The Last Defender: Stupid shirt numbers

Matt Stead

When I was a kid, I used to spend my summer holidays with a pack of felt-tip pens and a pad of A3 paper and design football kits. I can’t draw for peanuts (Charles M Schulz had the monopoly on that), but I’d sit there and create kits and badges: either for Liverpool or for my fictional club, Chickenpool. Sadly, that’s actually true; I had criminally little imagination as a child.

Once I had finished drawing the little kits, if it was Liverpool I was doing then I’d get to work on squad numbers for the upcoming season. Jamie Redknapp’s always injured anyway; he can swap back to number 15 and let Patrik Berger have 11. Those two were, of course, my mum’s favourites, so I imagine she would gladly have watched them fight over it, presumably while wearing regency costume.

Squad number release day was one of my favourite parts of the football calendar, because it gave you just a glimpse of the exciting season to come. These were the final days of players routinely graduating up the numbers, like how David Beckham went from 28 to 24 to 10 to 7, or Steven Gerrard went from 28 to 17 to 8. When a young emerging player took on a lower number, you knew the manager was expecting big things out of them, which acted as a fantastic little amuse-bouche for the season ahead.

So I can see why people like to harken back to a time when their bouche seemed to be more regularly amused – don’t we all? There was a simplicity to knowing that 2 and 3 were your full-backs, 5 and 6 your centre-backs, 7 and 11 your wingers, 8 and 4 in the middle, 9 and 10 up front. Everyone knows that. It’s just sensible.

You’ve probably all read Inverting the Pyramid, so you’re probably familiar with the reasons why this is so, but if not: lay out the numbers right-to-left in a 2-3-5 system, which was the default formation when shirt numbers came in in 1928. Then, drag two of the half-backs to the middle of defence – separating the full-backs in the process – and pull the right inside-forward back alongside the other half-back. Finally, move the two wingers either side of the midfield and voila; the old familiar British 1-11.

But those numbers are only so familiar and seem so right to us because they’re taught as part of learning to play 4-4-2 as a kid. It’s so ingrained that you have to stop and think, bloody hell, to understand why this is the way it is, you have to understand the evolution of British football tactics from 1928 to 1970. There’s something comforting about that kind of relic and how it connects us to the past; but it’s a great example of how a culture will accept the evolution of a form up until a point, and then seemingly say “no, that’s enough now. Trap it in amber and mount it in my study, lads; we’re done.”

We’re not in the age of 2-3-5 or the age of 4-4-2 or even the age of having a regular starting XI anymore. As little as 10-15 years ago, Claudio Ranieri and Rafael Benitez were criticised for implementing squad rotation; now we rightly criticise managers when they fail to bring in fresh legs, preferably those already conveniently attached to squad players rather than on special order from the morgue. There is no more potent reflection of the rotation-based nature of contemporary football than players’ adherence to seemingly arbitrary squad numbers. It is the most logical possible development in shirt numbers, and at that point, what’s the difference if a centre-back wears number 11 or a striker wears number 5?

I understand that there’s a player branding thing going on with the squad numbers that some people hate, but you know what? It’s more good than bad so I’m taking it anyway. I love that I can name you two different Liverpool number 37s and you’ll know them both. I love that Hicham Zerouali wore 0. Most of all, I love that Ivan Zamorano wore that ridiculous + between the digits when Ronaldo and Roberto Baggio (god, imagine those two injury-free together?) shunted him to number 18 at Inter. Kelechi Iheanacho is welcome to wear number 72 at Chickenpool any day.


Steven Chicken – he’s on Twitter