54. Umbro St Etienne (1990-98)
While the Umbro design dubbed 'St Etienne' is most associated with two iconic Northern Ireland shirts - one of which was never worn by the senior team - it has popped up all over the place and simply won’t go away.
Escher-esque, with a cube-stack effect viewed from an unconventional angle, diagonal splits to the vertical faces and also incorporating striping and speckling, that mouthful, whilst accurate, neglects the most important descriptor: it’s brilliant.
From left: Eswatini (Swaziland) (1991 home), Latvia (1992 home), Malta (1992 home).
Just imagine being tasked with coming up with a print for a football shirt in the late 1980s, with the likes of the Netherlands’ Euro ’88 adidas ‘Ipswich’ design at that point something of a yardstick, and submitting this. I doubt it happened somehow, but surely a promotion and/or payrise would’ve been in order (especially if the same person repeated the trick with a similarly styled creation to celebrate the Scottish Football League’s centenary).
In fact, it may well be the case that a recently unveiled - or recently worn to enormous impact in West Germany - Dutch shirt was exactly the isometric inspiration that led to us being blessed with the St Etienne release from the British brand, which was combined with a couple of collar styles.
To reiterate, most football kit aficionados think of the green and navy (with white and green) versions with - as was Umbro’s wont at the time - a different jacquard pattern, and overlaid with the famous IFA crest, as definitive. However, Malta also got it in 1992 in tones of red, and this was swiftly followed by versions for Lithuania’s Žalgiris Vilnius and the brilliantly sponsored Singapore FA semi-pro club-football side. (Borneo Motors are still going strong, incidentally.)
The highlights also include an ostensibly carmine-red variant that was worn by Latvia, though every largely tonal version is lacking in the impact that the contrast white delivers on the Northern Ireland away and the iterations sported by Swaziland (now Eswatini) and by Puerto Rico as late as 1998.
From left: Northern Ireland (1990-92 home), Puerto Rico (1998 home), Žalgiris Vilnius (1992-93).
A template that stuck around for pushing a whole decade? That’s pretty impressive, but it’s also an understatement, as the pattern was surely not far from concept-creator-now-Nike-designer Angelo Trofa’s mind when he collaborated with Le Ballon just prior to Euro 2016. Then it returned for Umbro on a Grêmio third in 2019, and a current-season release from ADO Den Haag also honours MC Escher surely thanks to Umbro proving the cube-y look is a winner.
More proof, if any were needed, comes with the Score Draw retro reproductions of the Northern Ireland shirts, the highly regarded Peter O’Toole using the pattern on the sleeves of a recent charity shirt for his beloved Huddersfield Town, and Umbro also revisiting it again on the summer’s collab with Percival.
So thank you MC Escher, Umbro and, I suppose, geometry for giving the football design world something so striking. And here’s to its recurrence over the next 33 years, at least.
With thanks to Jay from DesignFootball.com for providing the words, and Adam's Shirt Quest for helping with the research.