They are a sign of allegiance.
They show you are part of a crowd - or different to the norm.
Worn as a badge of pride at belonging, or as two-fingers at those who are not with you.
They are big-business walking advertisements - a decision to advertise on which can be so delicate, that a company wishing to do so will go to great lengths to check who they will be upsetting when they emblazon the front of the bright coloured polyester mesh shirt - sometimes sponsoring more than one shirt to ensure they stay on side with all parties to a divide (see the old firm).
Not so many years ago, I used to live much closer to Manchester city centre - in the area of the city that was the original home of Manchester United, Newton Heath. Not the most salubrious of suburbs, but we lived in a nice house, on probably the nicest street, we thought.
The area still has links with United. A number of streets are named after some of the Busby Babes that perished in Munich, the library is covered by a wonderful mural featuring red-shirted footballers alongside links to the past major suppliers of employment in the area, factories and engineering. An old bus route, the 53, also runs through the area, all the way to Old Trafford. The only reason I could think of for that route would be to connect the two areas once the move was made by the club back in 1910 to Old Trafford from Bank Street in Clayton. I am very happy for any local historians to put me right on that theory! Red shirts were the norm, as far as I could tell.
Only half a mile or so from United's Bank Street home, an area ripe for regeneration next to Clayton, Bradford and Newton Heath became the site for the commonwealth games - and so it was that some noisy neighbours moved in to the locale.
Before it was decided that as a family, we would head for the hills, we shopped at the supermarket opposite the commonwealth stadium. On many occasions, following city's move in to the ground, I became aware of what I thought was the club's plan to attempt to become the pre-eminent team in the city. The club had a deal when taking residence at the stadium, that meant they would take the gate receipts equivalent to a full Maine Road (some wags may question if that had ever occurred) and anything over that ceiling would be the council's. Perhaps, I thought, as a looked around the supermarket at the large number of then "laser" blue shirts, this is their apocalyptic idea...
From nowhere, in this predominantly red area, city fans appeared all over the place. Red pubs closed down and reopened as blue. Chippys and shops took on city-related monickers....I had become cast adrift in a sea of blue...
One particular journey to the supermarket, I became blocked in an aisle by a family of city fans. A straggly-haired Rick Wakeman lookalike, his big-boned wife and four snotty-faced kids barred my way - all bedecked in blue replica shirts. Everywhere I looked, there were similar groups of twos and threes in blue - they were slowly going to repopulate and change the demographic of Manchester greatly by raising large, sprawling families of city fans, all apparently born with CTID tattoed on their backs and a rather touching phoenix and three stars on their chests (what are those three stars actually for?).
It all got me to thinking, me, not having bought a replica shirt since the age of 17. What makes a grown man want to squeeze his ever expanding lump of lard stomach into a gaudy piece of polyester and become a walking billboard? Kids I can see it. Despite the annual cries of the likes of the Daily Mail against the price of the said item, 30-40 quid seems a bargain for a piece of clothing that will hardly ever be off their back, still looks the part when dirty and doesn't need ironing. (Have they seen the price of kids shoes, lately, and how long they last with the way kids grow?)
And names on the back? Again - all kids have football heroes, and if they are not going down the route of the kids name and age on the back (again, the likes of the Daily Mail would probably warn against that in this stranger-danger age) then they are going for Rooney, or Silva, or Bale, or Torres....ok, maybe not the last one... But grown men? There they are, mid-40s walking round with the name of a player half their age printed on the back of an ill-fitting replica shirt - why??? Does it make you feel like a player when you prise it on?
Yet there is this feeling that they have to be bought to show allegiance - to show everyone you are a red, a blue, a dale fan, a tyke, you are leeds.... give me a simple, understated polo or a nice cotton t-shirt with a small marking any day - although even then...
Whilst I rant on about that - there is also the issue of wearing shirts at inappropriate times and places.
Naturally, as a testosterone fuelled youngster, straight after a heavy defeat, heads must be held high and shirts must be worn - proud in the face of adversity, but a Manchester United shirt in Leeds city centre is never a good idea, nor a Sunderland shirt in Newcastle, I'd wager - we all know the no-go areas - I once had the insult "SCUM!" screamed at me whilst walking through Sheffield city centre as a naive 16year old in my replica - but how about another no-no and pet hate of mine?
I'll furnish you with an example to highlight it.
A blue friend of mine was perfectly appropriately upset that his beloved team had been knocked out of the Carling Cup semi-final (this was before they had broken their 35 year no-trophy hoodoo, remember, so they were "that far" [holds finger and thumb an inch apart] away from a trophy). In an effort to stay well clear of the match, come Final day, he foolishly agreed to be dragged along by his better half to the monolith of consumerism that is the Trafford Centre - merely a couple of miles from Old Trafford. It was surely a safe-haven on a day that the local team were at Wembley, where he could hide and forget football existed for a day...not so. To his utter amazement - and I believe him, for the record - during the actual match, there were people milling around the shops wearing their prized replica United shirts......DURING THE MATCH - A CUP FINAL!!
There are times when you can't get to the match. Times where money and circumstance just won't allow - but how can you seriously be walking around the shops wearing the home-town team's replica shirt during the final - with no public house in sight, even, to say you were on the way to watch - surely, of all the issues surrounding replica shirts - that is the biggest fashion faux-pas of them all.