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The History of Northern Ireland’s Goalkeeper Shirts

They say that goalkeepers are a bit different… but that wasn’t always the case!

While nowadays the custodian stands out from their teammates by virtue of a bright orange/yellow/pink kit, in the early days it was the norm for ‘keepers to don the same jersey as their outfield colleagues. While some did take the field in unique colours as early as 1891, it was 1909 when the English and Scottish Leagues finally decreed that a goalkeeper had to wear a distinct uniform so that they could be clearly identified during any goalmouth melee. In 1921 the International Football Association Board (IFAB) ruled that goalkeepers should wear deep-yellow jerseys in international matches. Domestic goalkeepers were limited to green, blue, red or white, a rule finally rescinded in the mid-1980s.

Photos of Ireland in this era are scarce and, of course, exclusively black and white. The first obvious image of an Irish international keeper wearing a distinct colour comes from 1908, when Billy Scott can be seen in a noticeably darker shirt than his teammates. His shirt is also bereft of the Celtic Cross emblem, a trend that continued through to the 1920s. In 1914, when Ireland won the International Championship for the first time, Fred McKee can be seen wearing a hooped jersey. While the colour of these hoops is unclear, it was noted that he wore red, white and blue hoops on occasion for Linfield.

When international football resumed after the Great War Ireland’s Billy O’Hagan can again be seen wearing hoops against England. Against Scotland the following season, Elisha Scott is seen wearing a plain dark jersey, apparently not dissimilar in shade to the one worn by his brother 13 years earlier. The story goes that Scott (aka “The Black Panther”) always wore black, but this would have been at odds with the IFAB ruling. More intriguing still is the colour chart shown that reveals yellow can appear as very dark grey when certain black and white films are used. Further evidence to support the idea that Ireland’s goalkeepers did wear yellow throughout this era can be seen with Tom Farquharson and Jim Twomey both appearing in “dark” jerseys during the inter-War period, while not being so noted as Scott as having worn black.

Never mind the colour, the style of jersey worn by goalkeepers remained largely unchanged from the 1920s-1950s, being a heavy woolen jersey with a roll neck. In the mid-to-late 1950s a more sporty and comfortable “sweatshirt” style of jersey became common place, particularly during the warmer months. Around this time goalkeepers also began to wear the same shorts and socks as their outfield colleagues, having previously worn their own distinct set.

From the 1960s onwards goalkeeper jerseys tended to evolve in line with their outfield colleagues, adding collars as fashion dictated and moving to more synthetic materials as technology allowed. The Umbro logo had appeared on the goalkeeper jersey by 1972, several years before it first featured on the outfield shirt. 1974 and 1975 meetings with Sweden saw the first requirements for a Northern Ireland keeper to wear a non-yellow jersey since the first decades of the century. No photos of Pat Jennings have been found from these matches, but it might reasonably be assumed that he donned a similar red jersey as worn by Jim Platt when the two sides next met in 1980. Similarly, only black and white photos have been found of the Northern Ireland team that toured Australia (who presumably played in their traditional yellow/gold colours), and again the goalkeepers (Platt and George Dunlop) appear to be wearing noticeably dark/un-Adidas jerseys – could these be red or blue?

The Adidas stylistic flourishes on goalkeeper jerseys began to expand through the 1980s, moving from the already comparatively startling three stripes down the arms (a motif actually missing from the jerseys worn by Jennings and Platt at the 1982 World Cup) to a dual coloured jersey favoured by many other keepers in Spain. This look appears to have had its first outing for Northern Ireland when Jennings donned a blue version for the visit of yellow-clad Romania in 1984. He wore the design again when Northern Ireland travelled to Bucharest for the return fixture, though on that occasion the switch was unnecessary as the Romanians played in red. The yellow version of this shirt also had outings during Mexico ’86 qualifying, notably in the decisive draw against England at Wembley.

In the build-up to the World Cup Finals a new goalkeeper jersey was introduced, with a diagonal shadow pattern. A similar shadow effect would appear on the outfield jerseys, though these weren’t first worn until the team was in Mexico. A blue version of this shirt was worn by Jennings against Brazil, likely just the sixth time he had worn a non-yellow jersey for Northern Ireland in his 119 appearances! That 1986 yellow jersey appears to be the only one worn by Northern Ireland until 1990, though it is hard to tell from the images available whether the shadow effect was dropped in those latter years.

Umbro returned as Northern Ireland’s kit manufacturers in 1990 and bold geometric patterns were in vogue! The goalkeeper shirt was positively restrained compared to the outfield abomination, being plain yellow with a recurring black diamond pattern. For the first time unique goalie shorts and socks were regularly supplied to Northern Ireland goalies (these had been a regular part of England’s kit dating back to the Admiral kit revolution of the mid-1970s). A red alternative version was worn as Lithuania visited Belfast in April 1992 for an early USA '94 qualifier.

