For football shirts, and the culture that surrounds them, the 1990s is now seen through a lens of hyper-nostalgia by today’s football fans. It had Kappa at the peak of its powers with Barcelona, Juventus and a surprisingly good Manchester City release, while iconic mavericks like Eric Cantona, David Ginola and Ronaldo Nazário made individual shirts memorable with their style both on and off the pitch. But few collaborations from that time have had as lasting a legacy as Arsenal and adidas.
So to celebrate that period in football shirt history, this piece will head back to the 90s to explore some of the best pieces produced by the Arsenal x adidas collaboration during the 1990s.
In 1990, Arsenal and adidas were already four years into their first partnership, and so despite initial opposition, those in charge of the club were slowly allowing the brand to push the boat out a little further each year with their shirts.
They seized their chance to do this with the 1990-91 home shirt (below), adding a reflective pattern with varying shades of red, moving away from one block colour that had been used previously. The move to use white shoulders on the tops also proved controversial, but this allowed the Three Stripes to run from the collar down the length of the arm, with the navy blue colour used really standing out.
While not as outstanding as some of the shirts to come, this one certainly holds a special place in many Arsenal fans’ hearts, given the events of their 90-91 season. Having developed the final-day champions of ‘89, George Graham’s squad of Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Paul Merson and the rest claimed a second title in three years.
While the following 1992-93 season would not produce the same success in terms of trophies, Arsenal and adidas were about to make a true statement in the football shirt world of the 90s. The bruised banana shirt certainly made waves upon its release, however, they were not quite as positive as the ones that would come in the proceeding years.
Reviews of the shirt at the time described it as “a bad acid trip” and a “psychedelic meltdown”, while even one of the shirt’s most famous wearers, Ian Wright, claimed that at the time he “hated” the shirt. But over time, love for the bruised banana has grown, with more and more fans coming to adore the colour combination of yellow, blue and red within the shirt’s dizzying array of patterns. Even the JVC shirt sponsor and adidas trefoil - the last example of the old adidas logo seen in the Premier League - fit well within the design, thanks to their red highlighting.
At the time, dislike for the shirt was also attributed to the club wearing it during an embarrassing 2-1 defeat to fourth-tier Wrexham in January 1992, but I have a sneaky suspicion that some of the difference in opinion come from the fact that the likes of Hector Bellerin, Alexandre Lacazette and other Arsenal players of today perhaps pull off the intended edge of the famous design better than their counterparts, Tony Adams, Steve Bould and co., did back in the early 90s.
But one man who unequivocally pulled off the shirt was the aforementioned Ian Wright, who was in his debut season with the Gunners when he first donned the bruised banana shirt. Both Wright and the shirt made an instant impact in a September 1991 league game against Southampton, as Arsenal’s future all-time top scorer grabbed the first three of his 24 league goals that season, wearing a stunning all yellow strip due to the usual dark blue shorts clashing with those of Southampton. It’s a look that the current Arsenal replicated just last week against the same opposition.
Arsenal ended up keeping the bruised banana design until the 1993-94 season, but opted to change up their home shirt a bit sooner. Ahead of the 1992-93 season, adidas went all out on adding blocked lines to their shirts, as can be seen on the sleeves of Arsenal’s home shirt and the chest of David Seaman’s goalkeeper top for that season.
But beyond these blocks adding an interesting element to previously plain shirts, it also led to both the club crest and adidas logo being moved centrally. I love the novelty of a central crest on a shirt, but the addition of the adidas logo coming with it and forming part of the collar puts this home shirt up with some of the best Arsenal releases in Premier League history - perhaps only pipped by a certain redcurrant shirt in 2005-06.
This goalkeeping top design and the home shirt both stayed until the end of Arsenal’s first contract with adidas in 1994, but both shirts got a final chance to shine during Arsenal’s victory in the 1994 Cup Winners’ Cup against Parma. UEFA rules at the time banned sponsorships, meaning the shirts appeared plain. While the JVC logo is one of few that can fit nicely on a shirt design, the lack of it in this game allowed the bold designs and placements used by adidas to really shine, as Alan Smith’s only goal secured a solid 1-0 for the London club.
In the four main adidas shirts featured in this article that Arsenal wore, a number of design elements are used that have been brought back by the brand in recent years, both at Arsenal and for teams across the world. The overlapping collar seen on the 1990-91 home shirt has been seen on plenty of recent releases, including this year’s Arsenal home top, and the block stripes used from 1992-94 have made a big comeback this season in the MLS.
But really, few clubs have gone in for this nostalgia quite like Arsenal in the last year. Adidas have provided an entire range of gear inspired by those four years in the 1990s, producing old school tracksuits, baggy jumpers and of course the updated bruised banana away shirt.