Replica or player issue shirts – which is better?

It’s decision time.

That shirt which everyone has been hyping up for months has finally been released. Twitter is going crazy. Every wannabe influencer under the sun is offering their hot takes, and someone has even managed to get hold of one early and is already showing off pictures. There’s even someone sharing out discount codes, and a full breakdown of where the best place to buy the shirt is.

You have a decision to make though. Do you go for the replica shirt, or the player issue shirt?

Your gut feeling says replica; after all it looks identical, and is £30 cheaper! But you notice someone talking about the merits of player issue kits, and how that’s where you’ll find the real beauty. And of course, you’ve got that discount code ready to go…

The decision on which sort of shirt to go for isn’t necessarily a straightforward one, and with regular sales on most shirts it’s often possible to pick up a player issue shirt for much cheaper than you’d expect. We thought we’d look at the subject for the next part of Collectors Club.

Helping me today is Rik, a collector with a reputation as something of a player issue expert. Me and Rik will be talking about the differences between replica and player issue, helping you to answer that all important question.

Which is better – replica or player issue shirts?

1. Understand the landscape

When talking about replica or player issue shirts, there is a lot of terminology to get your head around. Thankfully, despite some differences between brands, there are some industry-wide terms to get you on the right foot.

Firstly, the majority of shirts you see for sale and in people’s collections will be replica shirts. As a rule of thumb, if people are talking about football shirts they’re probably talking about replica shirts.

Other words sometimes used in place of replica include “fan” and “stadium”.

Rik: [Replica] is the most common shirt fan in retail shops and online. [Typical features include] standardised sizing [and] a common polyester fabric between most shirts (pending on print or pre-dyed).

It’s worth noting that some players will effectively be wearing ‘replica’ shirts on the pitch, due to the type of deal they have with kit suppliers, whilst some brands simply don’t provide differing levels of shirts (this will be more common with smaller brands).

In the tier above replica shirts are player issue shirts. These shirts feature very similar if not identical fabric and details to the shirts players will wear on the pitch, although there are sometimes subtle differences (more on that later). You might also see the word “authentic” used to describe player issue shirts, although this can be confusing as the naming implies that replica shirts are not genuine (when in fact they are!).

Rik: [Player issue shirts are] shirts that incorporate all the fabric technology, logos and fit of a match worn shirt, however created for the retail market to last a consumers normal wear. This includes full panel stitching, proper wash tags and standardised sizing.

For major brands and teams, you’ll also have match worn or match issue shirts. These will be similar to player issue shirts, but with more bespoke sizing for specific players (often done as a range of numbers rather than the typical S,M,L etc.), and potential differences with things like shirt detailing (i.e. match specific detailing) and labelling. 

Most teams don’t make match issue shirts readily available, unless they’re auctioning them off for charity.

2. Become a technology geek

One of the best ways you can identify whether a shirt is replica or player issue is by knowing what different technologies are in use for different brands. For different fabric types, you’ll often see a handy detail on the front of the shirt to clearly identify what you’re dealing with. These visual markers can also be used in conjunction with the aesthetic differences you’ll see on the shirt itself, although you often need to get up close to appreciate what is going on.

For example, Nike’s 2020 player issue shirts (also called “Vapor” shirts) have “NIKE VAPORKNIT” written as a small detail on the lower left side of the shirt as you look at it front on. The Vapor shirts themselves will also have a series of  ventilation holes (for performance and aesthetic reasons), which you can easily see with a decent enough close-up.

Rik: In most cases you will see differences. The branding on the shirt will often have the technology (Vaporknit, Heat.rdy, Dry Cell) labelled on it, as well as some logo branding to indicate this as well (such as gold labelling on the Nike engineered box on the hem).

3. Weigh up the cost

The biggest difference you’ll be immediately presented with in the debate of replica vs player issue is cost. As a standard, player issue shirts will cost as much as 50% more than a replica counterpart, sometimes more. 

For a lot of shirts, you’re paying for differences that no one will realise. Higher quality fabrics will feel different and potentially wick away something like 50% more sweat, but to most people you’ll be wearing the same shirt.

As such, the majority of fans would probably be better off going down the replica route.

For certain fans or collectors the extra cost of a player issue shirt is more than worth it though. Player issue shirts are rarer, and should in most cases hold their value as well if not better than replica shirts. There can also be notable jumps for certain shirts from certain brands and eras, including crests which look dramatically different or extra patches which aren’t present on a replica.

It all comes down to what sort of collector you are, and how you’ll be wearing your shirt (if at all!).

Rik: You’re essentially paying for the cost of innovation. The fabrics are a higher quality and incorporate a special breathability (by way of ventilation or multiple woven techniques). 

Higher quality details via heat pressed silicone or alternative method are far more pricey than the basic details of an embroidered badge. Quality Control is stricter and allocation of shirts in the player shirt issue is usually smaller.

4. Consider sizing differences

Alongside cost differences, you also need to be aware of size differences.

For virtually every brand, you’ll need to go up at least 1 size if you’re buying a player issue shirt compared to a replica. In some cases, you’ll even need to consider going 2 sizes or more up (looking at you Kappa).

The general rule is that player issue are tighter, so if you’re someone who doesn’t mind a fitted kit you might be able to go with the size you’d usually wear. Replica shirts however are designed for the average fan, and as such they are usually much more forgiving.

Rik: You will definitely notice a more fitted/slim fit to most brands player issue shirt. If you prefer room in your shirts, I highly recommend sizing up.

5. Be wise if you’re making the jump

After all of this you might be perfectly happy with going down the replica route, but if you want to make the jump to player issue be sure to play your cards right so you can get the most bang for your buck.

Like replica shirts, player issue shirts will be available during typical sale periods. Sometimes a player issue shirt will be available for well under the price of a replica shirt at launch, let alone a player issue shirt at launch, so as is often the case in the collecting game patience is key.

Be warned though, for both replica and player issue shirts the most sought after kits will be snapped up quickly, so be prepared to pull the trigger quickly if you’re completely enamoured with a kit.

Player issue shirts are becoming more and more readily available from vintage shirt resellers too, so if you’re open to different teams and brands you can often find classic player issue shirts as cheaply as classic replica shirts.

One final thought. Pulls and damage will effectively cost you ‘more’ with player issue shirts, as potential buyers of player issue shirts are likely to be more concerned about a shirt’s condition than buyer of replica shirts. Though this is a generalisation, it’s worth bearing in mind if you’re someone who tends to wear their kits quite frequently.

So which is better, replica or player issue? It depends on who you ask, but personally I would argue that every collector should own at least a couple of player issue kits. They’re a fair investment which needs consideration, but the differences are noticeable and for designs which you particularly like, it’s a good move.

The bread and butter of most of your collection will probably be replica, although having said that there are many collectors (like Rik!) who would opt for a player issue first approach if possible.

There’s no right or wrong way, but be informed and know the differences so you can make clear decisions when it comes to purchasing!

Thanks once again to Rik for joining me on today’s topic. Collectors Club is a series geared towards all of us who are shirt collectors, so be sure to catch up with our previous discussions on things like how to avoid buying fake shirts, and how you can wash and store your shirt correctly.

Phil Delves

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