Le Coq Sportif: Spectacular in Action – Sensational in Style

Rob Sawyer   25/03/2018 12comments  |  Jump to last
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A version of this article has previously appeared in When Skies are Grey, the Everton fanzine.

Everton have never worn an Adidas team kit...or have they? When that great 1980s side containing Steven, Southall, Sharp and Sheedy was swatting away all-comers, it did so sporting the rooster emblem of Le Coq Sportif. Not appreciated by many is that the Gallic marque, which burned brightly but briefly on these shores, was a branch of the German sporting behemoth.

Le Coq can trace its ancestry back to the Champagne region, where, in 1882, Émile Camuset started manufacturing sports journeys in his workshop. The iconic triangular symbol, containing the crowing cockerel, was adopted in early 1950s with company rising to prominence through its supply of the iconic Maillot Jaune to the Tour de France (a modernised version of the logo was launched in 1968). At various points, the company has attired the French national rugby, football and Olympic team kits.

Over in 1920s Bavaria, brothers Adolph (Adi) and Rudolf (Rudi) Dassler had gone into partnership, manufacturing sports footwear as Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik. Famously they equipped Jessie Owens with his running spikes at the 1936 Munich Olympics. In 1947 a schism in the siblings’ relationship saw Rudi found Ruda (quickly renamed Puma) whilst Adi created Adidas. Over the years the two firms competed to get their wares on the feet of leading athletes from many sporting disciplines. Markings on the shoes, in the form of the Adidas triple-stripes or the Puma Formstrip, helped raise brand awareness and loyalty. Although Adidas became the larger concern, Puma enjoyed a coup when it had Pelé shod in their “Kings” at the 1970 Mexico World Cup.

St Etienne wore Le Coq Sportif between 1978 and 1980

Into the 1970s, Adi Dassler preferred to focus on sports equipment and athletic attire rather than expand aggressively into team sports clothing and leisurewear markets. This frustrated his ambitious son, Horst, who was keen to diversify the Adidas product offering. Meeting resistance from family elders, he would find himself exiled to a subsidiary called Adidas France. Here he would often end up competing against the core German business.

In the mid-1960s a licensing deal had been agreed whereby Le Coq Sportif manufactured and distributed Adidas-branded attire in France. Adidas would come to regret this arrangement and a legal battle ensued for the French rights to the famous three stripes. The dispute almost bankrupted Le Coq; resulting in Adidas purchasing 49% of stricken company. In a deal brokered by the French government, the Camuset family sold the remaining balance of Le Coq shares to the charismatic businessman, André Guelfi. What was not appreciated by Adidas HQ was that was that Horst Dassler was in cahoots with Guelfi–effectively gaining control of Le Coq. Under his leadership a revived Le Coq reinforced its links to the Tour de France whilst Arthur Ashe won the 1975 Wimbledon title wearing the firm’s emblem. Le Coq also kitted out a number of French football teams. It would go on to supply the 1982 and 1986 World Cup winning-teams

In 1978, Horst called on his friend, Robbie Brightwell to lead a new venture in the UK. Brightwell and his future wife, Ann Packer, had been British athletics’ glamour couple at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics (two of their sons would become professional footballers). It was at the Olympics that a bond developed between the Englishman and the German. Robbie promoted Adidas spikes to fellow athletes then, having embarked on a career as a sports lecturer, he was enticed by Horst in 1972 to oversee the newly created Adidas UK operation, based in Poynton.

At this point the British football kit supply industry was been dominated by the Cheshire rivals, Bukta and Umbro. Leicester-based Admiral transformed the marketplace in the mid-1970s with aggressive promotion of its garish and heavily-branded kits. Adidas, meanwhile, was constrained by an agreement with Umbro whereby the Wilmslow-based company focused on kit supply and acted as UK distributor for Adidas football boots. Ironically, Nottingham Forest and Ipswich Town, the clubs Adidas was permitted to supply by Umbro, enjoyed notable successes.


The formation of a UK division of Le Coq Sportif in 1978 offered Horst the freedom to operate in the UK, free of Umbro’s shackles. Although sharing its name with the French parent company, Le Coq Sportif (UK) was run as a largely autonomous entity. Headquartered in Holmes Chapel, Robbie Brightwell, devised a strategy to maximise the company’s reach in spite of a tight budget. He recalls: “When we set up Le Coq Sportif we wanted to take a top team from each one of the ITV areas–I first organised the Derby County deal with Tommy Docherty and the club secretary. Then there was Tottenham in the London area, Aston Villa in the Midlands and Everton up in the North West. Everton were being managed by a most capable manager in Howard Kendall–a great guy–and they were on the rise and we had strong feelings that they would stay there for some time. I identified Spurs through their manager – like Everton it was a club that was on the rise with a wonderful collection of players and a board that really supported the manager.”

