Whatever happened to long sleeve shirts?

Whatever happened to long sleeve shirts?

It’s cold, isn’t it? No matter how many box-to-box runs you’re doing, it’s still cold, and players must be just as cold as us watching the game. So why don’t you see anyone on the pitch in long sleeve shirts anymore? And why are base layers the biggest scourge modern football?

For most non-league teams, the decision to wear short sleeves is an economical one. Why by two sets of kits; one for when it’s warm and one for when it’s cold?

But cast your eye at the professional game, where players have a fresh shirt for each half of football, then the unease at seeing so many naked forearms only multiplies.

Even just a few years ago, players like David Beckham, Paul Ince, Stan Collymore or David Batty seemed to be in a perma-state of long-sleeved-ness.

And professionals in long sleeves was always the tradition. Right from football’s founding days, long sleeves were the standard. Shirts made from thick, heavy cotton which would carry half the pitch’s mud away with the players on an especially heavy day.
This was always the case, until those liberals on the continent started to impose their worrying fashions on the straight-laced Brits. England’s 3-6 humiliation at Wembley by Hungary marked the beginning of a new era, for England’s style of play, but it also changed how footballers in Britain looked when they played.

It reportedly inspired Umbro to produce a new, streamlined kit which was first worn by the England team in November 1954. The “Continental” style, as it was called, featured sleek V necks instead of cumbersome collars, short sleeves and lightweight, shorts cut much shorter than the traditional style worn in the UK (many European sides had been wearing light weight shorts since before the war). These modern-looking strips caught on quickly with clubs and by 1957 almost every team in England and Scotland was wearing the new-look outfits.

This was just a flirtation with the short sleeve though, as for most of the 60s Umbro returned to the long sleeve. Too hot? Shut up, roll your sleeves up and get on with it.

But as technology improved, and manufacturers realised that being hot was no fun, Umbro created the ‘Airtex’ shirt for the 1970 world cup, with small holes for ventilation.

“Really I think it was a style thing,” says kit historian and author of True Colours John Devlin.

Some players always wore long, other tough types stayed resolutely short, many changed depending on conditions. This was the natural way of things until about 10 years ago. Devlin says Rooney was the trailblazer for the move towards base layers.

“He was one of the pioneers, he was known for wearing the base layer,” he says. His adoption of the style fit a broader trend. “From the 2000s, the emphasis went from design, aesthetics, to fabrics. The sportswear firms became obsessed with performance, so lightweight shirts, moisture wicking, and every shirt was 25 per cent lighter than the previous one… You do question some of these stats”

There’s a under-celebrated marketing genius out there somewhere who realised that if you stopped calling clothes things like long johns and thermal undergarments, and referred to them as base layers or Underarmour, then impressionable young men would be far more willing to wear them.

Base layers are promoted as effective for absorbing sweat from the skin. Their tightness is supposedly good for preventing muscular injury. A skin-tight shirt is going to be harder to grab hold of when jostling during a corner than a baggy old-style long-sleeve.

Still, some wonder if football is really following the science. “Were the sports scientists paid off by what I’m calling ‘big base layer’?” asks Doug Bierton, somewhat mischievously.

Bierton is the co-founder of enormous shirt marketplace Classic Football Shirts. “Kids want exactly what the players are wearing,” he says. “If Messi and Neymar are wearing base layers then the kids will want base layers. And that’s more profit than people buying long sleeve shirts.”
According to Middlesborough kit man Peter Darke, the base layer revolution took hold a little around 2017/18. “The shirts used to be XL, one size for everybody. You look back at the history of Middlesbrough, you go back to Juninho when he was here and you see the size of the shirt that used to be on him, it was unbelievable.

“Players are so much more cared for and looked after now. Shinpads have changed dramatically, boots have changed dramatically, the technology that goes into a shirts has changed dramatically in the past 10 years.”

The current generation of young players have grown up with base layers as standard so are unlikely to consider a change of habits.

And according to the Everton kit man Jimmy Martin, this is just another example of overpaid prima donna footballers getting whatever they want.

“They feel better in it, you’ve got to have it these days. It’s not like years ago, if they’d come to me and said ‘I want that’ I’d just tell them to get lost.

“I wouldn’t have had any players in under-layers, hats or gloves. Or coaches, but it’s all changed now.”

One hold out at Everton was James Rodriguez, but according to Martin; “He just wears it because he’s cold, he still has an under-layer underneath”.

But a few faithfuls aside, it seems the long sleeve shirt’s days are numbered. Several English clubs don’t even bother making replicas any more. You can buy Manchester United’s home shirt with long sleeves, but not their dazzle ship third strip. Liverpool only sell short sleeves. This scarcity means long sleeved versions will remain collectible.

The traditionalists have an uphill struggle. For many years Arsenal had a rule. The kit man and captain decided whether it was a day for long or short sleeves and the rest of the team followed suit.

“When you look at that you realise how great it is when the team looks uniform,” says Devlin. “The clue’s in the word.

“The players should look good and when you’ve got base layers, especially when you’ve got teams like Blackburn Rovers who have different colour sleeves it’s you start to think, well where does the base layer come in?

“Celtic, do they have hoops on their base layer? They don’t. Should they have?

“It starts to look messy.”

The Arsenal sleeve tradition has fallen by the wayside in recent years. Now their players wear a mish-mash. All had short sleeves on, some were braving the cold, others went for a base layer. Most will be happy that Kieran Tierney probably won’t ever be Arsenal captain; the tough Scot would question why not just paint the shirt on our bare torsos? The lunatic.