What makes an England shirt iconic?

While we are still waiting for official confirmation (i.e. a Tweet from @KitmanPat, the England kitman, turned must-follow Twitter account) all signs point to England walking out at Wembley for Sunday’s Euro 2020 final against Italy wearing their white Nike home shirt. 

That shirt will be the first in 55 years to be worn by the England Men’s Team at the final of a major international tournament – England women reached the final of Euro 2009 – with the last of course being that iconic red shirt worn by England’s World Cup winners against Germany in 1966 – we just can’t bring ourselves to count the 1997 Tournoi de France, no matter how nice that Umbro away kit looked.

So as England’s squad will follow in the footsteps of those ‘66 heroes, so too will their home kit follow one of the most recognisable symbols in English football history. No pressure then. 

The journey of this team, wearing this shirt, all the way to the final of Euro 2020, means that now is the time to consider how this particular vintage of England shirt will be remembered in the years to come. Will it be remembered alongside the 1966 shirt, regardless of Sunday’s result? Will it forever be tied to one player like the 1996 home shirt’s legacy is attached to Gazza and that half-volley against Scotland? And above all, what does it actually take to make a shirt iconic? 


Three lions on a shirt

But before looking at all of that, let’s just start with the kit itself. Dropping as part of Nike’s one-day international shirt bombardment back in September, the shirt instantly won over England fans thanks to that subtly patterned crew-neck collar and centralised crest and logo. 

Things only improved once the shirt hit the pitch, thanks to the addition of a superb typeface from Alex Middleton on the back and, most importantly, the front of the shirt. However, having become so used to seeing the shirts feature this typeface on England players throughout Euro 2020, that has also had the unintended effect of shirts without the numbering on the front looking a little too plain. 

Thankfully for this shirt, and its potential legacy, aesthetics are not everything when it comes to securing iconic status. Yes, other ‘icons’, such as The Netherlands ‘88 shirt, come with a stunning design, but when looking back on England’s other arguably iconic shirts – those from 1966 and 1996 – both seem to have gained their reputation as a result of the stories they were part of.

As much as it stands out in colourised photos, the 1966 shirt is little more than a plain red shirt, but it was the plain red shirt that accompanied England to their one and only World Cup win. England have worn better shirts since ‘66, but also had limited success in these shirts. We all know how a football shirt can represent a memory, a time, or a place, and few fans care to remember those early tournament exits or embarrassing defeats to the minnows. 

And much like England’s current home shirt, that Euro ‘96 top was also held up on the quality of its typeface, with that famous black and light blue font giving England shirts a distinctive look. For many, it is the shirt with the no.8 on the front of it that caught their imagination at that tournament.

By all accounts, Paul Gascoigne did not light up Euro ’96 in that no.8 shirt, but he did produce the moment of the tournament, playing the ball over Scotland’s Colin Hendry, before meeting it on the half-volley to score a magnificent goal past Andy Goram. Topped off with the famous ‘dentist’s chair’ celebration, that moment – and as a result that shirt – was instantly etched into the minds of the millions of fans watching. 

Coupled with a semi-final run that would not be matched by an England Men’s team in a major tournament until the 2018 World Cup, and being linked to the ‘90s fashion zeitgeist that so dominates football apparel nowadays, the England Euro ‘96 home shirt hits all the marker of what it takes to become ‘iconic’: a stand-out design, an impressive tournament run, and a memorable moment.


Unforgettable

So with that rough definition in mind, where does that leave this current England shirt ahead of its Euro 2020 final appearance? Well as we have already covered, the design itself seems solid enough to last, and even more so for those who forked out to get the lettering and numbering front and back. A further positive indicator in its favour has been its popularity with fans.

At the time of writing, days before the final, the shirt is sold out from most mainstream retailers, Nike included. For the American brand this is an unequivocal victory, with England’s deep run in the tournament and the subsequent clamour for the Summer’s must-have shirt providing the sort of exposure and sales that offsets their £400 million deal with the FA

And even if you can get a hold of the shirt, you might still struggle to get that typeface on the back. As football freelancer Flo Lloyd-Hughes pointed out, London’s Nike Town shop had run out of 1s earlier in the tournament, perhaps suggesting many were backing Marcus Rashford with a no.11 shirt, or the older of the no.10, Raheem Sterling. 

It will be interesting to see in the years to come which players it is that people wanted to remember at this tournament. Rashford was likely an early favourite of fans pre-tournament thanks to his incredible off-field efforts, but with one game left it seems that Sterling is the outstanding candidate for the player with whom this shirt will be linked, thanks to his match-winning performances throughout the run to the final. 

But in truth, this shirt is more likely to be remembered for the collective rather than the individual. This England team, led by Gareth Southgate, have done so much to bring millions together in a shared goal, with each player, coach and staff member playing a part in that effort. That feeling of unity that is currently sweeping the nation will only increase the chances of this England shirt being remembered. 

Given the status held by the shirts of Euro ‘96, it feels like the 2021 England home shirt will achieve iconic status no matter what the result is on Sunday – but only time will tell what shape that takes. Will ‘Sterling, no.10’ become the new ‘Gascoigne, no.8’, will young fans at Euro 2044 be wearing this shirt to the new new Wembley? Part of that may depend on how Sunday goes, but for now it seems unlikely that this shirt will be forgotten any time soon. 

Matt Leslie

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