The Le Coq stable would be completed by Portsmouth, Chelsea, Sunderland and, bizarrely, Barnet. Through good judgement and a slice of good fortune, many of Le Coq’s contracted teams enjoyed trophy-laden periods. Aston Villa lifted the European Cup, Spurs won the UEFA Cup and Everton won the League Championship, FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup. What set Le Coq apart was Robbie’s vision that the brand set out to be more than just a traditional sports kit supplier:

“We went ahead with clubs on the basis that they would give us generous licence to design strips as we thought would best suit the club (until that moment club strips had been very, very traditional). We did this in two ways: with the fabric used–which was completely different from what had been traditionally used–and the design of the strip itself. With Spurs I actually redesigned the cockerel logo on the shirt. As we were a brand we were positioned not only in sportswear but also leisurewear and fashion. The fashion component on the strips, tracksuits and rain-suits etc proved very successful.

“It was a very exciting time as the brand grew from zilch in the UK–where it had been primarily known as a cycling brand from the Tour de France. We manufactured many millions of kits in Macclesfield (Umbro also did some for us on a sub-contract basis). It was revolutionary–Le Coq Sportif changed sport in many ways. If you look at tennis for example, it had been all white. If you wore strips that were contrary to the laws/rules laid down by the governing bodies you were banned and not allowed to compete. But our tennis attire was designed in France by a top fashion house. We brought in the fashion and leisure components into sport and, happily, they are still there. It was a time of great personal satisfaction and great credit to the team who were there.”


The first foray in the UK football market, with Derby County, was a modestly traditional affair. The subsequent range, kick-started with the Spurs kit in 1980, featured snug-fitting shirts and shorts, club logos in the centre of shirts and the Le Coq rooster emblem on the shirt sleeves–all the better for exposure in press photographs and TV coverage. The next wave of designs from 1982 onwards would also boast innovative shadow stripes.

Everton, being a conservative club, had eschewed Admiral and remained loyal to Umbro in the 1970s (supplied via Jack Sharp Sports). However in 1983 it took the plunge with the newcomer. The sleek home shirt adopted featured the same filled-in v-neck as modelled by Chelsea and Aston Villa. It had a lighter shade of blue than had been customary and was finished off with a subtle shadow stripe pattern. The white shorts were so tight that players sometimes complained that they restricted their movement (in the 1984 FA Cup Semi-Final Kevin Ratcliffe complained of discomfort so much that at half-time that he swapped shorts with Peter Reid). The hooped socks, meanwhile, harked back to the 1940s.

The away kit was a daring silver-grey concoction with blue trim, based on the same design template as the home kit. The silver kit seemed not to find favour with the players and a yellow and blue change kit (which was not commercially available) was often worn instead. Le Coq in France also went into footwear manufacturing and many leading British players, including Graeme Sharp, Glenn Hoddle and Peter Reid wore their boots.

The second and final Everton Le Coq home kit design (1985-86) was a controversial one. The “Lineker” shirt became infamous for its large white bib. This proved unpopular with the traditionalists and marred what could have been a classic kit (the yellow and blue away kit was a more traditional affair). The season ended in disappointment as hopes of a league and cup double crumbled at the final hurdles.

When, a year later, Everton won the league for a second time under Howard Kendall it was back wearing the double-diamond logo of Umbro. Robbie Brightwell had walked away from Le Coq to run a country sports equipment supplier. In one interview he alluded to his frustrations over being unable to tap into the emerging female sportswear market: “I thought, ‘Why haven’t people done this before, when 50% of the human population is running round and people aren’t making things for them?’ My aim was to make it a female brand, I wanted to do with it Le Coq Sportif but didn’t have the opportunity due to the politics going on at Adidas. But another brand from came along and did that–and that was Reebok.”


In 1986, without Brightwell at the helm, Le Coq disappeared from the UK football market as quickly as it had arrived. Mother company, Adidas, tied up deals with Liverpool and Arsenal (to add to the one it already had with Manchester United). Horst Dassler passed away in 1987 and Le Coq went through several changes of ownership over the years.

Le Coq re-emerged on the UK football scene in the mid-1990s — mainly kitting out second-tier teams. When Everton returned to the rooster roster in 2009 it was supplied under license from Le Coq Sportif by Focus International (a Lancashire-based firm with links to the Pentland/JD Sports empire). The first offering was a poorly executed nod to the 1983-85 home kit; the two subsequent home kits in the three-year deal were more accomplished. Then the Le Coq motif departed the UK and European football scene, once more.

