Welcome to the latest instalment of It Is What It Is, the sister column to Adam Hurrey’s Football Cliches podcast and a parallel mission into the heart of the tiny things in football you never thought really mattered… until you were offered a closer look.
Look at his typeface! Just look at his typeface!
It’s the age-old, international-break debate: who’s your No 1 global materials science and digital identification solutions company? As far as the Premier League are concerned, it’s the mighty Avery Dennison, who — while sounding like someone who finished sixth in an Olympic men’s 200-metre final — are the official name, number and sleeve badge supplier to the top flight of English football.
For all that kit designers have been working overtime for the past 30 years as the cycle of new kits has reached (and arguably passed) its natural limits — three new kits for most clubs every season, plus the warm-up tops and the ludicrously named “anthem jackets” — the revolution of Premier League shirt name/number fonts (Avery Dennison call them “fonts”, it’s fine) has been a lot more sedate.
After a debut Premier League season without shirt names and a brief free-for-all period (more on that shortly), the first standard Premier League shirt font was introduced in 1997 and survived for 10 seasons. Its successor stuck around for another 11 seasons before the current typeface was introduced in 2018.
Iconic? Hardly. Not that the marketing spiel that accompanied the forthcoming fourth redesign of Premier League shirt names/numbers didn’t do its best to turn the last quarter of a century into a typographical journey. The announcement of the new shirt font for the 2023-24 season onwards included a 12-and-a-half-minute video about the process that went into designing it, featuring a group of very sensible chaps pretending to ponder the future of Premier League shirt fonts in a design studio.
(This mini-documentary actually does peak with a trial match played at Brentford’s Gtech Community Stadium, in front of three commentators, to assess the legibility of some potential new designs. “First impressions: the numbers themselves are… certainly impressive,” sighs Martin Tyler amid — and I mean this sincerely — an admirably thorough step of the design process.)
“The names and numbers have become part of the fabric of the Premier League,” Avery Dennison declared, a claim best taken at its most literal. “For fans, having the name and number of a favourite player, their own name or even a personal message helps bring them closer to the competition and their favourite clubs.” And, indeed, for those who have taken full advantage of the printing options available to them and had “I 8 SPURS/ARSENAL/etc” or “MAD MUM OF 2” pressed onto their backs for other people to take photos of as they go through the turnstiles.
Thirty years of Premier League shirt names seems well overdue some wry quantifying, though. And what quantification is wryer than a ranking? Some exhaustive/exhausting research reveals that no fewer than 28 discernibly different fonts have been seen on the back of Premier League shirts since the opening day of the 1993-94 season.
And now we’re going to review them all, from worst to best.
28th to 25th: Adventurous but misguided decisions
First — and therefore, according to the traditions of a countdown — the 28th and worst Premier League kit font of all time, Leeds United’s unwarranted 1996-97 italics. At No 27 is Blackburn Rovers’ post-Shearer, 1996-97 affair which, despite some solid lettering for the names, featured a disastrous number font which strongly evokes one of the weirder options on Microsoft Paint in the mid-to-late 1990s, Bodoni MT Black.
The 1996-97 season, the final one before the Premier League thankfully took this area of brand identity by the scruff of the neck and standardised it across the division, was clearly the last hurrah for bad fonts. Liverpool’s Reebok kits featured a dreadful “Wild West saloon, but at a theme park” situation, while Middlesbrough’s tempus horribilis (two cup finals, two defeats, relegation) was played out with a font that belonged at least four rungs lower in the English pyramid.
24th to 21st: Confusion and sacrilege
At No 24, relegated Sunderland’s pre-Kevin Phillips, pre-Stadium of Light, pre-Netflix collective shambles — a shame, really, because (much like their future relegation squad of 2016-17, featuring Jermain Defoe, Steven Pienaar, Fabio Borini and John O’Shea) its constituent parts are not bad, they simply don’t belong together. Derby County’s silly, cluttered, curved mess of 1996-97 is next, followed by potentially the most controversial ranking: Tottenham’s 1995-96 Pony-branded, 22nd-ranked attempt at being stylish with their numbers.
