Thursday, September 6, 2012

Le Coq Sportif

We love football kits here at the Attic and it's with great pleasure we present another fantastic guest post from Al Gordon of God, Charlton & Punk Rock charting the French manufacturer's assorted attire down the years. 

As each new football season starts, the topic of kit design is high up on the agenda for supporters worldwide. Every fan has, as a minimum, a passing interest in their club's attire. Many of course will be parting with, what is this day and age, a small fortune to own a replica and with most clubs now only keeping a shirt for one season, this debate raises itself more often than ever before.

My club, Charlton Athletic, have switched to Nike but as I look back I fondly remember one of my favourites being supplied by French manufacturer le coq sportif.  More of that later, it’s the designs from three decades ago that I want to concentrate on.

The 1970’s were a bleak time in Britain and apart from some zany efforts from Admiral, the football kits worn up and down the country mirrored this. Mainly made from cotton, they were heavy and very basic in design, more often than not one plain colour with a large winged collar. The tramlines Admiral used for the likes of Wales and Coventry will always be heralded as classics, as will the West Ham shirt of the late seventies they also produced, but a revolution was just around the corner!

The natural materials used gave way to man-made artificial fibres in the Eighties allowing for far more detail to be added to the shirts. It wasn’t just adverting and sponsorship names that arrived, but pinstripes, shadow stripes, and just about any kind of fine detailing you could possibly imagine. It really was a whole new blank canvas just waiting for a splash of creativity.

The market for these new shirts was also bigger than ever before as we moved into the 1980’s, the country was on the up, people even had disposable income to purchase team shirts and assorted  football memorabilia for their children. Children like me had a huge appetite for everything and anything football.
Umbro, Adidas, Admiral, these were all steadfast football kit supplying stalwarts to the British game but there were new kids on the block, a new wave of kit manufacturer ready to give these established firms a run for their money and keeping them very much on their toes. At the forefront of this innovation was Le Coq Sportif.

A French company, they had been around for a century producing sports equipment, clothing and shoes although their now famous cockerel crest had only been used since they started manufacturing again after the Second World War.

Tottenham Hotspur were one of their first British clients. A shiny new polyester shirt with a v-neck, central club crest on the chest and Le Coq motifs on the sleeves, to this day the sleekest Spurs shirt of all time, in my opinion. It was, of course, famously worn in the Cup final win over Manchester City when a certain bearded Argentinian scored a goal of some note. It also showed up Umbro’s very dated sky blue City shirt also worn that day. How old fashioned did that cotton number look against this more stylish attire from London? Tottenham would continue to be the style icons of the Eighties as they would progress from Le Coq Sportif to Danish company Hummel with their chevrons, another of the new wave, as the decade wore on.

Close behind Spurs were champions Aston Villa. Who said templates were new? Villa’s kit to embark on a European Cup adventure was from the same page in the catalogue as Tottenham’s. The crests were all in the same place, the collar was the same, but the French had produced one masterstroke. The sky blue on the sleeves had now crept inward giving the shirt blue sides as well. Still standing firm in tradition, yet twisted by radical interpretation of it. Genius. The best Umbro had managed to do before them was a claret and blue striped wing collar. Fine when it was introduced in '74; very dated by 1981.

Aston Villa would also stay with the French manufacturer for half a decade, their second Le Coq shirt sporting the now infamous ‘Le Coq collar’. Who else could come up with a v-neck and a round neck on the same shirt! Chelsea and Everton would both follow suit with this template by 1984. Shadow stripes were common place by now, both on the very slim fitting shirts and the rather short shorts, plus Le Coq weren’t afraid to add a dose of colour when they deemed necessary (or they thought they could get away with it), especially to the away shirts.

