Somehow, at some point in the past few years, third kits have become an event, A Thing. In just the last few days, Nike dropped Manchester City’s orange and purple third kit which is bolder than Pep Guardiola’s positioning of his full backs. It’s since been compared, with varying degrees of unfairness, to a Barcelona shirt, the Instagram logo and a Double Decker chocolate bar wrapper.

Third kits are hyped by their respective manufacturers like Sky Sports bigging up Jim White’s Deadline Day Jamboree or tabloids hailing the winner of the coveted transfer window trophy. (Guys, you know this isn’t an actual trophy, right?) If nothing else, third kits give brands Something Else to talk about, a way to enter the conversation once the phony war of pre-season ends and the football proper starts. Unfortunately, they also trigger web articles and forum debates along the lines of “Is this the worst kit ever?”

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Do you know what colour City's third shirt is? No. Do you suddenly want a Solero? Yes.

We get it. With shirt prices rising faster than The Great British Bake-Off’s staff turnover, alongside the cost of tickets and distinctly average strikers, it’s hard not to be cynical about third kits. Particularly now that the recently drawn distinction between “replica” and “authentic” shirts has enabled manufacturers to charge three figures for muffin top-exposing “match” versions. (Pity poor Gonzalo “Piguain” coming back to training slightly overweight - no wonder Guardiola banned pizza at City.) Third kits can seem like a flimsy polyester excuse to squeeze even more dough out of increasingly cash-strapped supporters. 

Especially when your side trots out wearing their third kit for no good reason - other than, you suspect, a contractual obligation with said manufacturer. Even more so when it results in headache-causing clashes that could easily have been avoided. For example: the recent Premier League game between Watford and Arsenal at Vicarage Road. Playing at home, the Hornets wore their customary, Whiz Khalifa-approved black and yellow, which clashes with the Gunners’ yellow-and-black away shirts. But instead of reverting to their usual red-and-white livery, Arsenal elected to wear their third kit in, er, near-black navy and fluoro yellow.

The smell of their retinas burning as they tried to distinguish between the two sides sent Gooners into a Twitter meltdown - although to be fair, most things do these days - as they lambasted the rampantly capitalist state of modern football.

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Except that third kits are nothing new. Nor are they an accident of the free market, nor indeed a shameless money-grab by nefarious manufacturers. Third kits have in fact been around since the Thirties - almost as long as football itself. Man Utd wore a blue third kit for the 1968 European Cup against Benfica - and the final 1948 FA Cup against Blackpool. FA rules used to stipulate that if there was a kit clash in the final or semi, then both teams had to change unless otherwise agreed. And clashes that would be unavoidable without a third kit are more common than you might think - like if, say, you’re playing a team that wears stripes in the colours of your home and away kits.

Part of the hate directed at third kits stems from the fact that they’re often in colours or designs that seem to have little or no connection to the club. (See City.) That, or they’re memorably terrible - like Napoli’s denim-effect Macron third kit for the 2014/2015 season. (Just be thankful it wasn’t actual denim: imagine the chafing.) Norwich’s distinctly jazzy Errea third kit for this season polarised opinion on social media, to put it politely, being variously likened to bus uphostelry and a nan’s blouse. Even though it was a remix of the “egg and cress” design that Canaries wore in 1992/1993 when they flew as high as a third-place finish in the Premier League and beat Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup. 

Norwich’s bus upholstery is not so much radical then as historical. But because they’re not as hamstrung by precedence as they are with the home and away shirts, it’s fair to say that manufacturers can go a bit crazy when it comes to third kits. The creative handbrake is off. “We have more freedom around third kits, as they are less guided by tradition or expectation,” confirms Florian Alt, Senior Director of Communications for adidas Football. That liberty isn’t necessarily a bad thing though: “We can introduce some real innovation in design and technology, as well as throw the opportunity out to fans.” 

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Beautiful mess.

Yes, to fans. The adidas Creator Studio initiative is giving supporters of Man Utd, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus, AC Milan and Flamengo – or random people who like designing football shirts for teams they’re not affiliated with - the chance to create each club’s third kit for the 2016/2017 season. Submissions are up – or downvoted online and the final top 100 crowdsourced concepts for each side will be judged by the players themselves. Which is one way to change fans’ attitudes towards third kits: make them part of the solution.

Another way is to let someone more qualified do it - like the time that adidas let fashion designer and longtime collaborator Yohji Yamamoto loose on Real Madrid’s third kit for 2014/2015. The outcome, in streetwear-friendly black and white, even down to a monochrome club crest, and emblazoned with a dragon to symbolise power, could only be described as “straight fire”. Given the rise of the new football culture and the number of high-profile creatives who love the game, the only surprise is that manufacturers don’t do this sort of thing more often - but we’d gamble more than Ray Winstone that they will. Although adidas’ Alt refused to reveal any details of upcoming projects, he did say: “We’re always keen to collaborate with design talents internally and externally to build the hype.”

Adi’s Yohji collab could be seen as a landmark in the colourful history of the third kit. While they constitute some of the worst kits, they’re also increasingly some of the best. Like Paris Saint-Germain’s “Dark Light” Nike kit last season, which was all-black with bright pink player names and numbers, plus body armour-style panels of breathable mesh. It didn’t really matter that it was the club’s first-ever black kit, and therefore breaking completely with tradition, because it was cool AF. Stocked exclusively in chic Parisian boutique Colette for the first couple of days after launch, it perhaps unsurprisingly sold out like limited-edition hot cakes. Hours were spent trawling the internet to track one down, and since then it's a solid rule to only play as “ninja” PSG on FIFA 16. This season's PSG third shirt is equally as stylish, with pristine white vibes and iridescent swoosh and badge.

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Why are they on a roof?

It’s Juventus though who are cornering the killer third kit market like they monopolise Serie A and most of its best players. Last season’s Bianconeri third kit was in Paul Pogba’s signature black with gold trim, fading over the shorts to white socks; this season’s is white with zebra-print sleeves, which nods to the period in the Nineties when the animal replaced the Juve crest. Simultaneously respecting and flouting tradition, it’s one of the sickest kits full stop, and a perfect example of the kind of experimentation that would be impossible, or certainly ill-advised, with precious home shirts.

Yes, third kits can sometimes go spectacularly wrong, and blow up on social media. But far rather that than risk-averse manufacturers playing it safer than Louis Van Gaal, tweaking their designs just enough each year to force you to buy a new one without frightening the stripy horses. If there are to be any serious scientific or aesthetic advances in football shirts, then it’s a safe bet that third kits will be the catalyst.

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Third kits. What you sayin'? Drop us a line below.

Words by Jamie Millar.