Growing up on the Wirral, Ross has come a long way from “kicking flyaway balls around every day [and] using driveways for goals.” Knowing that would probably be the extent of his playing career, he spent 20 years trying to find another way to centre his life on the sport he says has always been his passion.
At 16-years old, he started a Tranmere Rovers website still going strong – without his input – to this day. But it would be over another decade before he found a place for himself in the world of football. “Hating my day job and worrying about ageing family members, I was on the couch playing Football Manager, like most days, when I got into a deep daydream about football teams that might not necessarily have football kits that are true to their club.”
A cursory Google search was the initial extent to which Leyburn Sports conducted their research and development, but it was enough to convince Ross he had found his way in. The Advertising graduate felt he knew a good kit when he saw one and within a year he was designing the kit for Barotseland.
The shirt is a striking piece. A block red colour forms the body, while a white black-rimmed sash runs across from the right shoulder down to the left of the waistline; running across the shoulders, around the collar, and down to the hem of the sleeve is a grass green stripe. It mimics the badge in taking inspiration from the existing flag and coat of arms of Barotseland, in particular the elephant that takes pride of place in the middle.
CONIFA is where Leyburn Sports made its first forays into football kit supplying, benefitting rather serendipitously, as Ross recalled. “My main stumbling block was no immediate contacts. I had completed some journalism work for various places, which led me to CONIFA. I had heard about them a few years previous while they were in their early form. I even had an email address for the general secretary, Sascha Duerkop. I doublechecked the same guy was still working there – thankfully he was – and I drafted out a quick business plan and emailed Sascha, fully expecting not to hear anything back.”
Despite Ross’s pessimism, his simple three-step business proposal impressed CONIFA’s head – beautiful in its uncomplicated nature. Firstly, Leyburn Sports stated from the outset that the kits they supplied would be on a donation basis, thus removing any element of cost for the team. Secondly, the kits would be bespoke and made to resonate with the people of the member states, for which identity is, more than most, core to their existence.
Lastly, Leyburn Sports placed the clients central to their financial planning – by avoiding templated designs, the kits would gain more attention and a better chance at worldwide sales, increasing the revenue streams for clients who struggle with funding. So convincing was the proposal, Ross received a reply the very next day, and with it came the official birth of Leyburn Sports.
Overlooked by the world of multimillion-pound shirt sponsors, money-spinning manufacturers and PR powerhouses with the ability to monetise anything that moves is a parallel world lacking funds, resourcing, and international recognition. Attempting to operate in this environment are independent territories, non-self-governing territories, autonomous communities and stateless individuals. Justin Walley’s book title, documenting his journey as the manager of CONIFA-affiliated Matabeleland, One Football, No Nets, accurately describes the situation of many of CONIFA’s members.
“We wanted to help clubs lacking funds and therefore create an identity for them via kit designs,” Ross explained. “At one point, we had emailed every national FA we could find an email for. Our first reply was from Sascha at CONIFA. A lot of their members lack the funds and resources, which was a perfect combination for us. After a few emails, we had a nation who we felt would benefit from our input. That was Matabeleland, who became our first client.”
Named after the Ndebele people, Matabeleland is a region comprising just shy of half of modern-day Zimbabwe and covers an area larger than the size of England. Once an independent state, founded in 1840, Matabeleland has faced brutal and repressive overlords who have controlled the area through sheer force over the past 150 years.
After decades of subjugation under British rule, followed by suffering under the white minority government of Rhodesia, Matabeleland received no respite under a newly-independent Zimbabwe in the 1980s. Robert Mugabe may be gone, but the genocides that took place in Matabeleland under his reign still scar the region to this day.
Ross immediately got to work with his new clients, and what was just a business proposal in May, which had turned into the first partnership come July, was now a full set of kits designed in England, manufactured in China, and shipped to Zimbabwe by August. “The Matabeleland partnership is one that is very special to me personally and to Leyburn as a brand,” Ross says. “Busani Sibindi, who runs the Matabeleland football confederacy, showed an incredible amount of faith in my dream for Leyburn and the design process. I didn’t want Leyburn to be an ordinary football kit company. The designs, along with the cost for clients, was the biggest selling point, and Matabeleland was our showcase.”