Villa’s white away kit with ‘the’ collar had wonderful claret and yellow hooped pinstripes, spaced a good few inches apart. Chelsea’s was identical except it was a yellow shirt with red and blue pinstripes. Very bold it may have been, but this was the early Eighties and bashful colours were certainly in. The Londoners home kit of the time was equally bizarre and fresh, two different shades of blue interspersed with red and white horizontal pinstripes, all finished off with the obligatory collar. The likes of Kerry Dixon and Pat Nevin set the game alight wearing this certifying it for all time as one of the benchmark kits.

Everton’s take on the collar was a much simpler blue shirt (with shadow striping of course) and a white ‘V’ around the neck. Probably the most famous Everton shirt of all time, they won the FA Cup in it one year and were then losing finalists the next. So revered was it in the blue half of Merseyside, it made a comeback in 2009 as Le Coq Sportif once again had Everton as their clientele. The white v-neck was elongated a little as the manufacturer put a modern twist on things allowing Marouane Fellaini to try and recreate the look of John Bailey twenty-five years earlier with his black curls.

Another infamous Le Coq shirt was only worn for one season by Everton. This reverted back to a regular v-neck collar, but the chest consisted of a large white panel which took over the whole top half of the front of the shirt. I thought it looked very smart but Evertonian’s begged to differ as it went one step too far from the traditional plain blue shirt.

Le Coq Sportif had also managed to offend supporters of Sunderland just a couple of years earlier. After very traditional offerings from Umbro, the Black Cats took the field for the 1981-82 season wearing predominantly white shirts with fine red pinstriping. By placing two pinstripes side by side they tried to almost make it look like a ‘real’ red stripe but the fans weren’t taken in. As if that wasn’t enough of a misdemeanour, they abolished the traditional black shorts for red ones. I remember collecting Panini’s Football 82 sticker album, all players’ pictures being in a circle, and a young Ally McCoist looking very swish in this shirt. As a neutral it was innovative, classy and modern. As an eleven-year-old kid, tradition hadn’t yet become a priority to me.

It wasn’t just domestic and European success that came Le Coq’s way. 1986 was to produce their defining moment on the world stage. At the beginning of the Eighties they were the supplier to Italy, it always makes me smile that a country steeped in fashion and with so many clothing manufacturers would go elsewhere for their national team to be kitted out. Then a few years later Spain adorned the now famous cockerel albeit long before they were really good on the world stage.

It was Argentina, the brand's longest link in international football that brought the glory. The World Cup in Mexico back in 1986 not only saw Maradona’s ‘hand of God’ goal against England whilst wearing a smart blue Le Coq shirt, but also saw the Argentinian in the prime of his career lift the most prized trophy in the game adorned in the famous light blue and white striped shirt with the  Le Coq motif in plain view. Forever recorded in history, it was without doubt the brand's most famous moment.

I said at the beginning about Le Coq Sportif’s short association with Charlton. After wearing a kit from Quaser for the successful 97-98 season Charlton reached Wembley in the Division 1 play-off final where they faced Sunderland. As became the norm at the time, a club would showcase their new kit for the following season in their final match of the current one. Mark Kinsella led Charlton onto the hallowed turf in North West London wearing a very smart design from France. A buttoned white collar similar to a polo shirt, repetitions of the cockerel emblem down both sleeves and thin white panels running up each side of the body, carrying on to the underside of the sleeve.

The game of course is one of the greatest moments in Charlton folklore, images of Clive Mendonca scoring probably the greatest hat-trick the old Wembley ever saw and posing after his penalty shoot-out strike are now iconic at the club.

Unfortunately only a last ditch attempt by Danny Mills at Villa Park to stave off relegation for another week gives the awful ecru away kit of the same season any credibility.

If I thought the French company had come up with this delicious bespoke kit just for us I was in for a shock. Birmingham City’s away kit of the same season was identical except for the club crest and sponsor. We’ll never get away from templates.

Eighties football has a huge place in my heart, as do the kits from Le Coq Sportif of that time. Some people loved them, some people hated them, no one could ignore them.