Shirtgate ’96: Was Fergie Right?

It was exactly twenty years ago; Sergeant Fergie changed the team’s shirts at half time. OK, it was 13 April, but what’s a few weeks between friends? Some of you probably weren’t born in April 1996, but what Sir Alex did was big news at the time, so here’s a reminder.

First, a bit of context. Fergie came in 1986 and built the squad to the point where we won the league in 1992/93 for the first time since 1966/67. By then his reputation as someone not to be messed with was cemented, and United would go on to dominate top flight English football for the next twenty years.

So when United went to the Dell to take on relegation-battling Southampton in 1996, the result was a foregone conclusion. Southampton had other ideas, however, and by half time they were 3–0 up.

Fergie needed answers, and he saw one on the players’ backs. He figured their grey Umbro away strip made them blend into the background and pointed to the fact that the all-conquering club had conquered nobody in the five games they had worn that particular kit. So he made the players change their shirts at half time. Luckily they had brought their blue and white third kits with them (unless Fergie sent the kit guy out to JD with a fistful of horse winnings).

man utd blue strip southampton 1996

Ferguson was partly vindicated when United ‘won’ the second half 1–0, but the game finished with a 3-1 victory for the Saints.

The Greygate debate raged on, and got another airing when football came home that summer and England were dumped out of Euro 96 on penalties – wearing grey.


The final analysis

But finally, we might have an answer to the riddle. Because a T-shirt company has analysed every Premiership game (that’s 8,740 matches) up to the end of 2014/15 to see if colour does give an advantage (or disadvantage). The study throws up some interesting snippets. For example, red and blue don’t guarantee success despite the two colours being the only ones to win the Premier League (plenty of red and blue clubs get relegated too). And it also concludes that the most successful colours are burgundy and pink. Yeah, I know …

But what about grey? The study says:

“When United played in grey they lost four and drew one before abandoning it, an average points-per-game of 0.2 out of a possible 3.0. But the average for others wearing grey in the Premiership is a much more modest 1.3 points per game. Chelsea, Aston Villa, Bolton, Newcastle and Liverpool have all worn grey and performed, well, averagely.”

So there we have it. Fergie was right about a lot of things, but on the shirt debate, the statistics don’t back him up.

Incidentally, the result wasn’t all bad news for United. Southampton finished the season on 38 points, the same as Manchester City and Coventry, but thanks to the wonders of goal difference, City were relegated and two years later found themselves in the third tier. For United, the result wasn’t pivotal – we won the season by four points over Newcastle.

Click here to dig deeper into the history of Southampton vs Manchester United – there’s more to it than you might think!