Umbro and England – End of an Era

Posted by John Devlin


OK, I should really be working this morning but this week’s momentous events at Wembley on Wednesday have prompted me to down mouse and pen my thoughts on the occasion. I’m not talking about England’s 2-1 win over the mighty Brazil (come on, I’m a Scotland supporter) I’m talking of course about the farewell Umbro bade to England – the last home soil international hurrah from the country’s most famous sportswear brand – and a victory over the legendary Samba Boys was a helluva way to go out.

I’m not embarrassed to admit when the above graphic was released by Umbro the morning of the game I felt a lump in my throat. The image exudes a real emotion, sadness, a sense of self belief but above all pride in the work Umbro have produced for England over the past 50 years (give or take a few when Admiral pinched the contract). Add to this a cheeky dig at Nike’s most famous marketing strapline and you have a graphic that shows the depth of connection and meaning Umbro have had with England over the past half century. To see England play without the double diamond logo will take some getting used to.

I’m afraid I don’t really have a deep insight into the machinations of the Nike/Umbro split although to be fair once it was announced (and perhaps even before this) it was inevitable that Nike would cherry pick the cream from Umbro’s roster – including England. And despite its apparent contradictory nature Nike + England could be a very good match. My understanding is that one of the main issues in Umbro’s demise was its failure to be accepted as a trendy High Street sports brand by the ‘kids’ who much preferred adidas, Nike or Puma. Anyone with half a brain can see the quality Umbro imbibed in their football apparel but the brand simply wasn’t perceived as cool enough, which led to a gap in their revenue. Nike of course have no such worries and will surely do very good things for England.

But….I still feel a great deal of sadness for Umbro’s apparent fall from grace. Growing up as a Scotland and Liverpool fan in the late 70s their was only one football brand that mattered. The double diamond logo has accompanied my love and obsession with football kits all my life and over the years I have encountered and admired countless innovations, great ideas and ‘firsts’ in the football kit world, all produced by Umbro. My love for the brand goes hand in hand with my love for kits and one of the highlights of my work in football kits was when an Umbro employee told me in 2005 that my True Colours books (which naturally had featured simply loads of their designs over the years) had helped re-establish Umbro’s heritage and position in the football kit world. This isn’t a case of me blowing my own trumpet here, but just that I was so delighted that I could, in some way, repay Umbro for helping nurture my love of kits over the decades and how proud I was that someone in their company had felt that way about my work.

When Nike took over they were able to bankroll the company who then embarked on the ‘Tailored by…’ campaign and produced some simply superb kits along the way, spearheaded by the still incredible England 2009 home kit that quite frankly completed re-wrote the rule books as to how a kit should look. If you doubt this, take a glance through the current kits and see the ones that have been influenced by this sublime design. Despite links between the two companies this particular kit was an Umbro design, not Nike – although one that was able to be developed thanks to the security provided by Nike. Creative muscles were allowed to flex and Umbro’s designs became brave again. I know some folk found the marketing spin that accompanied some of their designs (especially for England) a little hard to swallow and despite my huge admiration for Peter Saville I do believe his involvement with the England 2010 shirt was a step too far. But one thing you can’t deny was that it was a courageous design full of integrity, REAL creative thinking and imagination – something surely lacking from other world famous brands who simply seem to churn out relatively unchanged designs year after year that hardly ever rock the world. In this day and age of single season kits so many brands simply coast, regurgitating teamwear designs and tired design motifs but Umbro always tried to do something different and poured their knowledge and passion for what a football kit could and should be into all of their kits. They ensured their teams looked classy, elegant and confident.

Their impact in the football kit world is immeasurable. Their influence widespread. And even in their older years they continually produced innovative and challenging designs without ever appearing crass and ill considered.

Quite what the future holds for Umbro is unclear but potentially very exciting and a chance to rebuild. Thanks to their recent acquisition by the Iconix Brand Group and their singular passion for kits I hope that they will still be around in some form. They disappearance from the high profile football world will be greatly missed and the football kit world will become less rich and more formularic than ever before – there is little doubt about that.

Umbro + England – for over 50 years you did indeed just do it, and any right minded football fan should thank you for that.