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‘When you’re sh*t, you’re always going to hark back to the good old days’ - Behind Arsenal’s retro merch boom

11:00 EAT 06/04/2022
Arsenal retro merch boom
Nostalgia is football’s one trump card no matter how bad things currently are and fans of Tom Usher's vintage look back to the peak Wenger era fondly

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It’s no secret that Arsenal fans can be a little overly emotional at times. I’m not just talking about the comical way we’re represented – or how we represent ourselves – on social media, YouTube fan channels and all the rest, although that does play a part.

But as a club, fanbase, team and everything in between, we’ve often found ourselves being driven by exaggerated sentiment, rather than the ruthless, mechanical, ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality of other modern super clubs.

Arsene Wenger, our manager of 22 years, an amount of time that holds a sense of romanticism in itself, was probably the reason for this, at least with my generation of fellow Arsenal fans.

Under Wenger, we seemed to be only capable of huge, heartwarming wins, and humiliating, heartbreaking defeats, with barely anything in the middle.

This was all underpinned by Wenger, our beloved footballing Yoda, who intermittently spouted wizened philosophy in between injury updates on Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby.

Nowadays, most of that ‘soul’, if a multibillion-pound corporation with thousands of employees could ever really have a ‘soul’, has been lost.

Some of that may have been down to Wenger leaving, some was down to our lack of top-level success, but a lot of it was really just our owners, Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, or KSE, being as corporate-focused and financially-driven as every other billionaire, and acting accordingly.

So, it’s no surprise really that most of our fanbase, old and young, have a natural inclination towards teary-eyed nostalgia, especially when it comes to their thirst for vintage merch and retro kits.

Fans of my generation, now in their 30s, grew up during Arsenal’s most successful period, winning titles nearly every year, going a whole season unbeaten, and regularly having a lot of the best players in the world play the best football in the world, week in, week out.

Is it any wonder they want to wear a kit that reminds them more of that than getting routinely thrashed by Manchester City and Liverpool?

“We’ve had great kits, great players and great times,” explains Andrew Allen, football journalist and regular of Arsenal fansite Arseblog.

“That’s a heady mix for a fan to resist given football loves to drown itself in nostalgia. Arsenal’s comparative lack of success in recent years definitely feeds into things, as does the fact we’re all suckers for a slick marketing campaign.”

“I also think a lot of the old merch was much more creative because you had the club sourcing it out to other independent companies like KICK, who were doing stuff like all the crazy bomber jackets for the club,” adds Ed Fenwick, one of the founders of Eighteen86, a vintage Arsenal merch reseller.

“By the end of the 90’s the club was doing it all itself and it got way less fun and a bit stale and corporate – if you look through the merch catalogues you can see everything getting cleaner and less adventurous as it goes along.”

Ed and Max, the two guys behind Eighteen86, who also produce an Arsenal fanzine called Poison Lasagna, join a growing number of vintage football merch resellers that have firmly established themselves in the ‘If I Ever Had Enough Spare Cash’ section of most football fans' minds since around 2015.

Just the other day I was absentmindedly browsing for old Arsenal shirts online when I came across this, a rare prototype ‘lightning’ away shirt from the 1995-96 season. It is exactly the same as the normal away shirt from that season, except its lightning is yellow instead of light blue. Also it costs £1,000 ($1,240).

Personally, the idea of shelling out a grand for an old shirt, even if it is really rare, just seems absolutely ridiculous, but it wouldn’t be going for that much unless people are willing to pay for it.

Then again, people are willing to pay thousands of pounds for a cartoon monkey jpeg, so I’m not sure ‘Things People Are Willing To Spend Money On’ is a good arbiter of sound rationale.

“Eight years ago, I spotted an original Adidas 88-89 away shirt online for the bargain price of £70 ($87),” Andrew tells me.

“When it arrived, the label was my size but I swear it must have been put through the wash a million times because it fit like a crop top! I was genuinely gutted and sent it back.

“In hindsight, I should have kept it because their value continues to rise. I still keep my eyes peeled for bargains, but these days the market is heaving with kit connoisseurs, experts and resellers, so they are hard to come by.”

Personally, my two most expensive Arsenal pieces were an old training top from the 2002-03 season, and an original ‘bruised banana’ away shirt from ‘93, both purchased at a time when I had just been paid and momentarily forgot how money and time worked in constant friction of each other, i.e. was not of sound rationale.

So, with the price of vintage merch as it is, you’d think getting into the reselling business would be expensive, but as is the case with most retro clothes shops, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

“Last year, our mate Josh who runs another vintage reseller store called ‘AStoreLike94’ messaged us and said he thought he had some stuff that might interest us,” says Ed.

“It was a proper motherlode that he'd come across through someone at a pub mentioning to his brother that they were getting rid of their Arsenal stuff.

“Before that, we'd both been collecting for years without really realising it: picking things up on eBay and at charity shops,” Ed continues.

“We never wore any of it, so we got it all in a pile and realised there was a lot of it. Although a lot of places sell the shirts, nowhere sold the stuff that we'd always been obsessed with: the old bootleg stuff and the casual wear the club used to make.”

These days, our current kit manufacturers, Adidas, are doing so many retro kit re-releases that we’ve been dubbed ‘a retro sportswear brand that sometimes plays football’.

It’s easy to think that football, like most other totemic, emotive things in modern life: food, politics, film and music, is just cheaply repackaging nostalgia and selling it back to us at an inflated price because everyone’s either run out of ideas or the people in positions of power are cynical, money-grabbing so-and-sos.

And that may all be true. But I’ll tell you what else is true: Arsenal’s latest retro shirt was great. I got it in a long sleeve.

“When you’re sh*t, you’re always going to hark back to the good old days, it’s a natural defence mechanism in this era of perpetual ‘fan banter’,” Andrew explains.

“Arsenal have at various points in our history been one of the best football clubs in the world – and now we’re not. Nostalgia seems a decent place to take refuge.”

“I don't think anyone wants to be stuck in the past but I do reckon nostalgia can help us understand what we have and want from now – I guess it kind of helps keep the past alive and connects it to the present,” adds Ed.

“Most of it is just Adidas and Arsenal knowing the retro stuff is a gold mine, but it upsets me that they're wise to everyone loving the old crest and let Adidas reproduce it in monthly retro drops rather than just changing the crest back, which is what everyone actually wants.”

In a way, there are a lot of parallels with Sky Sports and the creation of the Premier League itself and the current state of the Arsenal fanbase.

Like some kind of genetically modified, football-obsessed cows, the modern football fan is constantly pumped with as much ephemeral, world-ending emotion as it can handle, every week: the Super Sundays, the Monday Night Footballs, the Soccer Saturdays.

Does it make me a rational, level-headed fan? Not really. Does it make me incredibly susceptible to multimillion-pound marketing campaigns from global corporations featuring classic-players-in-videos-with-soaring-violins? Yeah, kind of.

Nostalgia is football’s one trump card, that no matter how bad things currently are, can be wielded like an excalibur to easily waft away the present and its overwhelming, complicated thoughts.

Anyway, that’s the reason I bought the latest retro Arsenal shirt.

Head to GOAL to read stories from VICE writers on: football, art and mental health matters for men, the Hollywood takeover of Wrexham, Arsenal’s retro merch boom and football fans and their tattoos.

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