Spoiler: I’m not going to talk about Charlton or another decent point or Gavin Whyte’s wonder-strike.
Sometimes you just can’t win. The club have announced a one-off limited edition shirt for the 125th anniversary game against Shrewsbury which will retail for £75. Predictably enough, there’s been a bit of a backlash. It’s a numbered orange and black Puma shirt carrying the original Headington United badge. So far so good?
No, the shirt is from a standard template which makes it both ‘boring’ and ‘overpriced’, and therefore ‘a rip off’.
It’s one of life’s great disappointments to find that almost all football shirts are generic templates being used over and over again. What you think is yours is nothing of the sort. But, if you take a look at Oxford United’s kit history you’ll see there’s not much to work with.
If we’d had a replica of the original kit from 125 years ago, it would have been a yellow polo shirt, like you can get from Marks and Spencer and similar to our 2012/13 kit. After that, and for the best part of 30 years, we wore yellow and blue stripes, a style which sent many Oxford fans into apoplexy when it was re-introduced in 2010.
The chosen design is a nod to our late-Southern League, early-Football League days. Big Ron Atkinson and all that. What many would consider ‘olden days’, but not ‘ancient history’. For the best part of 20 years we stuck rigidly to this livery with only minor variations. Surprisingly enough we’ve never re-visited it. A plain orange shirt may appear boring, but it does represent an untapped part of our heritage.
A shirt doesn’t really mean anything until something significant happens while wearing it. Take the 1986 Milk Cup shirt – another significant design which couldn’t be replicated for the anniversary because it was rebooted in 2015. The yellow is washed out, it has a horizontal shadow stripe; and a sponsor which sounds a bit like a willy. But it was worn on our finest day, and then again in one of our finest seasons, it’s not a nice design, but it is a classic.
With no sponsor, another nod to our heritage, what is left is a plain orange shirt with an old badge on it. Exciting? Not when you distill it down like that, but that’s not really the point. The point is the club are trying to make Saturday a meaningful occasion, and something slightly different is part of it.
Which brings us to the second point – the cost. £75 is expensive for a t-shirt, no doubt. But, that’s not how pricing works. No club shirt is ever really worth it in the sense of cost versus utility (what you wear it for). You could buy a template of the Puma version for £8 and put a badge on it; in fact, someone has. But, that’s the hollow victory of a smart arse because as much as it looks like it, it’s still not the actual shirt. The shirt, plus the badge, plus the occasion, plus the limited availability gives it a value beyond its cost price. What that value is, is ultimately a bit of a punt but it still has the characteristics to be priced at a premium.
Are the club profiting unreasonably from the shirt? If they sell out the whole lot, they’ll make just under £10k. Knock off the cost of the shirts in the first place, the design of the badge and a bunch of tomfoolery around getting it produced, and you’re talking about a profit which pays the salary of a mid-ranking squad player for a month. It’s hardly profiteering.
For something to be collectable, it has to has to have ‘significance’, which is ultimately defined by the collector. If you think the shirt is over-priced and boring, then you’re probably not its target market. There are some people who absolutely love this stuff; others who are cold to it. I sit right in the middle. I could browse the Oxford United Kit History website for hours, but I can’t bring myself to spend hundreds on shirts I don’t have. I’m quite attracted by the novelty of a one-off shirt, regardless of its design. My first reaction was that I could take it or leave it, but I’m now thinking that if it’s in stock and I’ve got the money, I might get one. Am I being ripped off? Well, you could argue 40-odd years of watching mediocre football is a bigger rip-off, but that’s not really the point of supporting your club; I still do it, and so do you.