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History

HISTORY: The trend-setting history of Admiral and Coventry City

20 May 2024

History

HISTORY: The trend-setting history of Admiral and Coventry City

20 May 2024

Is the colour of a kit sacred? The answer is invariably yes, with a few notable exceptions.

Although most football teams across the globe stick to the palate of their forefathers, some have dabbled in the dark arts of colour change, with varying degrees of success. Under the guidance of Don Revie, Leeds United switched to all white from royal blue in homage to all-conquering European champions Real Madrid. Revie led Leeds through a trophy-laden 13-year period.

A couple of years later, the other great moderniser of the time, Jimmy Hill, would switch Coventry in the other direction, away from predominately white to the famous Sky Blue, as part of the revolution that rebuilt the club when he took over from Billy Frith.

It was Revie and Leeds, along with a small clothing manufacturer from Leicester, who unwittingly gave birth to the replica football shirt market almost 50 years ago. A chance meeting at a Leeds United training session in 1973 meant that Admiral entered the world of kit manufacturing for the very first time — and football never looked back.

Revie and Admiral MD John Griffin agreed a deal under which Admiral would make Leeds a new strip and actually pay them to wear it. Revie told them the home kit was sacrosanct, but Admiral could do what it liked with the away strip and tracksuits. He and Griffin shook hands on a £7,000 fee for the club.

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How did this change the game? New(ish) legislation — the Design Copyright Act updates of 1968 — meant Admiral could copyright the new design and become the sole legal source of replica kits for whichever clubs they could get to sign a contract. Naturally parents, induced by its exclusiveness and their children's desire for the genuine article, would strive to purchase the legitimate one and trade up from the standard version of the past. No longer would kids who wanted to emulate their heroes wake up on Christmas morning and open essentially the same present. Admiral had cottoned on to the appeal of individuality.

And individual they certainly were. As Leeds' new shirts and tracksuit tops flew off the shelves over Christmas 1973, the club were set fair for the First Division title.

Not far behind, sartorially speaking at least, were Coventry. Hill's heralded return to Highfield Road as managing director in April 1975 highlighted once again his genius for spotting emerging trends. It was perhaps inevitable that one of football’s great innovators would seek out a company of equal vision to provide Coventry’s kits.

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Admiral’s venerated hourglass design graced many a kit during their imperial phase in the mid to late seventies, with white piping that started just under the shoulder blade and ran to the bottom of the shorts. City, under their forward-thinking director, got the bandwagon rolling for the 1975/76 season in sky blue for the home kit, of course, and a red away version. Then, in 1978, Hill signed off on one of the most infamous kit deals of all time.

Though reticent to change Ipswich Town’s home strip with the radical Admiral stylings proposed by John Griffin, manager Bobby Robson had been more susceptible to changing the away kit. However, his initial enthusiasm for that to be in brown had dampened by the time Griffin returned to Portman Road. In the middle of a bad run of form, Robson had seemingly come unstuck by the thought of being told that his team “look like shit and are playing like shit,” Andy Wells writes in Get Shirty: The Rise and Fall of Admiral Sportswear.

Hill’s skin was made of thicker stuff. After ringing Griffin in a fury having found out that West Ham were being paid £10,000 a year by Admiral to wear their kits, a full £3,000 more than Coventry, he inadvertently gave the Admiral boss a solution to the Ipswich problem. Griffin absorbed Hill’s spirited protestations and hung up the phone having agreed to match the £10,000, in return for Coventry sporting a new away kit.

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The quid pro quo resulted in Coventry trotting out in one of the most notorious strips of all time. The seventies were, by all accounts, a brown decade. Sepia, burnt umber, auburn, chestnut, russet, chocolate … colours synonymous with the times; there were 50 shades of brown everywhere you looked. But on football kits? Absolutely not. Then again if anyone had the fortitude to take on the traditionalists, it was Hill and Admiral.

First worn at Derby County’s Baseball Ground on 2 September 1978, the chocolate brown Admiral kit made an auspicious start, Steve Hunt scoring on his debut after swapping New York for the West Midlands. Ian Wallace netted the second that day as Coventry recorded a 2-0 win and moved into second place in the First Division.

Hunt was less than enamoured when he saw the kit that day, he told Coventry Live: “Living in the States I had a fair old sun tan, long blond hair — yes I did have hair back then — so I was looking a million dollars and I saw this brown kit and thought, ‘it’s got to be to warm up in, it can’t be what we’re playing in.’

Tommy Hutchison even went as far to profit from the disbelief: “It was the start of pre-season and we used to go down to the local pub, Colin Stein and I — we lived in Allesley village – and we’d go in there and we’d found out what colour the kit was going to be, the new kit … So we said: ‘We tell you what boys, we’ll give you three guesses for a pound if you can name the colour of the next away kit’ and not one of them got it. Even when we told them what the colour was going to be, they didn’t believe us.”

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Although sported only around 20 times between September 1978 and late 1980, the kit took its place in the football kit pantheon/hall of shame, depending on your personal preferences. Admiral’s dalliance with the club coincided with a period of unparalleled success for Coventry. Players of the calibre of Terry Yorath, Ian Wallace, Gary Gillespie, Hunt and the man who topped a Coventry Evening Telegraph poll to find the most popular Coventry player of the First Division era, Hutchison, all wore the sky blue and brown kits in the '70s and a seventh-place finish in the 1977/78 First Division season remains their second highest ever.

This is an adapted excerpt from Admiral: 50 Years of the Replica Shirt, available for pre-order now here

This beautiful coffee table book celebrates many of Admiral's iconic shirts, including Coventry's brown kit and Leeds' pioneering away strip. It features original photography and rare archive shots, as well as pieces by top football writers including Harry Pearson, Daniel Gray and Jacob Steinberg; interviews with Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer, Gerry Francis, Tommy Hutchison, Eddie Gray, Sue Smith, Viv Anderson and more; and recollections from famous fans such as Maisie Adam, Mark Watson and James Brown.

The 1978 Sky Blue admiral home shirt is available as part of our Retro Range - shop online now


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