Be it during the reign of Sir Matt Busby or more recently under Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United is synonymous with success, dominance and global appeal. So much so that it feels as though the club has forever been operating in the upper echelons of the world game with their bright red jerseys sported by proud fans the world over.
However, not only was the team founded under a completely different name, Newton Heath, in 1878, but the 20-time champions of England did not settle upon their now famous coloring – red shirts, white shorts and black socks – until the club was a quarter of a century old.
The earliest record of the game-day attire sported by Newton Heath comes from the Sportsman’s Year-book 1880, which lists the club’s registered colors as being white with a blue cord. With many teams of that era wearing white shirts as they were the cheapest and most readily available, it was common practice for a colored cord to also be won — possibly as either a kind of belt or a sash — to make the competing sides distinguishable.
A few years later the Heathens, as they were nicknamed, came to wear half green and half gold shirts in the early part of the 1890s – although there is some belief that the jersey was divided in green and gold quarters rather than halves, but there is no definitive evidence to clarify.
Soon after, the Manchester club took a step closer to the contemporary layout which we see today, as they donned white and red shirts, with the Athletic News Football Annual 1892/93 stating that Newton Heath had registers these as its colors for that season, with the design again being alternating quarters.
However, it is believed that this new look was not in place for long, with a reversion to green and gold made, albeit this time in stripes, and then on to predominantly green with a gold trim.
In 1902, Manchester United was born. The powerful behemoth of a club as we know it today came from inauspicious beginnings. Newton Heath’s mounting debts led to it being issued a winding-up order, essentially bankrupting it until it was bought up by captain Harry Stafford and a group of investors.
The new owners changed the name and instituted the red shirts which have largely been in place ever since – the only exceptions being a white top with a red “V” worn for a period in the 1920s, and a red and white hooped jersey worn for a single season in the mid-‘30s.
Fast forward half a century or so and United, under the auspices of Busby, were at the forefront of the budding technical leaps that were being made with matchday attire. Outdone by their European counterparts — particularly the great Hungarian team of the early 1950s who humbled the Three Lions at Wembley — England was beginning to embrace the need for lighter-weight jerseys using more breathable materials.
United and their kit manufacturer, Umbro, were leading the way, and the Red Devils were among the very first clubs to revolutionize the standard goalkeepers’ jersey, forgoing the heavy, woollen pullover style for something more akin to the tops being worn by the outfield players.
In 1998, the Red Devils became the first team to have a zip-up collar on its shirt. There were initially fears that the zip could prove dangerous, potentially causing injury if the jersey was tugged from behind by an opponent and the metal zipper failed to give. But there proved to be no such issue as Umbro made sure that the zipper would slide open under any small amount of tension. The jersey was not allowed in European competition, however, and United wore a similar jersey with a v-neck and no zipper.
Red, white and black may have been the established color scheme for more than a century, but United had not quite seen the back of the green and gold of its infancy.
Firstly, the green and gold halves design was reprised as an away jersey between 1992 and 1994 – a shirt which remains popular among fans to this day and often sells for three-figure sums on auction websites.
Then, when American billionaire Malcolm Glazer and his sons bought a controlling stake in the club in 2005, saddling United with hundreds of millions of pounds of debt, many fans decided to let their displeasure known with a gold and green-themed protest.
Symbolic of the club’s humble beginnings and the values that its fans hold dear, green and gold scarves were worn to games at Old Trafford by many supporters in the early years of the Glazer era, and some remain to this day.
As a mega-power of world football, it is easy to assume that Manchester United has enjoyed a charmed existence, but the club has undergone uncomfortable changes and upheavals throughout its history; the varying shirt colors stand as a fitting representation of the flux.
A great selection of official Manchester United soccer gear is available at World Soccer Shop.