IIt is absolutely true that society has begun to treat middle-aged men as the most reviled group of individuals in Britain. It’s hard to think of one of the major evils in the world that we haven’t caused. And yet, there’s a subset of the middle-aged man that might be worth re-evaluating: the replica shirt wearers. When everything from the climate crisis to openly corrupt Western governments was ushered in by stale, pale, masculine men, why is it that the harmless middle-aged man in a stretched Umbro home top suffers a disproportionate amount of abuse on social media?
There’s something about men over 25 in a tall line to a game that brings out an innate Gok Wan in fans. The bearer of the kit is, apparently, tragic. Doubly if they are overweight. The fact that the weight is looked down upon by so many critics is interesting. Generally, insults aren’t necessarily fattish – more than the overweight replica top wearer needs more pity because they’re even more deceived than the other kit wearers in the crowd.
It’s a weird position to take. The logic seems to be that fans only wear replica tops because deep down we believe that maybe an injury crisis among the subs will mean we get called to the field and bring home a winner. It is of course true. About once a year I dream of scoring the winner for Luton in an unspecified cup final. It’s totally unrealistic: I play in goal in the real world. The question is, am I wearing a replica top in Luton because I dream of being chosen? Or do I have the dream because I always like to wear the home top? Over to you, pop psychologists.
Another validation given by those who mock shirt wearers is that it lets down the look of the club if you don’t look your best in their kit. In the same way that a club will fine overweight players at the start of pre-season, some fans seem to want only the athletic supporter to show up in this season’s colours. “Wear a retro kit, they’re more generous” is advice I’ve seen in a few debates about the suitability of wearing the kit.
This ignores how fitted the modern kit worn in games is. For 18 months I did video shoots with Premier League players. A competition, to win the shirt worn by Calum Chambers, saw the video presenter try on Chambers’ shirt. Slender in his twenties, he couldn’t get his chest out. As should be obvious, the replica kit is a fantastic mirage regardless of your age and build.
A more plausible reason to decry kit wearers is that it’s “childish”. This is a statement with some historical basis. When replica kits first went on sale in the late 1970s, they were only children’s sizes; England’s first adult-size shirt wasn’t made until the stunning 1982 World Cup three-stripe top. But shelling out £50 a season doesn’t just help your club’s revenue, it helps keep you contact with the dreamer who just wants to forget his problems for the next 90 minutes and be a fan.
Just as players know it’s time to act once the shirt is up, fans experience a transformation once the replica top is up. You become the fan version of yourself, living out a side of your personality as intense as Bruce Wayne becoming Batman or Stefani Germanotta merging with Lady Gaga. You probably wouldn’t want to be in your usual life the person you become watching your team on the pitch, so why not wear a replica top to help identify the gap?
Wearing a shirt isn’t just about experiencing a different incarnation or even just identifying with your club’s tribe – it makes you part of the general quagmire of football fans. There are few things more common in the football support experience than seeing fans from a dozen clubs gather in a concourse at London’s mainline station on a Saturday lunchtime, or at a Midlands petrol station for fans who drive. It’s a wave of interchangeable colors that wouldn’t be nearly as vivid or collective unless so many fans were at the top of the club.
There are limits to maintaining your dignity in middle age. Wearing a replica shirt shows admirable commitment. The wearer of the complete kit? Bit strange.