that’s a Mark Hughes shirt – and we’ve just got it!’ We bought if for a steal – maybe less than £100. You wouldn’t be able to find is so cheap nowadays.
“Today, we have roughly 75,000 individual shirts and more than a million units of stock. But that excitement – that rush when you uncover a rare item – never grows old. You simply get deeper into the game: instead of finding rare replicas, it’s now one-of-a-kind match-worn shirts. There’s a strong network of collectors out there who buy and sell shirts. In recent seasons, we’ve bought directly from clubs and the kit manufacturers themselves.
“Our customer base is diverse. We have one customer from the Orkney Islands, for instance, who’s super specific — he collects tops worn by sides that David Moyes has managed, from Real Sociedad to West Ham. We also have a big following in Asia. Over there, it’s really a close knit-community, with forums and Facebook groups in the thousands, dedicated to shirt collecting – all fascinated by British culture and football.
“I think many wear older Premier League shirts as a way of connecting to that club’s traditions. In April, we curated an exhibition in Bangkok, where we displayed the best of the best of our shirts. It was mad. Collectors turned-up wearing priceless match-worn shirts, vintage Boca Juniors kit from the Nineties, still with the mud stains, like it was a form of high fashion.
“We started off thinking it was a niche interest. But in the last five years the industry has really taken off – we now sell upwards of 300,000 kits a year. It’s driven in some ways by nostalgia but also by fashion. There’s a bigger audience wearing football shirts away from the game. Brands are referring to the Nineties in their latest designs. Even ex-pros and greats from the game are now wearing our stock – we provide the shirts for What I Wore on BT Sport.
“We’re on the lookout for everything at this point. But building up our archive, you realise which ones you really want. United’s shirt for the 50th anniversary of the Busby Babes – completely blank, a ’50s throwback – is our holy grail now.”
Tomas Jones, Vintage Football Shirts
“It’s an industry borne from memories. Fans love looking back to old football matches when they were kids – shirts sparks the nostalgia. I first started by buying hundreds of England shirts for £13 each at the end of the 2006 World Cup. In 2010, I used some redundancy money to start trading from my spare room – it’s grown massively since then.
“Millennials have come of age. That’s why Liverpool’s 1989 shirt (above) is a big seller. Germany’s Italia ‘90 shirt is a classic because of the iconic Adidas chevron design. Then there’s the USA’s 1994 star-spangled away ‘Denim’ shirt – hideous yet immensely popular. We used to buy those for £30 each to sell – they now go for £350, at least.
“Holland’s Euro 88 shirt is the most collectible and sought-after shirt, ever. I had one brand new with tags and sold it seven years ago for £350 – it’s one of my biggest regrets. It goes for more than a grand nowadays. I have that conundrum all the time, that’s why I have a rack full of shirts I don’t want to sell, including Mark Hughes’s Barcelona shirt from the ’80s.
“We’ve sold to all over the world. Customers from Korea and North America will snap up Arsenal’s ‘Redcurrant’ shirt from 2005, or Nineties Liverpool kit. Sometimes we source surplus stock from brands or the clubs themselves, but it mostly comes from private sellers. Match-worn shirts still have the mud stains – it adds extra provenance and value. It makes it more of a one-of-a-kind.
“We supplied the shirts for The Class Of ‘92 documentary: the likes of David Beckham and Ryan Giggs were wearing our replicas. I’m a United fan myself, so if I could have one shirt it’d be Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s from the 1999 Champions League Final.”
Tom Allen, Classic11
“In the past decade, fans have become increasingly fed up with the mundane templates the big manufacturers keep churning out – they’re looking back towards vintage shirts. We’re finally reaching a point where supply can meet demand.
“Although most buy shirts from the team they support, there’s a growing number wearing them as style pieces. Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain shirts always sell well. It’s like when Drake wore the pink Juventus jersey – football shirts are a growing part of fashion and pop culture.
“Anything with a legendary player on the back – Zidane, Brazilian Ronaldo, Baggio – is hot property and sells instantly. After that, it’s iconic, cult jerseys: the likes of England’s shirt from Italia ‘90 and Newcastle’s 1995 ‘Entertainers’ shirt. It all comes down to nostalgia: the jersey triggers fond memories of great teams and players.
“The business of vintage shirts is flourishing. Mine started out of a hobby of collecting shirts – I decided to slim it down and made money. It grew from there. It always peaks around international tournaments, particularly World Cup year. So, the key is finding rare shirts during quiet periods. The best shirts to pick up now are ones that go against the grain, or have a story attached to them. Like Nigeria’s World Cup shirt which always sells out, Real Madrid’s dragon-sporting black strip from the 2014 – 15 season, or Liverpool’s Champions League-winning shirt from last season.
“Condition, rarity and size is key when pricing a shirt. We’ve sold one for £500: a mint condition Dennis Bergkamp Arsenal shirt from 1996 (above). It was perfect, a classic. The holy grail is the Holland Euro 88 shirt. It’s one of those that aren’t worth selling. It’d go for £1,000 today, but will be worth double in ten years’ time. Some shirts are worth more by just being hung up in your wardrobe for safe keeping.”
Guy Westbrook, True Vintage
“I think the popularity of vintage shirts isn’t just a nostalgia trip. They’re being worn as style pieces. I wear vintage Liverpool shirts to the pub, tucked into trousers with a pair of white trainers; it looks decent. Shirts from the Nineties are much more wearable than those designed in the last five or ten years — newer ones are collarless, way too tight-fitting and ruined by mesh.
“People want those old kits. We stock sweatshirts, jackets, trainers – some amazing vintage pieces and brands – and yet football shirts accounted for 10% of our sales last year. That’s a lot. Although we’ve sold football shirts for a while, we only properly pushed it before last year’s World Cup – because we could see how much it was growing.
“Branding and logos are key sellers for us. So, we look out for football shirts with big branding and colourful, cool design. Much of the time, that’s Umbro strips from the ’90s: classic buttoned-up collars and interesting print designs. The likes of Brazil’s shirt from USA ‘94 and Celtic’s mid-Nineties strip are the types of jersey I’d buy. Customers look for collabs with any clothing we sell, so a cool sponsor goes a long way: think Newcastle Brown Ale, Liverpool Carlsberg and Chelsea Coors.
“The best shirt we’ve ever had was Mexico’s shirt from France ‘98 (above) with the Aztec print. We’ve kept that one – it’s too rare and sick to sell. Many customers buy shirts as a fashion statement. Collared, colourful and so dazzlingly designed, you can wear them with plain trousers. Brands have clocked on to it. Nike’s new Spurs shirt features a retro collar and tick. Nigeria’s World Cup shirt sold out because it was vintage inspired. Cool, exciting designs are back.”