For the vast majority of his living memory, Mick Clifford has been a fan of West Ham United and his love for the polyester jerseys for the iconic East London team is extraordinary. Over the course of his collecting career, Mick has amassed an array of over 600 special shirts -the bulk of which, if not all, are match-worn by players who have appeared for the Hammers either at the Boleyn Ground or at the Olympic Park Stadium.
This is the story of how Mick fell in love with West Ham United, how he came to adore the shirts they wear and how he was fortunate enough to get hold of the jewel in the crown of his incredible collection.
For many collectors out there, there’ll always be that question of what exactly it is that draws people to collecting old football shirts? Of course, everybody’s answer is just as individual as their shirt collections themselves but I vividly remember the reasons I believe I was drawn into this wonderful hobby.
Claret and blue. Two colours that from the moment I saw them together, I just knew that they were my colours and I know that my love for them I very much owed to my Grandad. As a little boy, my Mum and I would visit my grandparents regularly - they lived only a couple of minutes away up Ballards Lane in Finchley Central, North London.
My Grandad was always sitting there in the front room with sports (mainly football!) on the television and he was always particularly attentive when a certain team were playing, in the colours of claret and blue. I was drawn to admiring a certain blond-haired player - he was brilliant and in all honesty, he only heightened my love for this iconic combination of colours.
Needless to say, it didn’t take me long to discover that the blond haired player was indeed Bobby Moore and the team for which he played was West Ham United. For me that was it, my mind was made up, they were my team, they were my colours and I was a West Ham fan. Let’s not dwell too much on the fact that it was some years later before I found out that my Grandad's favourite team was in fact Aston Villa!
It was irrelevant now - West Ham were my first love of claret and blue and for me, it was simply supporting them or nobody!
For years, as I was growing up, one of my favourite pictures was the signed black and white image of the West Ham team celebrating their 1965 European Cup Winners Cup triumph - two goals from Alan Sealey were enough to see off 1860 Munich on home turf at the old Wembley stadium.
The picture sat pride of place on my bedroom wall but the one feature I was drawn to was the embroidered club crest. I’d never seen them before in this shield format and I’d always wanted one. The task of getting hold of just one of these shirts was made near-on impossible, given that there were only ever ten of the outfield shirts made! That said, it didn’t deter me and in all honesty, for me to have got hold of Bobby Moore’s shirt would’ve been a dream come true!
I now proudly own John Sissons’ number 11 shirt from that evening and for me personally, the shirt represents the halcyon days of football fashion; cotton material, simple and uncomplicated with no commercial sponsor, a great colourway and overall, just a truly stunning shirt. Fortunately, it’s not the only John Sissons match-worn shirt I now own, having also added the 1964 FA Cup Final shirt to my collection.
You’d probably be forgiven for thinking that owning a match-worn shirt from West Ham United’s ECWC final would be enough for me to close the collection, call it a day and shut up shop but there was still the famous elusive number 6 shirt which left a huge gap on the rails. I was determined to own one, irrelevant of design, condition or season.
It’s taken me 38 years to get hold of it but pride of place in my collection today is my match- worn number 6 Bobby Moore West Ham United shirt. I had seen a fair few over the years of me searching out one of these jerseys, many of which I doubted the provenance of and others, over time, I quickly grew to recognise as being nothing more than glorious copies of the real thing.
The vast majority I came across were understandably hanging on the walls of some very proud West Ham fans and I now understand the irrelevance of offering money to fans to exchange a piece of West Ham and English football heritage. I was perhaps a little bit naive back then but I’m now incredibly privileged to own this beautiful, iconic shirt.
I’d met Bobby as a child, waiting for his autograph outside the ground while he was still playing. I still vividly remember stuttering my way through it - handing him a scrap piece of paper and pencil for him to sign his name for me. I still have the autograph to this day and it’s another one of my most treasured possessions from the great man himself.
The second time I’d met Bobby was after I’d made the journey to Southend while he was the manager of Southend United way back in 1985. Somewhat older and wiser by now, I was aware that they do say “never meet your hero” but honestly, that wasn’t the case for me with Bobby Moore at all. I don’t think I could’ve met a nicer guy - we chatted for nearly 30 minutes which for me, felt like a lifetime! Of course, we covered most things football but the main topic of our conversation was West Ham United!
Sadly, he no longer owned any of his shirts and in fact, he told me that he wasn’t allowed to keep any of them. Club policies (whether or not they were formal or not is another matter) meant that they were always passed down to reserve teams and such for the following season. A way to keep a lid on costs, maybe? It’s also fair to say that back then, the interest in getting hold of match-worn shirts was pretty much non-existent and I felt like part of what must’ve been a very small community back then!
The shirt I own was used throughout the 1970/71 season and unlike nowadays,most shirts back then were washed and used again and again from the start of the season right through to the end. It was definitely worn on Saturday 6th March 1971 in a dour 0-0 draw vs Crystal Palace at Upton Park.
The story goes that John Sewell who was the Crystal Palace Club captain, had asked Bobby for the shirt after the game as he was intent on using it as first prize in the upcoming raffle during his testimonial dinner. Of course, Bobby had to ask permission to give it to Sewell and the shirt was subsequently handed over. The winner in the raffle happened to be a very close friend to John and on it’s return, he proudly kept the jersey until I purchased it from him.
The feeling of adding a much sought-after shirt to your personal collection when you have been searching for years and years is a truly fantastic feeling. I guess you could say that's the bug with collecting - you just want the next one and the next one after that. You’ll often be very happy with what you’ve collected but you’ll always be driven to get the next shirt, the next challenge and the next holy-grail.
Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for teams to change their shirt design every season with at least 3 different shirts, sometimes more if involved in European competition. It’s hard to keep up but you keep going!
West Ham used to stick with the same home shirts for at least two consecutive seasons and whilst changing the away shirt every season, they haven’t used the same home shirt twice since the 2005-2007 home shirt which was, admittedly, a great design by Reebok.
The football jersey market has since become a booming industry worth hundreds of millions of pounds and many fans now impatiently wait for the next shirt, the next manufacturer’s designs and the next shirt sponsor, always eager for more and craving new, fresh designs season after season.
Needless to say, I think it’s obvious where my passions lie and that I much prefer the older shirts with cotton fabric, no sponsors and preferably with long sleeves. I suppose you could say I’m old school!
My fondest memory as a West Ham fan was undoubtedly the FA Cup Final on 10th May 1980 at Wembley Stadium against a very good Arsenal team, full of great players such as David O’Leary, Pat Rice and Graham Rix.
Arsenal were the bookies favourites by miles - West Ham were playing in the Second Division and the odds were firmly stacked against us, literally. I’ll never forget the sheer ecstasy of the final whistle after Sir Trevor Brooking had scored the 13th minute winner and it still sends shivers down my spine to this day. The next shirt on my hit-list was an obvious one - I needed to own it to hang on to these precious memories!
Strangely enough, both Arsenal and West Ham played in away kits that day but this shirt has to be up there with one of the best West Ham shirts ever. An all white away strip with the iconic Admiral logo featuring down both sleeves from the shoulders, the claret and blue collar, claret and blue embroidered Admiral logo and last but not least, the claret and blue embroidered West Ham crest with “Wembley 1980” and the small FA Cup trophy emblem! Admiral had absolutely gone to town to tailor this jersey for West Ham United on this special occasion and they did not disappoint.
This is one of the few shirts that escaped my collection for a long time and again, there were only ten outfield, match-worn shirts used that are out there. I do know that the first-team players were issued with two shirts each that day, a long sleeved and a short sleeved version. All 11 players used the short sleeved shirt version and in days before the widespread use of the internet, social media and even mobile phones, I learned to effectively be a pain, making landline telephone calls, turning up at training sessions and trying to talk to club staff and players!
My perseverance did eventually pay off and I’m proud to say I own David Cross’ number 9 worn shirt from the day in my collection. It’s a stunning, beautiful shirt and definitely a favourite in the collection. FA Cup Final shirts are genuinely notoriously difficult to track down and get hold of, especially the older cotton shirts. Most players were only issued with 1 or a maximum of 2 shirts and after either swapping them after the match or cherishing them, the shirts are becoming prized possessions which have been passed down through generations.
Shirt-wise, West Ham have had some belters over the years - I have my favourites and they’ve also used some absolute howlers. I wonder if it’s any coincidence that the team has more often than not gone on to endure a terrible time wearing the awful shirts. As is probably the case with most serious shirt collectors, I tend to associate players from specific time periods in special shirts.
The Fila 1999/2001 shirt is classic Paolo Di Canio, the Adidas 1985/87 with Tony Cottee and McAvennie scoring every week for fun. The most recent Umbro 125 Year Centenary shirt with Declan Rice and Tomáš Souček bossing the midfield in most games.The 1987/89 abomination from Scoreline could only end up one way, relegation.
My favourite away shirt is from the 1991/92 season, West Ham went into the season with 3 different shirt designs for the first time. The home shirt was paraded around Upton Park at half time in the penultimate game of the previous season and I’ll be honest, my first thoughts were along the lines of “what on earth is that?!” It did grow on me and actually now, the 1991/1992 season shirts are up there as probably my favourite of the polyester era shirts.
Dubbed the “Argentina” by the fans, it had stunning thick blue and white stripes, with a claret collar, BAC Windows as the sponsor and overall, it was just a thing of beauty. In terms of match-worn, it has been one of the most difficult shirts to obtain, only taking me 25 years to track down!
Admiral produced some of the most iconic West Ham shirts, starting with the 1976 ECWC Final shirt, used at The Heysel Stadium in Brussels in our 4-2 defeat to Anderlecht, ending with the 1980 FA Cup Final beauty. Butka had preceded Admiral, and had consistently produced West Ham's shirts from the early 1950’s. Before Bukta West Ham employed local manufacturers to produce shirts and I own a 1951 club shirt in the collection made by a local company called Litesome, who still to this day, I can’t find any further information about!
Adidas produced more iconic kits for West Ham starting with the 1980 Charity Shield kits until Scoreline took over in 1987. It was something to strive towards in the early 80’s - you’d hit the jackpot if Adidas or Umbro were manufacturing your club's kits. Those were great times and some of the most loved West Ham shirts ever were made by Adidas in the 1980’s
Today’s shirts are great but unfortunately, they’re never really around long enough for fans to endear them. West Ham do have the odd couple of exceptions; the Farewell Boleyn 2015/2016 Umbro designed shirts were fitting of the poignant closing of Upton Park, and always associated with Dimitri Payet elegantly gliding passed opponents and smashing worldie free kicks into the oppositions stanchion. Simply wonderful stuff.
Collecting the shirts in my collection hasn’t only been a great experience but it’s also put me in touch with some genuinely fantastic people. I’ve forged friendships that have lasted for years and in fact, I recently added a wonderful 1958-59 shirt to the collection with a fellow collector spotting it and helping me obtain it. Honestly, there are some genuinely great people collecting shirts and long may it last.
I have collected more than 650 match-worn West Ham shirts and I’ve been collecting seriously for more than 35 years. I would have had more - maybe even a thousand! You can’t have everything though...or can you?
Words and Images: Mick Clifford
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