Neal Heard: The Football Shirt Collector
Neal Heard has been into clothing since he was a teenager growing up in Newport – but unlike most he’s managed to turn his interest into a business. Now aged 46, the writer and brand consultant has used his love of trainers to establish a flourishing career in the fashion industry and even published a book on the subject back in 2003.
Trainers are one thing, but Heard has also amassed a library of football shirts that span some of the formative years of European football. Representing classic designs from around the globe, it is almost a living record of British football over the last 35 years, running from the terraces of the late 70s, through the casual era of the ’80s and early ’90s to the rise of the Premier and Champion’s leagues. All via the Football Italia phase that everyone went through.
To document his passion for retro shirts, Heard has just published his second book, A Lovers Guide to Football Shirts. As much about the history of design and popular culture as the shirts themselves, it shows how a simple hobby can grow from a passion into an important, era defining document.
What were the first shirts you bought?
Oh, now we are going back into the midsts of time! The first shirts I owned were bought for me, but either way these shirts are at the heart of the collecting thirst. It was 1977, and just remembering it takes me back to the thrill of being the 8-year-old boy who on Christmas Day stood entranced looking through the small part of visible plastic that came on all Umbro replica kit boxes.
My first ever kits were the Liverpool White Away and the Scotland strip with the ‘Umbro Diamond’ on the arms (think Archie Gemmill). For some reason, the gold Liver Bird and black shorts of the Liverpool shirt and the Umbro Diamond logo at the top of the red socks on the Scotland kit captured my imagination and left marks still resonant today; sowing the seeds for the future years of collecting.
At what point did you think ‘I’m going to start a collection’?
I know only too well the formative years where the germs of what you may now term an obsession were born, and like every true collector, I have denial syndrome; I don’t think I collect at all!
Saying that, after purchasing and adoring shirts into my early teens, it was probably around the age of 19 that I actually started to collect them as it were. I had been going back and forth to London and especially to Camden Market and whilst looking for vintage clobber kept coming across weird and wonderful shirts from all around the globe. It was from then that I actually thought of collecting, not in an obsession form but definitely in form of thinking I’ll get this one and then that one.
What attracts you to a football shirt – is it the history, the design or a bit of both?
It’s definitely a bit of both. For me, there aren’t too many articles, especially clothing which can hold so much emotion and feeling. The shirts have the allure of being associated with glorious moments both for the teams who wore them but also for us, as a fan. We, as fans, can all remember various moments in time whenever we see a shirt and this is a strong bond, both between oneself and the shirt but also between fan to fan.
However, design also plays a huge part. For years my collection was under a strict rule of ‘cotton only’ or ‘non shiny polyester’ feel only as I wanted to wear my shirts as a fashion statement and couldn’t stand the shiny look and feel of Poly replica shirts. Obviously this had to be dropped as time went on.
How do you store and protect your collection? Has it started to take over a part of your house?
I am quite lucky in this sense, as even if you have a large collection of shirts, they do not take up much room. They either fold away or hang up on rails in a space efficient way.
I did however, go through the stage of the ‘thou shalt be on display’ form of collection disease. Going from tacking the shirts up on the wall and hallway of my first house to the more refined, ‘I’ll put that in a Glass Frame’ style of display when time and money afforded. Now, I still have them on a rail and wear them as much as possible.
Is it an obsession that comes and goes?
Definitely for me. To be honest, I can get my head around any collection. I could collect matchboxes if had enough time, I get it all, from train spotting to sick bags. Collecting is somehow mostly in the DNA.
I’ve had a few existential debates with my collecting side. Global resources are dwindling, people around the world are really poor and struggling and you have to ask yourself if you want to spend your time on eBay at 11 at night looking in the football kits/overseas/other department. Surely it’s immoral and I end up thinking that I should grow up and sometimes the boring, I mean, the sensible side wins and I wean off it. Lately however, since the book, I have found myself back on eBay at 1 in the morning getting the newly listed JEF Utd 1992 shirt….
What’s the rarest shirt you own? How did you come across it?
I have the infamous Fiorentina ‘Swastika’ shirt, away version, which is always rare and always a talking point, but this one is more special as it has a Japanese sponsor on it too for some reason. I got that one from a rag yard when I used to search them for shirts and other stuff. Most of my shirts are pretty special to be honest, I’m not really into the usual.
Steven Gerrard famously never swapped shirts with Man Utd players – Is there a team or shirt that you’d never own?
Ha, didn’t he? That’s brilliant. The older I’ve got the less tribal I have got about football, and the more I associate with fellow fans who once we spent our youth literally chasing each other about. Also the book made me overcome less sharing instincts, as I had to be totally un-biased and got in contact with fans from across the globe.
Having said all that, I would be too uncomfortable to have a Cardiff City shirt in my collection. A lot of them are now my good pals, and I don’t hate them and all that, but even though I appreciate the ‘Robin Friday shirt’ to be pleased if I found one, I would have to sell it on (sorry Bluebird pals).
How do people react when you show them the collection? Surprise? Nostalgia? Confusion?!
Usually incredulous to be honest. It’s one of my favourite things about the whole collection of shirts. You know if you get a genuine footy fan in front of the shirts, then you will literally get jaw dropping, laugh out loud, stop them in their tracks kind of reactions. The shirts are such talking points that proper fans just get sucked into talking to you about them.
What do you make of modern football shirts – are we living through a classic era or have things become a bit stale?
Good question. For me we are just about to go into an era of kit design revolution. The early 90’s shirts were crazy while the mid/late ’90s just oversized and awful. As a consequence, going full circle, the brands have brought back traditional, unfussy, plain, classic designs to the Nth degree. Now, personally, I think it’s gone too far; they’re way too plain, way too tight and I predict the designs will start to move back towards the over the top, bold designs of the early 90’s again. They’ll be all the better for it in my opinion.
Which is your favourite shirt?
Almost impossible to say, but in general terms, the St Etienne LCS 1981, the Juventus early 80’s Kappa shirt, and the Wales Admiral 76 always come in my top 5 along with most Sampdoria shirts. They have what I would call the best shirt design template of all time!
If you had to give one shirt away, which one would it be? And the one you’ll never part with?
There are a couple I would give away, you know, what you may call the chaff of your collection, things you were given, or got cheaply or because you could. As for what I wouldn’t give away, I hope to be buried in my Gremio/Fluminense Coca Cola Penalty shirts!
More about Neal Heard
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