The Premier League and its mega millions has changed the football landscape beyond recognition since its inception in 1992. Huge television contracts have enabled it to become the most watched sports league in the world, opening up clubs to untapped markets of fanatical support.

While this is music to the ears of finance directors throughout the league, lifelong, and local, fans who support their team every week and feel their loyalty is taken for granted have found a new way to prove their ‘authenticity’. As the newfound football tourist wears the latest £60 Nike creation and disastrous half and half scarf, the seen-it-all Leicester City fan will wear the iconic royal blue Fox Leisure and Walkers Crisps shirt from the 1994 First Division Play-Off final.

The classic football shirt is the new black. At grounds up and down the land, vintage tops and shirts of former glories are donned by supporters of all ages; some because it’s more stylish to wear a plain red shirt than one with a bank emblazoned across the chest, others because they’ve owned the garment for 20 years and their team wore it during that memorable cup run.

After being approached by the BBC for an expert opinion on the cost of football shirts and how they engage support, UCFB academics Simon Mitton and Darren Bernstein, proud City and Bury fans respectively, begun to dig into this new trend among football fans in search of why. However, they’re clear that the classic football shirt must be exactly that – a classic. Not a replica by the likes of Score Draw, but the real deal.

Darren said: “For football fans, it’s not as simple as a club launching a kit and buying it. There’s a demographic of people who are so connected they reject the official club merchandise and want something more authentic which connects them with when they first started being a fan.”

“There are lots of dynamics,” Simon adds. “It’s about connection to a club and the length of time you’ve been supporting them. Where were you when your team wore a specific shirt?”

As part of their research, the pair have enlisted the help of Gary Bierton, general manager of Manchester-based classicfootballshirts.co.uk and UCFB guest speaker. His website stocks thousands of shirts from clubs and countries around the world, featuring vintage and original pieces from cup winning seasons and relegation heartbreak.

Simon added “We have established a good relationship with Classics to help support some of our research as they have a data set which can offer a wealth of strands to our ideas. They are also at the forefront of the authentic and retro shirt sector, so this is ideal for us in terms of emerging trends.”

For the retro football fan, there’s also the collectors aspect. Where some like stamps, others prefer Panini stickers. But the football anorak wants their shirts from throughout the years. Simon added: “Shirts are like vinyl – there are obsessives who want the whole range of kit, and they want the original. Vinyl is popular once again, but people don’t want the new remastered version of The Stone Roses – they want the original pressing from 1989.”

Of course, another reason for the older, ‘authentic’ fan to dig out his or her favourite shirt from previous seasons, or visit somewhere like Classics, is cost. With a World Cup around the corner, the price of a new England shirt (£65 for adults, £52 for children) inevitably becomes news. These prices also reflect the average Premier League club. Unfortunately, what isn’t breaking news is that being a football fan comes at a cost – new to the game or not.

“Cost and value are two very different things,” says Darren. “It depends how entrenched you are in the club. For a parent to buy a new shirt, the cost is high but building a long term relationship between a club and a young person is huge.

“I’m a Bury fan and I want my son to be a fan too, so the shirt is part of that process of ‘passing down’. I’m quite happy to invest in that in order to pass the baton on, and that baton just happens to be a shirt.” 

Simon added: “People say new shirts are a rip off, but it’s a piece of symbolism.”

It’s this loyalty that manufacturers are now tapping into, and not just in stores. EA Sports’ flagship video game FIFA, in partnership with some of the leading sports brands, has begun creating virtual ‘fourth’ kits for e-gamers to buy through the game to allow the e-Ronaldo to flex his e-muscles in. As the video game grows in popularity, the next logical step is manufacturers making these kits for real. The ‘virtual vs reality’ kit is a future trend both Darren and Simon see as a real possibility.

“These virtual kits are now part of the of e-sports football consumption,” says Simon. “It’s completely feasible that the limited edition ‘fourth’ kit Real Madrid wear in the e-game could be available for a fan to buy for real.”

He added: “It’s another way of clubs building relationships with new fan bases. The e-gamer in Japan might not be able to get to the Santiago Bernabeu, but if Real Madrid are his or her go-to team on the game, then by making that virtual kit a reality and purchasable, it’s a whole new generation and type of fan buying into the brand.”