A new suite of jerseys were introduced in the summer of 1992 and the standard pin-striped Umbro goalkeeping jersey (aka the “Premier” or the “GK Americana”) was a nice match with the pin-striped outfield jerseys of the time. The regular choice was yellow with maroon stripes. The only variation worn in the 1992/93 season was when the old red-diamond shirt was brought out of retirement for the return fixture against Lithuania. Umbro updated their goalkeeping catalogue again in the summer of 1993 and Tommy Wright took to the field for the next few games in a grey shirt that he also had available when playing for Nottingham Forest. By the summer of 1994 the Umbro contract was coming to an end and some old kit hamper must have been emptied ahead of US tour. Not only did the team wear the away kit in both fixtures (unnecessarily against Colombia and necessarily against Mexico), the coaching staff were wearing the 1990-92 away shirt and the goalkeepers wore a previously unseen version of the pin-striped Americana kit in jade (which would have been useless along with the home kit) against Colombia and the 1990-92 yellow-diamond kit against Mexico.

With Asics installed as kit suppliers in 1994 Northern Ireland again had a set of goalkeeper kits that would be familiar to followers of the English Premier League as the styles were shared with Aston Villa, Blackburn, Leeds and Newcastle. The most common set initially used remained predominantly yellow with a speckled effect. Northern Ireland’s first mainly black goalkeeper kit, though with a multi-coloured triangle pattern, was worn by Alan Fettis against Portugal in September 1995 while the following month an all-yellow kit, with matching shorts and socks, was worn for the first time. The black-triangle kit then returned for the ever-problematic Sweden fixture in early 1996.

There followed a period of stability in the kits worn by Northern Ireland’s goalkeepers. For the final two years of the Asics contract a yellow shirt with a grey and black design was the only one worn in senior internationals, though a duller all-grey version was used by the Under-21s. The brief Olympic Sports era again saw only one shirt worn by the keepers, a predominantly yellow/orange dabbled effort with no alternative marketed. When Patrick took over the contract to supply the team kit in 1999, they too had to supply only one jersey design for the first two-and-a-half-years, a dark grey kit with yellow accents. This marked the first time in the modern era where yellow wasn’t the first choice colour for Northern Ireland’s goalkeepers.

Things got slightly more exciting in the final two years with Patrick. When the new kit was released in 2002 it arrived with a light blue goalkeeper shirt with dark blue shorts. An alternative grey/black goalkeeper kit, in a style reminiscent of the mid-1980s Adidas issue, was unveiled along with the away outfield kit for a friendly against Spain. There followed a light blue/navy version in the same style and those three kits were worn in regular rotation for most of the remainder of the Patrick contract. An all-black jersey, with blue shorts, looks to have been worn against Estonia in 2004, but no clear images have been found to confirm the exact style.

When Umbro again returned in 2004 yellow (with navy trim) was re-instated as the goalkeeper’s first choice colour. A similar version in red/black was the alternative. A retro-style all-blue kit was unveiled in 2005 to be paired with the 125th Anniversary kit, and it could be argued would have made a better choice for the outfield kit than the dark green actually selected. The second set of Umbro kits were paired with red and fluorescent green goalkeeper kits. Bright green was perhaps a poor choice for a team whose outfield players wear green and was worn just once in a senior international, alongside the blue away outfield kit, against Denmark in Copenhagen (it was also worn by Maik Taylor against Everton in the Milk Cup 25th Anniversary match). As such, the old yellow kit entered regular rotation with the new red kit. Notably, for a 3-2 win over Spain where the yellow jersey was paired with the black shorts from the fluorescent green kit as the best way of avoiding a clash with the Spanish team’s red/blue kit.

A new yellow goalkeeper kit was released along with the 2007 pin-striped away kit, with a light blue version following to accompany the 2008 home release. A grey version was also available but used just once. An all red kit, with matching shorts and socks, was released in 2009 and marked a sign of things to come in terms of style, and it was joined by an all-light blue kit the following year. The last goalkeeper kit released by Umbro was in a new colour, a rather stylish burgundy number, and was designed to accompany the 2011 white/chevron away kit.

As we move into current times it becomes notable that, for the last century, all goalkeepers had to worry about was a clash of colours with the outfield players and the match officials. Rules now dictate that the opposing goalkeepers don’t clash with each other, presumably in case a goalkeeper joins his strikers in the opposing penalty area in the latter stages of a game. This means that the kit hamper has become ever fuller of alternate colours, while the kits themselves are now almost always a single shade (i.e. matching shirt, shorts and socks) as the patterns of the 1990s would make avoiding colour clashes even trickier.

The rate of kits being released did not slow when Adidas became kit suppliers in 2012. There were three different yellow and four different red kits in the first four years of the deal, augmented with a blue and black kits as further alternatives. New black and fluorescent yellow kits were seen at the Euro 2016 but were never worn again outside of France.

A set of kits with a horizontal pattern in orange, red and grey/lime was released through late 2017, while the most recent set of kits saw yellow return as first choice along with peach and black versions in the same template. Although mono-tone is now the trend, we do still see goalkeeping kit mash-ups. The grey/lime shirt was paired with black training shorts by Bailey Peacock-Farrell against Austria in 2018 and the black/blue shirt was worn with the grey/lime shorts by Michael McGovern against the same opponents in 2020.

  • Roy Cathcart
  • Michael Cockroft