Admitting he hadn’t heard of Matabeleland before his introduction to them, Ross quickly became enamoured with the artistic history of its people, which relied heavily on triangular patterns in bright bold colours. “It allowed us to be completely unique in our shirt design and do something that no other, or very few, kit suppliers were doing at the time. After a few designs, we settled on a simple but bold white shirt with yellow sleeves and a bright four-triangle pattern down the side of the shirt. It stood out and caught the eye. I was very proud and Busani was happy, so mission accomplished.”
During that rapid turnaround between introduction and kit production, there was mass civil unrest engulfing the entirety of Zimbabwe and, within four months, the man who had led the country since 1980 had been forced into resignation. “I feel the Matabeleland team were happy as it truly reflected their identity. In a time where they were being neglected by their own home, it empowered them and made them believe in their own missions and dreams.”
Justin Walley, their manager at the time, explains just how much Ross’s designs and input meant to the fledgeling side. “Africa is a vibrant, incredibly colourful place. Bold colours are worn in many cultures and are also an important part of tribal identity. Leyburn wanted to create a kit that felt authentic and representative of the Matabele culture. The players were both proud of their kits and extremely grateful. I know every one of them felt extremely proud to put on the shirt.”
According to Bloomberg, eight out of ten entrepreneurs who start their own business fail within the first 18 months. Leyburn Sports have surpassed that milestone, but, as expected, it wasn’t without its challenges, and Ross came close to walking away from it. What should have been Leyburn’s crowning moment to date – the CONIFA World Cup 2018 – instead saw the company at its lowest.
In the months preceding the tournament, the third in its history, numerous last-minute deals collapsed for Leyburn Sports. Most notably, after a year of negotiations and design, they missed out on what would’ve been their first FIFA-affiliated national team, Bangladesh. “It was the first time I doubted myself and Leyburn – it left me completely disheartened about the future.”
It was deflating news on the eve of what was supposed to be a reaffirming summer for the young business, but more bad news was to come. CONIFA World Cup sponsors Paddy Power were running a Design-a-Shirt competition – and Matabeleland chose to participate. “I was absolutely gutted but understood that my small company could probably not meet the huge aspirations and needs of this colossal journey the guys were about to partake,” Ross admitted. “After all, the team needed the exposure and it was not something I could promise them at the time.”
Leyburn Sports honoured the deal they had struck when they initially became the kit supplier for Matabeleland in August 2017, and with the profit they had achieved through shirt sales, they were able to help fund the cost of the visas needed to get the Matabeleland players to England.
Understandably, a despondent Ross had decided not to go along to the CONIFA World Cup, but he had a change of heart. He felt like we’ve all felt at some point as football fans; when we vow not to go and watch our team because they’ve seemingly given up on us but turn up anyway out of love. In football, it’s that level of impassioned commitment that is often rewarded.
“I wasn’t going to go but I’m so glad I did. It completely turned everything around and more or less created a Leyburn Sports 2.0. I was all of a sudden full of ideas, seeing some exceptional teams play for their identity, and I met up with incredible people like Paul Watson and Sascha Duerkop of CONIFA, Busani, the founder of the Matabeleland football federation, and Justin Walley, the manager of Matabeleland.”
Walley told Ross of his experiences managing Matabeleland and explained to him that coming to London to compete in the CONIFA World Cup would not have been possible without Leyburn’s help and the donation of the original playing kit and equipment. “That conversation completely reinvigorated my whole outlook on Leyburn,” Ross believes. “I had gone from wanting to bin it to understanding how much good the company can actually bring.”
And like the fan that sticks out their team’s rough patch and is rewarded with a surprise win, Leyburn and Matabeleland found themselves pulling together in the same direction once more. The team finished third in their group, and following on from the tournament, they chose to rekindle their partnership with Matabeleland for the 2019 season. On 6 April, they debuted their new kit in a 5-1 victory over Lupane State University, in preparation for a European Charity Tour that will see the Warrior Birds back in England this July to raise money for deprived schools in their region.
