Playing for the shirt: Beckham and van Nistelrooy
The Devils’ Red…or sometimes blue, white or even gray. It’s long been the best-selling shirt in sports.
As Terry Carroll reports elsewhere on the Bleacher Report, Manchester United are at the top of the World Club Rankings, the most successful team in EPL history, the most storied English club, the most valuable club in world sports, the most-watched team worldwide, and the most valuable brand. That adds up to an awful lot of shirts sold.
So how has the uniform changed down the years, and what are the greatest shirts in United’s history? Here’s a strictly subjective choice of six favorites. Let us know which Manchester United uniforms would make your list!
Never forgotten: the red shirts of '58
The simple red shirt with the white v-neck collar became the symbol of Matt Busby’s youthful team that thrilled the continent between 1956 and 1958. The Munich air crash would delay United becoming the first English team to win a European Cup by a decade.
In the meantime, the white of Real Madrid became the standard of European football style. Yet the plain red shirt of the Busby Babes will always evoke memories of young players filled with promise, like Duncan Edwards, Roger Byrne and Liam Whelan, who all died at Munich.
As Morrissey sang in his tribute song, “Munich Air Disaster, 1958”:
We mourn for them
Unlucky boys of Red
Bobby Charlton and Eusebio
On a steamy night in Wembley in 1968, the enduring image of Manchester United’s European redemption was that of a sweat-soaked Bobby Charlton finally lifting the European Cup.
Ten years after the horror of Munich, United showed Benfica the courtesy of wearing red, while they changed into their away strip of dark blue. In a hard-fought game, United triumphed 4-1 after extra time. The saturation of Charlton’s shirt seemed symbolic of the almighty effort that Matt Busby and the survivors like his captain had sustained in their 10-year quest to redeem the youthful promise of those lost at Munich.
Both men would be knighted for their services to the game, but as the rest of the team celebrated that night, Bobby Charlton was too emotional to join the party. He lay on his hotel bed, alone with his thoughts and memories.
Martin Buchan leads United back from the wilderness
The famous Admiral uniform with its triple-white-lined trim and collar reflected a club reborn after the dark years of the early 1970s. United had survived the breakup of the ’68 European Cup-winning team, the implosion of George Best’s career, and the shameful relegation to the old Second Division. In 1977, Tommy Docherty led the Reds back to Wembley to deny Liverpool a first-ever treble.
This version of United red is best-remembered for the imperious displays in defense by captain Martin Buchan, and the electrifying pace of wingers Steve Coppell and Gordon Hill.
Not long now: a young Ryan Giggs longs to be a champion
Umbro manufactured the uniform that Manchester United wore on their way back to the top of English football. The lace-up collar of the 1992-1993 season is now a collector’s item—the shirt of the Red Devils’ first league title in 26 years. The long wait was ended as legends like Bryan Robson and Mark Hughes joined forces with a young Ryan Giggs and flying Russian Andrei Kanchelskis to pip Aston Villa and Norwich (!) to the title.
The other player who looked good in red that year was Eric Cantona, who had surprisingly left the white of Leeds in December. After he delivered on the Holy Grail of the very first Premiership title, King Eric would make every new United shirt of the era seem tailor-made for the No. 7.
Eric Cantona: just about to launch into his blackest moment
Eric Cantona became the King of Old Trafford with back-to-back titles, and the club’s first double in 1994. But the year 1995 saw Blackburn steal the Premiership crown as Cantona’s demons led him into that crazy Kung Fu kick at Crystal Palace.
The footage of the French figure flying over the barrier—clad appropriately in the darkest United uniform ever—now rivals the Zapruder film for most-replayed film footage of all time. English football had its iconic moment of madness: Dressed in satanic black, smoldering with his me-against-the-world intensity, the Frenchman launched himself into eternal infamy that night. Later he would mutter darkly about seagulls and trawlers and disappear until the smoke cleared.
He came back later to put the lily-white-suited Spice Boys of Liverpool to the sword at Wembley. But the legend of Cantona around Old Trafford was cast forever in the black.
Giggs and Beckham: anonymous for once
The sponsor may have been Sharp, but in April 1996, on the run-in of the Premier race, United’s gray kit was blamed for an unfocused performance. The “shirt they couldn’t see” was unceremoniously dumped after less than a season. With the team conceding three first-half goals against Southampton, Sir Alex told his men to “Get that kit off” at half-time and change into their third-choice blue and white.
“The players couldn’t pick each other out,” Ferguson said. “They said it was difficult to see their teammates at distance when they lifted their heads. It was nothing to do with superstition. This club went 26 years without winning the league and we didn’t think about changing the red shirts.”
The maligned gray shirt fast became a collector’s item. The change worked too: United pulled a goal back in the second half, and then went on to win every remaining fixture to take the title with the new generation of starlets like David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville.