While third kits were first marketed in the early-to-mid-80s and then became almost ubiquitous in the 1990s, Arsenal were quite slow to the party.
At a time when such outfits were only worn when needed, Arsenal simply didn’t require it with a red home and yellow away (apart from the 1982-83 green change shirt). Games against orange opposition were rare, meaning navy at Blackpool in 1970 and white at Luton in 1976 were the only occurrences of third shirts.
When Nike took over from Adidas in 1994, they changed the away to navy and teal, which was a radical departure considering the stability of Arsenal’s palette. At the time, officials in the domestic cup competitions still wore black, meaning the navy couldn’t be used and a yellow shirt was seen in the Coca-Cola Cup against Liverpool in 1994-95 and Aston Villa a year later – and Paul Merson’s testimonial in May 1996.
Oddly though, it wasn’t used against Crystal Palace in the league in 1994-95. It was never put on sale.
Nike kept with the two-tone blue for 1995-96, but yellow returned in 1996-97 and the colour was retained on the new away for 1997-98. In the second season of that strip’s lifespan, the need for a third kit arose.
In the Champions League for the first time, Arsenal were drawn with French side RC Lens, whose kit of red and yellow stripes caused problems. The Gunners’ first group game was at Stade Félix Bollaert, but with UEFA still forcing home sides to change in the event of a clash, Lens were in navy and Arsenal in their usual red and white.
The sides would renew acquaintances in the fifth game, at Wembley, with Arsenal needing a win to keep qualification hopes alive (with six groups of four, only the best two runners-up advanced to the quarter-final stage).
The match programme for that game made no mention of what colours would be worn, so it might have come as a surprise to those in attendance to see Arsenal emerge in navy shirts, the white home shorts and white home alternative socks (away games at Bradford and Watford in 1999-2000 being the only outings for these).
As the excellent book The Arsenal Shirt, by Simon Shakeshaft and James Elkin, states, the shirt itself was teamwear, with red and white trim on the collar, a red neck and a yellow Nike logo. Apparently, in ’97, Nike put forward a reversal of the away, which was actually chosen but this was never in the running to be the third.
Given that UEFA had instructed Arsenal of the need for an alternative at short notice, a shirt from the teamwear catalogue was the only option. While one might think that this would make the production of replicas easier, only about 50 of these shirts exist, two each (both long-sleeved) for every member of the Champions League squad.
The game itself against Lens was to be forgettable, with Arsenal losing 1-0, while Lee Dixon was sent off for fighting with the bemulleted Tony Vairelles. The shirt was never worn again.
The following season, Arsenal would meet Lens in the UEFA Cup, but the French’s side’s home shirt that season was red with yellow pinstripes, allowing Arsenal to wear their away shirts at Highbury.
In the final of that competition, Galatasaray – another side who clashed with Arsenal’s home and away - were the opposition, but UEFA instructed both teams to change, with Arsenal in yellow and Gala in white as they won on penalties.
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