In 2010 the company opened a research centre in its “birth town” of Romilly-Sue-Seine and, five years later, returned to the football fray by supplying Fiorentina and Saint-Étienne. Saint-Étienne’s home shirt recalled their 1970s glory years whilst Fiorentina wore a similarly classy outfit. There have been no rumours of Le Coq crossing the channel again–will we ever see the Toffees back in this iconic brand?

Acknowledgements

My sincere thanks to Robbie Brightwell for his recollections and to Simon Shakeshaft (National Football Shirt Collection curator) for use of images from the Collection.

Other images are taken from Everton match day programmes

Further reading:

Pitch Invasion: Adidas, Puma and the Making of Modern Sport – by Barbara Smit
www.lecoqsportif.com

Follow @robsawyer70


Reader Comments (12)

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Anthony Hawkins
1 Posted 25/03/2018 at 20:06:49
I know many dislike the white panel from the 1985-86 season but it's one of my favourites as it was the season I first supported Everton and Lineker stepped into Andy Gray's boots.

We finished 2nd and 5 of the Everton team made it into the England squad. I don't recall that feat happening again since then.

Jim Bennings
2 Posted 25/03/2018 at 21:11:41
Best Everton kit of all time though has to be 1995-96 Danka blue and black hopped socks, a true intercontinental beauty!

It just had something so very classy about it even if it wasn't in total keeping for the traditionalists.

John Scott
3 Posted 26/03/2018 at 10:01:22
That yellow Chelsea away top was a thing of beauty.
Jay Woods
[LAT]

4 Posted 26/03/2018 at 10:11:18
I liked the white bib kit and amazingly, it remains the only EFC top I still have. At least, I think I still have it, somewhere back in my parents' garage in Northern Ireland.

Jim Bennings, I loved the Danka kit too, those black hoops on the socks and the memories of Kanchelskis flying along the pitch in it...

My German mate, who is also a huge Evertonian, has loads of our old shirts but his favourite is the one that had a very angular, squared-off looking EFC over the shoulders... I can't recall who made it but it looks horrible to me; then again, Germans do like cold, sharp angles in many aspects of design.

David McMullen
5 Posted 26/03/2018 at 11:18:01
The kits were quality back then; the 1985-86 one was my first home kit though hated the bib when Chelsea had virtually the same kit but all blue... Still got the 1986-87 Umbro shirt, very faded now.
Craig Walker
6 Posted 26/03/2018 at 13:38:27
The silver Le Coq Sportif away kit was my first Everton shirt. I have memories of going playing football in it on Christmas day with snow on the ground. I was really disappointed in the Moyes era when they messed up the homage to the 1985 home shirt with the massive white v-neck.
Steve Ferns
7 Posted 26/03/2018 at 17:00:28
I always like the same design across the range of kits. I don't know why it's done so rarely.

A couple of years ago we did it with the Beehive logo, there was the yellow and blue away kit, and the white and blue third kit, which were identical save for the colours. A home version wouldn't have been a bad idea, but it would have meant a lot of white at the top of the kit, in a nod to the '86 kit.

My favourite was the '85 kits, but that's probably because it was my first kit as a kid. I also liked the '87 kit, which if I remember correctly was coloured red and worn by Forest, so no imagination there Umbro!

Worst kit ever has to be that RS monstrosity with the cricket collar, remember that? Thank god we weren't subjected to it! It's the '95-96 one. But having just googled that, I think I may have to revise my opinion as the RS have had some shocking away kits over the years. It's what you get for being the Devil's own club.

Laurie Hartley
8 Posted 26/03/2018 at 22:07:10
Rob – interesting and well researched and laid out article.

Slightly off topic and tongue-in-cheek question:

In the St Etienne team shot, has anyone noticed a remarkable resemblance between the player top row second from the right, with one one of our current players?

David McMullen
9 Posted 28/03/2018 at 12:22:26
Laurie, what about a former manager in the front row (with hair)?!
Jamie Evans
10 Posted 28/03/2018 at 15:08:58
No chance, Dave @9, I'm not having that.

It can't be can it?

Where are his brown boots?

Peter Thistle
11 Posted 28/03/2018 at 21:08:29
I loved 80s fashion, great article to bring back those times. Still got all my old EFC shirts, it's mad to see how small the size of my 85/86 is. I was a li'l nipper then. I have been tempted to buy the re-released version in adult size but kinda like to keep the old memories as good stuff to reminisce about.

Can't wait for EFC to bin off the current kit asap, it's friggin awful and no comparison to any of the 80s ones.

Laurie Hartley
12 Posted 28/03/2018 at 22:15:48
Yes, Dave – I can see the resemblance. I've just noticed the player in the middle of the top row. Looks like someone who played on the left wing for us in the 60s.

Regarding the kit – the new kit must have whites – it brings us luck.

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