81. Admiral 'Enhance' (1992-94)
If you want to design a football shirt but you don't want it to be plain, striped, hooped, quartered, checkered or emblazoned with a diagonal sash, there's only one way to go: patterned. The trouble is, patterned shirts tend to be rather obvious, as if the whole point is to attract attention to the wearer.
But what if you don't want to do that? What if you'd like the pattern to be distinctive but respectable? Can it be done? The answer is yes, and it took one of the great names in British football shirt design to prove it quite conclusively.
As the 1980s closed, Admiral had almost disappeared from league football in England and Wales. Only Charlton Athletic were wearing the classic naval insignia logo on their kit, and for Admiral it seemed the peak of their popularity a decade earlier was fading fast into history. Yet over the next few seasons, they avoided a complete disappearance from professional football with a few kit designs that found favour with a small handful of teams.
One of the most eye-catching of those designs was this one, a template perhaps best worn as a change kit for one lucky team or another. It was ultimately incorporated into the ensembles of Leeds United and Middlesbrough, and the former of those teams just happened to be the reigning league champions in England when Admiral arrived on the scene.
From left: Leeds United (1992-93 away and third), Middlesbrough (1992-94 away and third).
Taking over from Umbro, the Leicester-based company provided Leeds with three excellent kits befitting of a team ready to defend their title against the great and the good of the newly-formed Premier League. While the home outfit remained resolutely simple and distinguished, the away and third kits allowed for a little more daring.
They featured a shirt with a two-coloured speckle pattern which, had it covered the entirety of the garment, would have been considered every bit as bewildering as it was hilarious. As it is, Admiral used their many years of experience and fine judgement to cut away most of that pattern to leave it noticeable but not unavoidable.
With the middle of the shirt left plain for a sponsor logo (which in Leeds United's case was Admiral Sportswear itself), the stippled detail was contained at the top and bottom in an area zig-zagging up and down like shark's teeth. While not an entirely original look back then, Admiral gave it a distinctive appearance all of its own, allowing the repetition of the pattern to remain unobscured.
As much as anything, it was Admiral's choice of colour palette that made the template work. Leeds wore a blue version for their away shirt in 1992-93 with yellow flecks, and the reverse was used for their third shirt at the same time. Middlesbrough, meanwhile, wore it fetchingly in white and black as an away design and in a fine summer blue and navy blue combo on their third shirts.
Little else was needed, save for a button-up winged collar and a shadow pattern that was different for both Leeds and Boro, but even that had to be subtle so as not to distract from that meandering speckle.
This template was worn in a crucial season for both clubs, with Leeds battling away in the UEFA Champions League against the likes of Rangers and Stuttgart, and Middlesbrough battling to survive in their first season up in the Premier League. Alas, both teams foundered, with Leeds failing to reach the group stage in Europe while Lennie Lawrence's men finished 21st of 22 on the home front, but that shouldn't detract from the fine style of Admiral's apparel.
Applying restraint where it was needed, they successfully balanced modernity with restraint in a design that would have worked well in any number of colour combinations. It helped to prove that Admiral were still very much an important name in British football kit design, and to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of their demise had been greatly exaggerated.