Completing this shambolic tier of the countdown is Leicester City’s well-meaning 1996-97 design, produced by the distinctly two-bob-sounding in-house outfit Fox Leisure, and featuring numbers about 20 per cent too small for the vast back of Emile Heskey.
20th to 17th: Sizing issues
In 20th is Aston Villa (1995-96 edition) which, despite an acceptable name font, just lacks any grace or subtlety in the numbering whatsoever. Leicester are back again, this time with their 1994-95 design, which is pure “Turkish/Greek market stall knock-off”. Swindon Town were relegated in 1994 with some classy name lettering but some timid numbering. And that’s the difference at the top level, Martin.
In 17th place, Middlesbrough’s shirt numbers, designed by someone forced at gunpoint to draw some traditional football shirt numbers from memory.
16th to 13th: Mid-table inoffensiveness
Pony weren’t entirely pony in the mid-1990s: the season before their Spurs mis-step, they brought some not-unacceptable roundness to Coventry City’s numbering. In 15th place is the second, Barclays-era iteration of the Premier League’s official font (2007-2018), which accelerated the trend towards shorter lettering.
That brings us to the mid-point of these rankings, where we can start focusing on the positives. In 14th, the understated class of Leeds’ Asics-designed numbers and letters for 1995-96. At No 13 is the tidy current Premier League design, a significant improvement on its predecessor, just without any semblance of sporting character.
12th to 9th: Classic constructions and a curveball
At No 12, Pony again! They cracked it! Southampton 1994-95! The following season, Wimbledon’s kit (made by “Core”, whoever they were) succeeded in achieving the most generic Premier League look of all, but there’s something troubling about that “W”. That’s edged out by Sheffield Wednesday’s sans-serif 1995-96 design, with its superior “W” and tasteful outline.
In turn, that’s beaten into ninth place by their commercially cynical but stripes-conquering blank Puma spaces of 1993-94. Now that’s what I call legible.
8th to 5th: Stalwarts and style
At No 8, the big, bold and uncompromising Umbro stalwart of the early-to-mid 1990s (as sported by Chelsea and Manchester United, among others). In seventh place, perhaps the most recognisably “Premier League” font of all, the 1997-2007 official edition, which is let down only by its slightly unambitious numbering. At No 6, Arsenal’s incredibly Nike design for 1994-95, which — slightly unwelcome Swoosh aside — gets everything right, shape-wise. Alas, the number is a little on the small side.
No such problems for Norwich City and Ribero in 1993-94, although we could again have done without their unremarkable logo being shoehorned into the scene.
4th to 1st: Outliers, premium icons and The Future
Into the top four we go. Sneaking into the prestige places is Blackburn’s title-winning design of 1994-95 (great colour, nice outline, solid numbers, almost-forgivable manufacturer’s logo). At No 3, fuelled almost entirely by recency bias and a 12-and-a-half-minute mini-documentary, is the 2023-24 release, whose slightly cold Bundesliga energy is almost entirely offset by just being very, very clean. We may not remember it in 30 years, but we will appreciate it in the moment.
At No 2 — and please sit down for this — the only 3D-effect numbers in Premier League history (according to my research): the ultimate numbering design, from Sunday League to the World Cup. Well done Queens Park Rangers and, indeed, their 1994-95 kit manufacturers “Clubhouse” — may they (presumably) rest in peace.
Your No 1, then. The greatest name/number font in Premier League history, a choice I was quite sure of when I put together the images above but have since lost a fair amount of faith in, is Adidas’ 1993-95 designs for Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle. A premium choice, an early sign of the Premier League becoming a commercial juggernaut, some nice little stripes in the corner. Maybe that “W” — like a little wizard doing some dumbbell shoulder presses — is fine after all.
