True colours? Myth-busting our first kits

Thursday 01 October 2020 16:06

We’re the Red Army; the colour of our shirts as recognisable as the crest and more famous than the devil. But before we were Manchester United, before J. H. Davies saved the club, the colour of our kits was by no means settled.

Our early shirts remain something of a mystery, still shrouded in folklore and urban legend. However, what we do know tells us about the heritage of the club, and the finances of Newton Heath (L&YR).

The earliest mention we’ve found of the Heathens’ colours is from The Sportsman’s Yearbook published in 1879. In it, Newton Heath (L&YR) are registered as wearing “white with a blue cord”. A plain white shirt would have been cheap and easily available, two necessities for a team made up of working-class men employed at the railway’s wagon works. 

A further note in the yearbook stating that the colours were worn “all the year round” gives us another clue as to why they chose white. Before Newton Heath (L&YR) took up football, the club played cricket. Having a kit which could be used throughout both summer and winter would have cut costs and made it easy for players to become involved. The ‘cord’ is more of a mystery and could refer to a number of things; either a sash, a belt or even a trim added to the collar of a shirt. Unfortunately, as interest in a works team from Manchester was fairly non-existent, we’ve been unable to find images or better descriptions.
Sam Black pictured in c.1885; the first photographic evidence of a Newton Heath kit. Although there is no written description of the colours, it’s likely that the shirt is red and white.

After 1881, the next mention we have of Newton Heath’s chosen colours is the 1887/88 season, where the Manchester & District FA Yearbook noted that the club has registered red and white halved shirts. Newspaper references to Newton Heath’s “familiar red and white costumes” (Athletic News, 1889) continued into the early 1890s, with white shirts occasionally worn as a change kit as per league rules. The club seemed to have a little more money around this time, and according to one advertisement, had begun to work with a sports outfitter in Nottingham called W. H. Hill who sourced their kits.

It’s the black and white images of players wearing these halved shirts that have led to the idea, reinforced by 1992/93’s away kit, that Newton Heath wore green and gold halves during their early years. However, we have never found evidence to support this design.

What we do know is that from 1893/94 newspapers began commenting upon Newton Heath’s “showy” and “pretty” green and gold. Pictures from the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News in late 1893 suggest that this was in the form of vertical stripes, whilst the following season, photographic evidence tells us that the shirts were green with gold collars and cuffs. 
Urban legend suggests that green and gold were chosen for the kits because they were the colours of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. However, there is no proof that these colours were ever used by the railway company, who did use the red and white roses of the respective shires. Even if green and gold had ever been the company’s colours, by 1893 when we know the club was wearing these strips, Newton Heath’s association with the railway had ended. The club had moved to their Bank Street ground, and had dropped the L&YR from their name. It’s possible that the club officials simply picked the combination to be unique in the league at a time when all other clubs were doing the same following an FA ruling to prevent kit clashes.
Collectible Sharps Cards give us a glimpse of what Newton Heath were wearing during the late 19th Century.
Newton Heath’s dalliance with green and gold was short lived. By 1896/97 season, match reports showed that the club had made a move back to their original colours, this time a white shirt with blue shorts. By this point, the club was again in financial difficulties, and the move away from the eye-catching kits of the early 1890s could have been the need to find a thriftier alternative. This remained the club’s kit until 1902 when Newton Heath became Manchester United and the team wore plain red shirts for what we think is the first time.