The shirt is beautifully decorated with tessellating triangles covering it, save for a yellow v-neck collar, with a red, blue, yellow and green pattern providing a stylish trim on the hems of the sleeve and shirt itself, as well as down the centre of the chest and torso. “We were lucky enough to be given the chance to work with them again after the CONIFA World Cup and I think we stepped it up again. The new kit is more of a gamble in terms of design but so far we have had some amazing feedback, coupled with our introduction of a kit for the ladies’ team.”
They take their nickname, Queen Lozikeyi, from King Lobengula’s second wife, who assumed the role of acting head of state when her husband disappeared – likely killed by the British South Africa Company – during the Matabele War in 1893. Their kit debuted recently too, as they were crowned ladies champions of the Bulawayo Sports Fiesta 2019 in March.
The enduring relationship with Matabeleland has given Leyburn a great platform to display their ethos and designs, and understandably plenty of other teams and CONIFA members have taken them up on their altruistic business model. As well as their maiden client and the aforementioned Barotseland, Leyburn have also become the kit manufacturer for Zimbabwe Premier League team Bulawayo Chiefs, who have gained a cult following on Twitter, Filabusi United of Zimbabwe Division One, Global Maramba in Zambia, CONIFA-affiliated Rohingya, and the Zimbabwe homeless team, who are competing in the upcoming Homeless World Cup 2019 in Cardiff.
Type Rohingya into Google and the top autocomplete suggestions are ‘crisis’ and ‘refugee crisis.’ The three top news results, all being published on the day of writing, are headlined ‘Chickenpox, The Latest Burden on The Rohingya Refugees’; ‘Rohingya Refugees and the environment’; and ‘Myanmar military chief thanks Beijing for support on Rohingya issue’. All the news articles in the past week had one focus – the UN’s worry that dozens of Rohingya refugees have been killed in a Myanmar military attack. If you watch the evening news, you would have heard stories like this over and over again for the past two years.
Football, however, isn’t what you’ve come across from the region, but it is helping the refugee community, as Ross explained. “Many of the Rohingya refugee camps have nothing – no boots, balls and definitely no kit. In that time, Paul Watson (CONIFA member development) has worked with other companies to get boots and equipment out there. They were using football as a positive influence for the refugee camps. It was providing a purpose for people who literally had nothing. There was something so wholesome about the happiness it brought, even for a short time.
“As you can imagine, the pitches were nothing more than dusty spaces, but the crowds were huge. Rohingya were hoping to form a team; they basically hosted a tournament and selected players would be rewarded with the jerseys to play for Rohingya. We have also used the jerseys to bring a form of income in. It’s projects like these that make the stress and difficult patches so worthwhile when you see the final product.
Paul Watson serves on the board at CONIFA, in charge of member development, and just this month received the International & European Associations Award for Young Association Executive of the Year. Ross credits him as one of the motivations for creating Leyburn Sports. “I read Paul’s book Up Pohnpei when travelling Australia in 2014 and it was definitely an inspiration for the beginning of Leyburn. Paul basically became an international team manager for the little-known island of Pohnpei and wrote a book about the struggles and journey they went on. It’s a great read for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.”
Ross’s client-led approach was no more apparent than in the design process for the Rohingya kit – an endeavour he and Paul saw through from beginning to end. Rohingya decided early on that they wanted to have a predominantly white kit with green playing some secondary part in the design. Ross came up with a shirt that both he and Paul thought was a winner, but Rohingya decided that they preferred one of the earlier sketches. “In fairness, now it has been produced, I really like it – it looks better in fabric.”
In an industry where clubs frequently have oft-used templates thrust upon on them or have their scope for design inhibited by banal regulation, such as in Major League Soccer, Leyburn’s willingness to allow the process to be driven by the client is genuinely innovative despite its obvious simplicity.
“The first thing you notice about each of their shirts is how important the individual elements of a team are when it comes to the design of the kit,” football kit writer Phil Delves said to me. “A lot of brands claim to take this approach, but I haven’t seen many execute the idea as well as Leyburn. Their Matabeleland Ladies Shirt is a personal favourite, with a colourful pattern that reminds me of why I love football shirts in the first place. Football shirts are stories, and at the moment Leyburn are telling some of the most vibrant stories of anyone.”
