It was with ironic contrast that news - however reliable - reached us around this time last year, that Umbro had entered a bidding war to snare the prized Manchester United contract, then held by Umbro's former owners, Nike. It didn't happen in the end - adidas will take over in the summer - but reports seemed to give Iconix's British-based brand a fighting chance, which flew in the face of generally accepted progress.
Because Umbro were no longer the benchmark. This isn't simply about their loss of major contracts to Nike - Manchester City, England - though that played a part, more that their stylings, or eschewing of stylings, were no longer as revered by the rest of the kit design industry.
If we travel back six years, Umbro changed everything. I've gone over it so many times - too many times? - already on this blog, but the noughties were the years of structure. The large graphics and sublimated prints exclaiming club nicknames or aspects of the crest had generally been banished through a combination of good taste and tightening of regulations on team-specific branding coverage, so the angles took over.
Geometry stepped in and along came flashes, go faster stripes, pointy bits, curvy lines, triangles here, trapeziums there, curved hems with extended tails and ergonomic collar shapes. It was all jaggedy and stabby and harsh, with just Nike in 2006 reining the practice in a touch with a more classic approach, but adidas continuining full steam ahead with, particularly, their Golpe template in 2007 and, finally, the epitome, the breastplated Robocop-aping range sported by the likes of Chelsea two years later.
And then Umbro. Fuelled by Nike's cash, we presume, and, it should be remembered, their trust, the brand gave us the iconic 2009 England Home kit, and the perhaps excessively well-received Away shirt the following year, and the rest of the industry fell into line with Tailored By. The structural approach - though there on the drawing boards - was no longer highlighted on the finished article: Nike delivered France kits - in the face of mass trepidation following adidas's conscious uncoupling from the FFF - which oozed class, and have repeated the trick over and over; adidas, whilst not conforming to the minimalism entirely, suddenly embellished their kits with trim with a sartorial bent, not an indicator of the performance technology therein.
And so it continued, to the clearest evidence that Umbro's way was accepted as the guide. Warrior Sports, already responsible for garish outfits in the USA in lacrosse or somesuch, arrived as Liverpool Football Club's new supplier in 2012 and provided the Merseyside club with a Home kit so informed by Umbro's authority - in the restraint, the embroidered badges, the fabric - that many of the Anfield faithful breathed a sigh of relief, albeit temporarily. But we'll come back to Warrior, of course.
In the immediate aftermath of this watershed moment in kit design's evolution, Umbro's world fell apart. Ditched by Nike, England's next kit was to be made by the US company and, with City and high-profile South American deals already gone, Umbro looked to be heading for trouble. Enter Iconix, and the double diamond once again has hefty financial backing, as well as several notable new contracts in England and the Americas, but the legacy is being put to the test.
The latest major release kits from Nike, adidas et al do still, largely, have the slimmer profile cut, particularly in the sleeve design - though some models are a little airier - but sublimation is back, with so many offerings displaying graphics and patterns as watermarks, and gradients are now commonplace, as well as structural and technological features being highlighted again. Even some Umbro designs have graphical aspects that would have been sacrilege back in '09.
However, we've bought into it. Talking to a fellow kit geek last year, I drew his attention to the then newly released Atlético Paranaense 90th anniversary shirt (by Umbro) and was informed that it was "a bit plain". It's the kind of statement we haven't heard much over the last six years, but it's a now common complaint.
So how has this happened? What has spurred on this backlash towards Umbro, and the resurgence of the graphics and flashes of the 90s and 00s? Puma, who have largely done their own thing throughout the Umbro adulation period? Perhaps, but how about Warrior? Warrior, who went entirely against the grain in 2012 with the Liverpool change kits, were slaughtered, and did exactly the same thing last season, perhaps going even further.
The irony is, as we prepare to say "See ya, Warrior print mess", we've finally met each other half way. Next season Liverpool, Celtic and the rest of the would-be Warrior collective will wear parent company New Balance's branding on their kits. Warrior's time ran out - as a football brand, at least - just as they found the happy medium with the current Liverpool, Sevilla and Stoke City wardrobes and, at the very least, Warrior seem to be the catalyst for change away from Umbro's philosophy. A company that had seemingly come to these shores, particularly, with an attitude of appeasing fans with the Home kit, and ignoring trends entirely with the change versions, is now looking more and more like, gulp, a pioneer.
It's not one way traffic. Warrior (and NB to come) have undoubtedly toned down their designs, though staying true to an ethic of originality, and Umbro have returned the wordmark underneath their chest logos and, cleverly, added the former to the sleeves - it looks odd at first, but tellingly looks great just below a competition patch. More branding begets more branding, so the manufacturers' regulation-enforced "leaving" of space in practice actually creates a patch-shaped hole that the fan feels a necessity to fill, but I digress.
As a relatively recent study states, the replica kit industry, now aimed at adults far more than children, has boomed in line with "intricate designs [becoming] less common, and plainer shirts with retro stylings or historical references...very much in vogue". That'll be Umbro's influence, and those who heeded the approach raking it in. But the study has covered the end of a transitional period, and probably not registered the beginnings of the next, where embellishment increases significantly.
In reality, we're being spoilt. Umbro shook up the industry, and before it got stagnant and embraced the concept of no longer needing to come up with ideas, Warrior came along and shook it right up again. A war of attrition ensued and now we have a compromise that gives us the best of both worlds. Umbro are back in a big way, and as much as we want to scream at New Balance's range that "They've rebadged it, you fool!" let's not forget to thank the Warrior ethos for its contribution on its way out, as no one envisaged we'd ever be doing that.
Written by Jay (follow on Twitter).