England football shirts 'should connect people'

Trent Alexander-Arnold wearing the new England shirt
England's new kit, modelled by Trent Alexander-Arnold, is billed as "a modern take on a classic white strip"

Nike's "playful interpretation" of the St George's Cross on England's new football kit has ignited a row about national identity. Critics have branded the design "disrespectful", among other things, but battles over England shirts have a long and literally colourful back story.

Short presentational grey line
Short presentational grey line

England take on Brazil at Wembley on Saturday. Two great footballing nations sporting instantly recognisable kits. But the build-up has been dominated by a tiny cross on the neck of the home team's new shirt.

Manufacturer Nike has changed the cross of St George. Its horizontal bar is now a combination of blues and purples rather than the red of the original flag, with the FA pointing out "it is not the first time" different colours have been used.

Political leaders, including the prime minister and leader of the opposition, have added their voices to a row which has reignited the passions that regularly erupt with each redesign of what is, in essence, a plain white shirt.

The back of Nike's new England shirt featuring a red, blue and purple St George's Cross on the collar
What Nike called a "playful interpretation of the flag of St George" has provoked strong feelings

"You can't ignore the fact it's the national symbol and you realise you're dealing with it straight away," explains Peter Saville CBE, reflecting on his role creating England's 2010 home strip and the challenge of utilising the red cross of St George.

Tasked with designing a "colourful white strip" by then-manufacturer Umbro, the man behind some of Factory Records' most famous covers in the 1980s likened the job to making a new flag for the nation - "in some ways bigger".

Determined to avoid what he describes as "gratuitous pattern-making", he instead looked to signify "modern England" in a "provocative but positive" manner.

Turning to England's red cross, he hit upon using the shape in an array of colours across the entire shirt.

Peter Saville CBE looking at the multicoloured cross pattern on a sheet of paper
In 2010, Peter Saville's initial intention had been to use large red, blue, green and purple crosses all over the shirt

He said he wanted to avoid using the regular flag of St George because of its association, for some people, with what he called "aggressive patriotism".

"If I can put it diplomatically, it's a very colourful nation," he said. "I live in a very colourful society.

"I wanted the shirt to be for everyone because when the national team are playing it is for everyone. No-one should be excluded.

"It's interesting we're talking about it in 2024. I thought it was pretty topical 10 years ago; maybe it's more so now.

"[But] there's nothing wrong with the symbol in any way. It's not even overtly Christian, it's just a shape like a square or a circle."

'You can't see it'

Viewing the national side's famous white shirt as an "extraordinary canvas", the design process proved intriguing but ultimately dispiriting as, he says, his concept was "neutralised".

"I never knew how it landed with the FA. I remember at one point a little bit of negative feedback attributed to [England's then-manager] Fabio Capello, but whether it was from him or not who knows?

"He didn't want the crosses too big [I was told], so the pattern got smaller and smaller and ended up just on the shoulder panels. You can't see it on a TV screen.

"As an experience it was quite an anti-climax because I felt there would be some discussion or feedback, but almost nobody talked about it. To some extent because almost nobody noticed it."

But among those who did spot it, he remembers the reaction - especially on internet forums - being "eye-opening" and "vitriolic".

Umbro did not respond to a request for comment on Saville's criticisms, but the designer maintains he wanted to capture the pride he feels when he sees the diversity in England teams as they take to the field.

"It's cool when you see the England team. That's kind of what I wanted to celebrate with this and it's just disappointing that it got pushed under the radar."

Wayne Rooney (right) of England holds off the challenge of Chavdar Yankov of Bulgaria at Wembley in September 2010
Saville's multicoloured cross concept ended up appearing only on the shirt's shoulder area

The reaction was even stronger this week when Nike released its latest England home and away efforts as part of a reported £400m deal with the FA.

To be be worn by England's men's, women's and para teams, the change kit sees purple used for the first time, while the home shirt is marketed as "a modern take on a classic white strip".

The use of navy, light blue and purple alongside red in the cross on the back of the shirt's collar was described by Nike as "a playful interpretation" and an attempt to "unite and inspire".

The FA said the latest design was a "tribute to the 1966 World Cup winning team".

But, as with Saville's design, critics have branded it "disrespectful" and an example of "virtue signalling".

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called the flag a "source of pride" which "we shouldn't mess with", while Labour leader Keir Starmer described it as a unifying symbol that doesn't need changing.

Nike was unable put anyone forward for interview despite requests in the months leading up to the new kit's release.

Kevin Keegan playing against Argentina in May 1980
England's early 80s jersey had more than a passing nod to the union jack

Disagreements over imagery and flags on England shirts stretches back more than 40 years to when Leicestershire-based Admiral broke with a century of tradition to launch a kit with large, distinctive red, white and blue bands below the shoulders.

As the side took on an Argentina team featuring a teenage Maradona at Wembley in 1980, BBC commentator Barry Davies mused dryly: "England tonight unveiling their new strip. Though quite why the England shirt should have the colours of the union jack remains a mystery."

Initially derided - and with Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough comparing it to "one of my mother's old pinnies" - it is now widely seen as one of the team's greatest kits.

But with the St George's flag becoming more prominent among supporters in the stands from the mid-90s onwards, it is the red cross - or elements of it - which have featured on jerseys from the turn of the century onwards.

While some have been relatively subtle, Rob Warner, Umbro's former creative director, says the firm's 2012 home kit which ditched the use of blue completely was, ironically, just as divisive.

"As I recall it got more flak than the one before because people said these aren't the traditional colours of the England kit."

With strict regulations in place around the use of national symbols in football kits, he says Umbro were "really clever in how they integrated it", often as shoulder detailing or stripes.

David Beckham playing for England at the 2002 World Cup
Launched in 2001, this Umbro kit was the first of several in which the firm began to reference the St George's Cross more strongly

But why has the team's latest release caused such an uproar?

Warner, who co-founded Spark Design Academy for aspiring kit creators, believes the debate is in part affected by the nature of social media and a wider discourse present in the country.

"It's not necessarily something I relate to, but I can see it," he says.

"The flag on the collar is relatively insignificant. It's not like the St George's Cross has always been on the shirt and it's not like a multicoloured one is going to be on people's passports or flown in front of Buckingham Palace."

But, as Admiral and Umbro discovered, these storms pre-date social media and exist in a world where inference and implication can differ wildly.

Despite the criticism he faced, Saville remains adamant the national side's kit should be "more than a design act".

"Some of them are really awful," he says disdainfully of previous efforts. "One or two you think 'it's ok' or 'it's so wrong it's right', but a lot of them are just ugly.

"But the shirt is engaged with by the public on a mass scale.

"The national team's football kit is something people do pay attention to and there is the potential for it to be about something that connects people."