It is praise guaranteed to make Ross smile. By his own accord, all he wanted to do with his designs was replicate the feeling he had as a child, adoring the Tranmere kits of the 1990s – a decade he credits with hugely shifting the way football is consumed. As the Premier League came into being and television rights brought the game to a global audience, kits were suddenly iconic and the key identifier for clubs who now had immediate, live broadcasted, exposure.
Templated kits were a rarity and most clubs had unique designs; some – Southampton, for example – even produced their own kit. For Ross, it was the era in which he grew up in, fell in love with the game during, and became truly engrossed in its artistry throughout. “I think a kit is much more important than we often imagine. It is the visual representation of the club or team; the colours, design and badge,” Walley explained. “It tells us what a team is all about. We should be proud to wear our shirt. It represents a unique identity.”
As the fashion of the 1990s comes back to the pitch just as much as it does the high street, Leyburn Sports can stake a genuine claim to be ahead of the curve, but all it required was staying true to what enamoured Ross to football in the first place, and listening to his clients. “There is a wonderful and wholesome feeling working with people that aren’t in it for the money but for the pure joy and love of football. We are very lucky that every client we have feels this way.
“I speak to at least one of our clients every single day – even when I’m on holiday. Whether it be WhatsApp or Skype there are many calls and messages each day. Sometimes it can be a lot – I’m lucky I have an understanding girlfriend – but it’s part of the reason we are able to attain our clients. The fact we are small works in our favour; the intimacy and personal approach is what keeps clients safe – knowing we can answer them at any time creates such a strong working relationship.”
The more I spoke with Ross, the more apparent it was that his company is a labour of love, a passionate venture, and the culmination of a lifelong infatuation with the game. Even the name is a nod to that. “Leyburn is the name of the street I grew up on as a kid. It was the place where I used to play football all day, so I wanted my company to have those connotations for me. It’s also a gentle reminder to stick to my values and the way I was raised in case I ever think otherwise.”
So far, Ross has most achieved that, and nothing about his plans for the future suggest he’s about to sway from his philosophy. If it is the right time and the right fit, Leyburn will grow organically, but it isn’t something to force. Instead, he intends for his company to be a vehicle to help teams in less-developed countries – in a footballing sense – grow.
“I am lucky that I have played football in different continents and it was that experience that urged me to do more for people that don’t have the luck that we have in UK. Grassroots football can be tough at home, but we complain about a muddy, lumpy pitch; in some areas of the world it is common practice to play on a patch with little grass and very little resources like goals or corner flags. At the moment, we are at the very beginning of our long-term project. We hope to be able to donate so much more to causes around the world.”
From financially assisting Matabeleland to secure visas for the CONIFA World Cup 2018, to providing a visual identity to the refugee camps of the Rohingya, Leyburn has been at the forefront, seeing the benefits football can bring to communities stricken with poverty, political turmoil, or simply limited in opportunity.
When you buy a Roma shirt with a click of the mouse in your living room, it is because their shirts are fashionable. When you don the colours of your hometown on matchday, it is because you identify with the tribal allegiance. When you wear FC Rostov’s fourth shirt, it’s because you’re showing off at five-a-side. However, when you buy a shirt from Leyburn Sports, the funds raised directly help the clubs in the way they feel most benefits them.
To date, they have funded gear we take for granted, like football boots, footballs, shin pads and training cones – but Ross is unequivocal in stating that this is just the beginning. “My grandad had become seriously ill and sadly passed away during the early stages of Leyburn. I hadn’t yet told anyone about my plan, but my grandad was always supportive of any crazy idea or career path I went for. His final gift was leaving me a couple of hundred pounds.
“For some, this isn’t a life-changing amount of money but for me, I’d never seen that amount of money at once, even in my late 20s. I come from a working-class family on Merseyside and have had to work hard for anything I’ve got. It was time to invest it into something I knew was a good cause and had the potential to make more money and grow. And that’s the way we started. We built our money from that initial tiny pot that I was left as a gift. It’s something I’m really proud of and I hope my grandad is too.”
By Jordan Florit @TheFalseLibero