This week on the Football Cliches podcast: Fictional football shirts and the most internationally eligible player of all time
The Athletic’s Adam Hurrey was joined by colleagues David Walker and Nick Miller for the Adjudication Panel. On the agenda: The most punworthy FA Cup quarter-final in living memory, Nike vs Warner Bros in a Ted Lasso kit saga, the player eligible to play for the most different countries, tracking down the goalkeeper cited in an unfortunate dictionary definition and, once again, checking in with good old Richard Keys.
Meanwhile, the panel debated whether it’s better to be a “handy” side or a “useful” one and which Premier League fixtures just belong in a certain year.
The corridor of uncertainty
Each week, It Is What It Is fields queries from readers on the quirks and anomalies of the language of football (and other niches). Here are this week’s posers…
Coach Bill Loftes — After last week’s generic birthday card triumph, I have another challenge for you. It’s not a birthday card though, it’s Atari classic Kick Off 2. Do your thing!
I think I can do this with fewer twists and turns than last week’s epic undertaking. First of all, Kick Off 2 was released in 1990, and those kits are mid-1980s at the earliest, so there’s our time window.
Let’s start with the knee-sliding (presumed) goalscorer in the background. I already had a strong guess, but the green collar and Adidas stripes on the shorts confirmed my suspicions…
Hugo Sanchez – who else? (Photo: David Leah/Allsport/Getty Images)
…it’s Mexican legend Hugo Sanchez! But don’t be fooled: this isn’t a goal celebration. This photo was taken during Mexico’s 1986 World Cup Group B clash with Paraguay, in which he failed to score. Not for the want of trying, however: in the first half, Sanchez was felled by Paraguay goalkeeper Roberto Fernandez, who got just enough of a fingertip on the ball to persuade English referee George Courtney to wave play on. Sanchez — who also had a penalty saved by Fernandez, the last kick of the game — was aghast at the decision and, oh look, there he is on his knees, arms aloft.
One down, two to go…
Now for the pass-sprayer. Have game makers Anco have left a clue on the shirt with that sponsor? It appears so, as my suspicions of “mid-1980s Crystal Palace, away” are confirmed by a simple Google search. Athletic editor and, for his sins, Crystal Palace fan Dominic Fifield is certain that the player is Andy Gray, pictured here in the very same kit in 1987 (and with the same boots, too.)
(Photo: Russell Cheyne/Allsport)
Just to rubberstamp it, here’s an interview with the game’s co-writer Steve Screech, a Palace fan.
As for the tracksuited manager, I admit defeat here (or, at least, suspect it may be the artist’s own imagination.)
To make up for that, how about identifying the players on Kick Off 2’s predecessor, the 1989 release Kick Off?
Let’s safely assume the agricultural tackler is an Argentine, playing at some point between the late 1970s and mid-1980s. And who wore the captain’s armband during that time? Daniel Passarella! His victim’s kit looks decidedly disguised, save for the badge, which looks like Brazil’s famous crest. At which World Cup did Daniel Passarella, wearing No 15, skipper Argentina against Brazil? Spain ’82!
Lo and behold, it’s Toninho Cerezo.
Job done, bring on next week’s challenge.
This week on the Football Cliches podcast: The purest Soccer AM line-up, the Messi of Maths and the tidiest Premier League player
Adam, David and Charlie Eccleshare gathered for this week’s second sitting of the Adjudication Panel. This time: marking the demise of Soccer AM by selecting its ultimate guest line-up; “The Messi of Maths” and his equivalent of the cold, wet Tuesday night in Stoke; some very alternative goal commentary from the archives; and an unexpected footballing name pops up in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Meanwhile, the panel dissected the art of the Wacky Friday Press Conference Question and tried to statistically crown the “tidiest” player in the Premier League.
It Is What It Is is published every Friday — send in your questions and observations on the language of football (or any other curiosities you’ve spotted) by commenting below or tweeting Adam Hurrey here.