Winners and Losers

For the Premier League big clubs, shirt sponsorship deals are hugely lucrative. The deals are multi-layered and teams of legal eagles ensure every t is crossed and every i is dotted; it’s a slick set-up and with massive brands such as Chevrolet, Standard Chartered and Fly Emirates all benefitting from the global coverage you wouldn’t expect anything less.

But this professional process hasn’t always been in place and the early days of shirt sponsorship threw together some highly unlikely pairings. This aspect of shirt sponsorship, and much more besides, is laid bare in an enlightening new exhibition currently on show at Rodney Parade, home of League Two club Newport County.

The exhibition, entitled When The Shirt Hit The Fan, has been curated by Port Vale fanatic Chad Neptune-Pulis and after its run concludes in February 2022 in Wales it is transferring to the West End in London and being performed as a play at the Sir Charlie George Theatre in London.

Neptune-Pulis has unearthed some gems from the early years of shirt sponsorship. For instance, he discovered that the first shirt sponsorship deal came way back in the late 19th Century when The Royal Engineers played Third Lanark, from Scotland, in an Anglo-Scottish charity match and wore tunics with the edict ‘Don’t Get Scarlet Fever, It’ll Be Your Ruin’ emblazoned on them. Then again, the Victorians were nutty.

But the trend didn’t catch on and it seems to have not reappeared again until Sheffield United started the 1955/56 season with their famous red and white striped tops displaying the message, ‘Drink As Much Bell’s Original Whisky As Possible, Lads’ on the front. The football powerbrokers at the time were bamboozled by the trend and it took them until the end of that season before they brought in new rulings that meant clubs had to first present their intended sponsors before they could be confirmed.

Neptune-Pulis, who earned his 15 minutes of fame when he climbed Mount Everest dressed only in the Port Vale away kit from 1996/97 and lost three toes and eight fingers to frost-bite in the process, said of the exhibition:

“It’s been a life-long ambition and when I managed to hoodwink the people who dish out the National Lottery grants to fund it, the green light was very much on and it was all systems go.

“I have a good few personal favourites and among them are Chelsea being sponsored by Matt’s Disabled Vehicles back in 1971/72 and Leeds United tops sporting a huge face of Jimmy Saville with the motif ‘Radio One Is So Much Fun’ through the 1974/75 season. But I am positive that my favourite is the vision of Tottenham Hotspur entering the pitch at White Hart Lane back in 1977 — after they were relegated to the old second division — with ‘See Top-Flight Football Up The Road At Arsenal’ on their shirts. The canny buggers at the Gunners had paid for the privilege to display whatever message they liked and Spurs were so desperately short of money they took the shilling — hilarious.”

  • When The Shirt Hit The Fan runs until February 2022 at Rodney Parade, home of League Two club Newport County FC.