United’s Men In Black

18/11/16

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Manufactured by Umbro, Manchester United’s black kit of 1993-95. was a game-changer of a design, capitalising on the Premier League’s softening stance on change colours to maximum effect. A marked move from the more conventional blue of prior seasons, this iconic strip would be worn in some of the club’s most famous (and infamous) outings of the era, from Premier League classics to a European epic at the Nou Camp and a climactic title decider…

Men in black

With Andrei Kanchelskis’ deflected effort in the 7th minute proving to be the winner, an August 1993 friendly with Celtic would serve as a dry-run debut for United’s black apparel; and the only time the club ever wore the kit at their Old Trafford home. Ultimately, a total of 22 players from seven different nations pulled on the black United shirt in competitive play, each between August 1993 and May 1995. Of them, two players (defender Gary Pallister and midfielder Paul Ince) were involved throughout each of the 14 fixtures, with Denis Irwin also starting 14 times, only to be substituted once. As it turned out, substitute Clayton Blackmore would be the only outfield player involved against Celtic who did not wear the new away kit competitively, as injury ruled the Welsh international out of the ensuing 1993-94 campaign. In his absence, a famous season would await his United teammates in black.

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Manchester United’s first three Premier League appearances in black would all end in victory, as the club closed out 1993 with a 100% record in their alternate kit. Making its competitive bow on a Monday night in the Midlands, United went top of the Premier League with a 2-1 victory over Aston Villa, with Lee Sharpe claiming the first two of a record six-goal haul in the club’s new change colour. Sharpe would be on target once more days later, as United won 3-1 at Southampton and again in December, as Alex Ferguson’s side ran out 3-0 victors over Sheffield United at Bramall Lane. As history would have it, these early outings in black would be Sharpe’s purple patch for 1993-94, with the winger winging his way into Graham Taylor’s England squad, before a two-month injury lay-off cruelly disrupted his season. However, on his return to the United side in 1994, Sharpe would score twice more in black in the 2-2 draw with Arsenal; helping the club inch closer to a second consecutive Premier League title.

New year, new challenges

1994 brought with it new challenges, none moreso than on the fourth day of the year, when the black United were tasked with a Premier League visit to perennial rivals Liverpool. Taking the bull by the horns, Alex Ferguson’s team would ride into a 3-0 lead, thanks to goals from Steve Bruce, Ryan Giggs and Denis Irwin. However, the dogged Reds of Merseyside would come biting back, with efforts of Nigel Clough (2) and Neil Ruddock helping them secure an exciting 3-3 draw. The Anfield showdown would be the first of five consecutive draws United would record in their black attire; the next being a share of the spoils at Upton Park at the tail end of February. While Mark Hughes’ early strike (pictured) had set the champions up nicely, efforts from Lee Chapman and Trevor Morley in quick succession threatened to send the visitors home empty-handed. However, former Hammer Paul Ince would mark his latest return to East London by stabbing in a dramatic late equaliser, to the chagrin of the vociferous home support. While the United contingent’s celebrations behind the Hammers’ goal were similarly wild in nature, the men in black’s Upton Park story was anything but over.

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European blackout

With the 1993-94 campaign culminating in United’s first domestic double, hopes were high heading into the next season that Alex Ferguson’s successful side may make a real dent on the European stage. However, United’s dreams of continental glory came to a crashing end in November of 1994, as a mammoth 114,273 saw the Premier League champions and FA Cup holders (in black) humbled by Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League. For kit connoisseurs, the game was notable for a slight variation in shirt sponsorship and shorts; though most will better remember the footballing lesson handed out by the hosts in their forceful 4-0 victory. With United forced into multiple changes to satisfy UEFA’s homegrown rules, it was Bulgaria’s Hristo Stoichkov who ironically led the way for the Catalans, as they swept away their Group A visitors. For teenagers Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes, the match would be quite the lesson, while established heads Hughes and Ince would never turn out for the club in continental Europe again. A black day indeed, on what was the kit’s one and only European outing.

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Seeing red

While his appearances United’s synonymous red have become the thing of legend, all three of Eric Cantona’s sendings-off in English football came wearing the club’s black away strip; with two of them happening within a handful of days. After being dismissed at the County Ground for a Saturday stamp on Swindon’s John Moncur, a pair of yellows in midweek at Highbury ensured the iconic Frenchman received a second early bath in one turbulent 1994 week. Few however would anticipate the aftermath the next time the black-clad maverick would be shown the dreaded red card. As few will surely forget, the setting was Selhurst Park in January of 1995. A routine clash with Premier League strugglers had become a tense affair, with defender Richard Shaw’s close man-marking of Cantona raising the ire of United’s star #7. Minutes into the second-half, Cantona lashed out, beyond of the eye-shot of referee Alan Wilkie, but in full view of linesman Eddie Walsh. Receiving his marching orders, it was at this very moment that  your writer turned off the radio, only to be stunned by the pictures of what happened next the following day. Cantona’s notorious retaliation to a tirade of fan abuse would cost the Frenchman the rest of his season; and United, arguably, their title.

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The last stand

United’s results in black in the 1994-95 season had been mixed at best; beginning with a 1-1 draw at Nottingham Forest, and highlighted by another 2-1 win at Aston Villa. However, by this point the champions had been usurped by Blackburn Rovers at the top of the Premier League, a position they would only recover fleetingly. In March, the champions journeyed to Anfield without the influential Cantona, hoping to keep up the heat on the contenders to their throne. However, a Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Fergie’s boys in black ensured that Blackburn preserved their six-point lead, heading into the campaign’s final straight. With United recording five wins and two draws from their next seven outings, Blackburn’s slip-ups (against Manchester City and West Ham) gave United a glimmer of hope heading into the last day of fixtures. On that fateful afternoon in May 1995, success for United at Upton Park and a Rovers collapse at Liverpool would have poetically handed their rivals a third successive Premier League crown. Dramatically though, while the Merseysiders fulfilled their role with a 2-1 comeback win against the leaders, United could only clatter to a 1-1 draw in East London, ensuring the black kit’s competitive swansong would be ultimately soaked in Mancunian tears.

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Black diamonds

With United ushering in a new (and ill-fated) grey ensemble for the 1995-96 campaign, the Premier League’s flirtation with black would briefly take a hiatus, before emphatically re-emerging across the brands in 2002, as Liverpool (Reebok), Everton (PUMA) and Chelsea (Umbro) all unveiled black away jerseys of their own. Later to the party than their trendy west London counterparts, Tottenham Hotspur would wait until 2008 before dipping their toes in the darkened stream. More recently, neighbours Arsenal would become one of the latest to adopt a predominantly-black alternate kit, playing in the colour for two successive seasons, including the current one. Meanwhile in Stratford, the newly-re-housed West Ham returned to their roots this summer, reviving the all-black identity of their forerunners Thames Ironworks for the London Stadium’s ceremonial curtain-raiser with Juventus. With black now a fixture of many clubs’ locker (at home and abroad alike), the shirts worn by Manchester United between 1993 and 1995 have continued to have a level of influence on the modern away match jersey. However, it is with no little irony that the final word on the topic goes to local foes Manchester City; whose esteemed predecessors at St. Mark’s (Gorton) wore black as their first choice colour (as pictured below), more than a century ago. Whoever said there was no history in the (black and) blue half of Manchester? AC

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Photography

  1. Hughes at West Ham by Darren Walsh, Action Images
  2. Giggs/Cantona/Cole/Barcelona by Action Images

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