As heavy rain fell on a cold, wintry December 9th, Liverpool were sneaking their way past Crystal Palace down in the capital, narrowly escaping another 12:30 kick-off banana skin. 

But back on Merseyside, inside the city’s iconic (or infamous) Adelphi Hotel, the focus couldn’t have been further from Selhurst Park, as fanatics flocked to celebrate a common passion.

Tom Rainsford, who founded the Retro Football Fair (@retro_football_fair) alongside ‘Retro Football Shirts’ and ‘FootballShirts101’, and owner of ‘Circa88Football’ (@circa88football), told us that more than 600 people walked through the Adelphi’s ornate halls, which were flooded with football shirts from every corner of the globe and every decade since the 1950s.

Speaking after the event, Rainsford said, “It was a big success. It’s a new city [for the fair] and we’re delighted with how many people attended. It was shirt lovers galore!” 

There were works of art. The Ronaldo Nazario Inter Milan shirts, the rarefied 80/90s player issue pieces and the Real Madrid 2014/15 third shirt. Yes, that black one with the dragon print. But filling the rails and tables in between these statement pieces were the true crown jewels of RFF’s latest edition. 

Intricately patterned Japanese club shirts that would make you the talk of Powerleague, Ryan Babel shirts to remind you he even existed and the ocean of paraphernalia that speaks directly to the football hipster inside all of us. 

Sporting Lisbon caps, 2007 Adidas Predators, Match Attax books, pin badges and scarves that teleport you to your childhood bedroom, reading Match magazine and pretending to be John Arne Riise in your back garden. And whilst it might only be me who tried to emulate Riise, this is what collecting is all about. Shared experience and memories.

RFF’s soundtrack was the conversations, as people flicked through shirts, asking questions and imparting knowledge. Some were online friends meeting for the first time, whilst others simply shared the joy of a 1998 Boca Juniors kit in the flesh. 

Industry tips and tricks were freely shared and details exchanged with a view to future collaboration. It was the expansion and consolidation of a community. One which exists predominantly online, but has so much to gain from physical interaction.

That, in essence, is the beauty of Retro Football Fair.

There was Liverpool-based Harrison Jackson, founder of ‘Full Time Fits’ (@fulltimefits), who has only been in the industry since the summer, when he graduated from a Masters’ degree, but has worked tirelessly to provide regular pop-up stores around the Liverpool area.

There was Ryan from ‘Match Day Classics’ (@matchdayclassics), who has been running the business with his brother for the last three years; Daryl Williams from ‘First Football Shirts’ (@firstfootballshirts), a Sheffield-based business, who gave me some great advice on spotting fakes; and Joe from ‘Kit Plug’ (@kitplugco), which has grown to over 39,000 followers on Instagram since starting over lockdown.  

After his guest appearance on the ‘Five at The Back Podcast’ back in March, ahead of ‘All Football Shirts’ (@all_football_shirts_official) launch, it was a privilege to finally meet Xavier Marseille (@footballshirta1). His enthusiasm and ambition for AFS is infectious and with a surname like that, he was surely destined for this industry (this is not a paid ad!).

You can check out our episode with Xavier here: OUR CHAT WITH XAVIER  

With AFS officially sponsoring the event and the recent announcement of their own football shirt, it might be time to get Xavier back on 5ATB, so stay tuned…

The sellers are only half the story though.

Those in attendance were, in large part, who you might expect. Dads with their lads being begged for one last shirt, well-known names within the collecting community (whoever was wearing the full 1860 Munich trackie, please make yourself known) and, of course, tote-bag wearing students. But as I unhooked and examined what felt like a 200th shirt of the day, I caught wind of a senior Evertonian, clad in a Ronald Koeman-esque Everton parka jacket, who had been circulating the fair demonstrating a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the club and giving her *very* honest opinions on the points deductions and Manchester City’s differing fortunes.

It is often easily forgotten, in a sport and subculture that is dominated by the male perspective, that women love football too and have an equal right to share the space.

Fortunately, we are beginning to see that change. 

Jacqui Mcassey (@jacquimcassey) is the founder of GIRLFANS Zine (@girlfanszine) and a senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University. GIRLFANS celebrates female football fan culture through photos and profiling individuals.

Speaking at the fair, Jacqui confirmed that she is launching her next project in 2024, ‘Get Your Kits Out Festival’ (@getyourkitsoutfestival), a place to illuminate the creative movement at the intersection of football, design and fashion. 

Starting out in Liverpool, it will highlight female voices within the industry and provide a platform for collaboration and the promotion of their work.

Liverpool’s community-oriented identity and large student population makes it the ideal place for creative groups to thrive and Retro Football Fair UK’s debut in the city proved that football shirt collectors should be no different.

Find me on X/Twitter- @stev_ben 

(Find our podcast on Spotify and all socials- @5atthebackpod)