by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

25 August 1928: Shirt numbers are worn for the first time

On 25 August 1928 both Arsenal and Chelsea wore numbers on their shirts in their respective games against The Wednesday, who later became known as Sheffield Wednesday, and Swansea.  This was the first time such a thing had occurred in the Football League, and the innovation seemed to meet with approval.  The Daily Express reported about the Chelsea match that, “The 35,000 spectators were able to give credit for each bit of good work to the correct individual, because the team were numbered, and the large figures in black on white squares enabled each man to be identified without trouble.”  While the Daily Mirror writing about the same match said that they, “…fancy the scheme has come to stay.”

It took a while for the idea to catch on though; numbers did not make an appearance in an FA Cup Final until 1933 when Everton wore 1 to 11 and Man City 12 to 22.  The following week Everton kept their numbers when they played against Wolves at Molineux.  This was not enough to convince the Football League of the soundness of the idea as they rejected a proposal to make them compulsory in an AGM later that year. In their opinion not only were they unnecessary but they cost too much and spoiled the colours on the shirt.

The England national side wore numbers on the back of their shirts for the first time in a 3-1 defeat to Scotland at Hampden Park on 17 April 1937, and, despite the loss, they continued with the practice and used the numbers to reflect the 2-3-5 formation used by the team.  Number 1 went to the keeper, 2 to the right back, 3 to the left back and so on with 11 ending with the outside left, or left-winger.

On 5 June 1939 the Football League finally relented and agreed to the use of numbers being compulsory, and that each club would wear 1 to 11 with the numbers being allocated according to position.  Shirt numbers were first worn by everyone in league play during the 1939-49 season, but this lasted just three games as the outbreak of the Second World War bought the season to a premature end. The practice was picked up again when football resumed in the 1946-47 season.

As formations changed the numbers were still influenced by the old 2-3-5 formation, but reflected the position nonetheless.  So for example, when teams began playing 4-4-2 by moving the centre-half back further into defence, the defenders were then numbered 2,5,6, and 3, and the four midfielders 7,4,8,11 with two forwards 9 and 10.  When substitutions were introduced in 1965 they were given the number 12, and when second substitutes were introduced, fearing bad luck the clubs used number 14 skipping the supposedly unlucky 13.

The practice of using numbers to indicate position has now mostly fallen out of use.  Since 1993 in England’s top division players are assigned individual squad numbers that rarely bear any significance to their position and are often merely the number available or even the player’s favourite number.  The rest of the English League followed suit in 1999 and the Conference three years after that.

Players are allowed to wear any number between 1 and 99.  To date the highest number worn in the Premier League is 62 by Manchester City’s Abdul Razak, although Nico Yennaris did wear 64 for Arsenal in a League Cup game against Coventry in 2012.  Sunderland’s Cameroon striker Patrick Mboma when he came to the club as a loan signing wanted to wear number 70 to reflect the year he was born, but he was refused permission and had to make do with a plain number 7.

Some players get so attached to a number that they have been known to get upset if not allowed it.   Yossi Benayoun, who was at the time was Chelsea’s incumbent number 10, had to give the shirt up to new signing Juan Mata who wanted that number.  Benayoun was happy though saying, “For me it’s just a number, not my lucky 15.”  Florent Malouda had hold of Benayoun’s lucky number and was apparently not willing to give it up as Benayoun had to make do with number 30, which sadly for him didn’t appear to double his luck as he was sent on loan to West Ham.  Mata though was grateful stating “It is a very important number to me so I’m pleased to be wearing it. I want to thank Yossi,”

In 2007 Yakubu was offered Everton’s prestigious number 9 shirt as worn by Dixie Dean still, most people would agree, the club’s greatest number 9.  Instead he plumped for 22 proclaiming that was going to be the number of goals he was going to score that season.  As it turned out he should have asked for number 21.

Over the years certain shirt numbers have developed a special significance for a football club, usually because it was the number of a particularly influential player, and it can be a great honour to be given the number.  A prominent example of this is the number 7 shirt at Manchester United, which has been worn by George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo.  In fact when Ronaldo arrived at Old Trafford in 2003 he asked for the no 28 shirt that he had worn at his previous club Sporting Lisbon. Sir Alex Ferguson however felt he was capable of donning the iconic number 7.   Ronaldo has said how this became a source of motivation for him, and explained how he felt, “forced to live up to such an honor.”  Since Ronaldo’s departure the number 7 shirt is waiting for a new star to fill it.  Michael Owen had it during his time there, Valencia wore it last year, but in recent times such is the image it carries, and the pressure that goes with that, it has been turned down by Nani and Kagawa and now lies vacant, waiting perhaps for a new star to fill it before the close of the transfer window.

Liverpool’s number 7 shirt was also equally iconic for a while, worn by two of Liverpool’s greatest players.  First by Kevin Keegan, who wore the shirt from 1971, then Kenny Dalglish who took it over in 1977.  Peter Beardsley took it on in 1988 and wore it with suitable aplomb.  During the 1990s the decline in the influence of the player wearing the number 7 shirt matched Liverpool’s decline on the pitch, and eventually the shirt had no claimant and was unworn over three seasons from 2008 and 2011 before Louis Suarez donned it.

At Arsenal Arsene Wenger dealt with the problem associated with a legend’s number causing a weight of expectation on an incoming player by surprisingly allocating the number 10 of the recently departed Dennis Bergkamp to William Gallas a defender.  Wenger explained, “Number three was uncomfortable for him [Gallas] and I had given the rest of the numbers out. In the end I thought it might be a good idea to give the number ten to a defender, because a striker would suffer a lot with the comparison with Dennis. At first I was reluctant to give Dennis’s number out, and especially to a defender, but overall I think its better that way.”

A tradition has emerged in recent years of retiring a shirt number in honour of a player.  The tradition has been practiced for many years in the USA but with the advent of squad numbers it has been adopted here too.  Examples include the retirement of West Ham and Bobby Moore’s number 6 shirt in 2008, some fifteen years after his death.

Manchester City have never used the number 23 shirt after Kevin Keegan announced the club would no longer use the number after the sudden on-pitch death of player Marc-Vivien Foe who at the time was playing for his national side Cameroon.  At Chelsea Gianfranco Zola’s number 25 has never officially been retired but since he left the club in 2003 no-one has been allocated that number.

Outside the Premiership, Jack Lester, a hero at Chesterfield, saw his number 14 shirt retired this season after he announced he was leaving the game as a player.  In 2007 Hartlepool retired the number 25 in honour of the death of young player Michael Maidens in a road traffic accident.  In the same year QPR retired their number 31 shirt in honour of Ray Jones who also died in car crash.  Exeter retired the number 9 shirt of Adam Stansfield for nine seasons after his death following a battle with cancer.  Richard Butcher’s number 21 was retired at Macclesfield following his sudden death at home, and Rushden and Diamonds retired the number 1 shirt following the tragic suicide of keeper Dale Roberts.

Of course these tributes would not be possible if the old system of having a shirt number relating to position was still in practice, but there are other ways of paying tribute to players, and there is maybe something lost from the game when the number 5 isn’t a big centre-back, number 11 isn’t the team’s tricky left winger, and the star striker could well have 43 on his back rather than number 9.