Count me out

Once upon a time Dave Boyle found the idea of squad numbers exotic, but recent galloping inflation has caused him to question his own and football's sanity, while Barney Ronay has been looking into the wider history of the numbers game

The first leg defeat of Manchester United by Porto was the moment when I realised that football had, beyond all reasonable doubt, gone mad.

Like many, I’d had a feeling that the game had been pushing at the boundaries of sanity in many ways for a good few years, with no idea too tawdry, too cheap or just plain laughable to be ruled out of consideration. I had still not had my own personal moment of epiphany, though. In the form of Benni McCarthy, I got it. Unlike the United defence, I couldn’t take my eyes off him, or more accurately his back, which showed he was No 77.

What in the name of all that’s holy is a player doing on the pitch with the No 77 on his shirt? This isn’t American football. But beyond a traditionalist cry for the way things used to be, there’s a serious point. Football actually used to be more like gridiron, with player numbers denoting a position in the team, with quarterbacks wearing between 1 and 19 for example. In football it was decided in 1939 that every position should have a set number, with a close-run 24-20 vote at the league management committee opting to allow them – but only Nos 1-11, mind. Positions changed as W-M gave way to 4-4-2 and that rigidity gave a little. Goalkeepers still wore No 1 and defenders four of the numbers between No 2 and No 6. It wasn’t perfect, but usually the higher the number, the more advanced the player was. It had a sense to it.

Through this period though, the shirt became the prime gift of the club and could be the pinnacle of a career. You were finally good enough to inherit the mantle of the legends who had played themselves into club history and fans’ misty-eyed memories. When your performance dipped, or career ended, the shirt was passed to the next generation. So George Best’s shirt ended up with Bryan Robson, who gave it to Eric Cantona, then to David Beckham.

But by then squad numbers were here, introduced in 1994 at the same time as another “innovation”. Shirt names were one of the new and exciting ways the now Premiership clubs were finding to earn money from the gullible, but squad numbers weren’t as much of a cause for concern. The two were inextricably linked, however, as shirt names only work with squad num­bers. You can’t have Beckham’s name with a No 7 one week and a No 8 the next. The name and the number had to stay together to take the replica shirt to the next level of marketability.

It seemed vaguely exciting to me at the time. Squad numbers sug­gested World Cups, with great play­ers, hot wea­ther and staying up late to watch games in far-off time zones. But over time, 1-22 no longer seemed enough for clubs and players. Maybe it’s useful at clubs such as Manchester City in the late 1990s, where it can come in handy when you’re trying to work out who’s actually on the books. But on the pitch, we can see the full impact of the horror that has been unleashed.

We’ve not only broken the link between the number and the position but also found a good way to demonstrate the changing relationship between clubs and players. Who better to illustrate this than Beck­ham? When he moved to Real Madrid he couldn’t have the No 7 with which he was associated at United; that belonged to Luis Figo. So Beckham became No 23, building a new symbol for the Beckham brand, one that was already conveniently associated with Michael Jordan, who remains the template for any aspiring sportsman-brand. He might not know what position is his best, but wherever it is and with whoever he’s playing for, the chances of there being a world-class 23 ahead of him would seem to be slim.

The number is no longer the cher­ished gift of the club; you are more likely to be handed the previously hallowed No 9 because no one else wants it. So passé, these single figures. You can see where 77 comes in here – the more mem­orable, the more marketable.

Most leagues in the world now have squad numbers, with that wonderful way football has of sharing naff practice, and it will soon be a quaint relic of a by­gone age when you couldn’t run a spread bet on the total shirt number figure of the starting XI. And anything the super-duper Champions League can do, the lower reaches can ape in a manner that is part endearing and part plain awful.

So step forward Danny Naisbitt, who appeared for Dagenham & Red­bridge this year wearing No 73. Seventy! Three! A Goalie! Whatever next? There’s a whole world of non-numerological symbols out there. Did Prince ever get around to copyrighting that squiggle?

I'm not a Number, I'm a Free Man

The notion that shirt numbers correspond to a particular position within a football team has turned out to be short-lived. Book-ended by a rearrangement of formations during the 1960s and the introduction of squad numbers in the early 1990s, British football enjoyed only a brief period of certainty, during which you could usually expect a right-back to wear No 2, a defensive midfielder to turn out in No 4 and a left midfielder to have 11 on his back.

The No 9 remains the only constant among outfield shirts. Dixie Dean was the first player to wear it in a high-profile game. For the 1933 FA Cup final, Everton wore 1-11 while Manchester City had 12-22. Something of Dean’s presence still lurks in No 9s: they are obliged to be physically strong, fearsome in the air and moodily single-minded. They brood and sulk and take penalties. A No 9 is expected to act as a spearhead, a fearless battering ram, a particularly British kind of sporting hero.

Not all No 9s have been like this, of course. Bobby Charlton made a fair go of it from slightly further out. And currently at Liverpool the No 9 is worn by no less fearsome a specimen than El-Hadji Diouf – get that man a No 24 shirt.

A shirt number can become part of the accumulated legend of a club. Newcastle United have, of course, “a great tradition of No 9s” going back to Jackie Milburn (wore his boots down the mine to soften them up; possessed a shot that could shatter granite, mica, quartz) through to Malcolm Macdonald (charismatic; long sideboards) and latterly the goalscoring of Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand and sheet metal worker’s son/great Magpie No 9/man who falls over and points a lot (delete cliche as preferred) Alan Shearer.

Liverpool have a tradition of playmaking No 7s. Kevin Keegan started the trend, possibly by holding on to the number when he was switched from the wing to a central attacking position by Bill Shankly early in his career. After Keegan came Kenny Dalglish, who was later replaced by Peter Beardsley. The production line seemed to grind to a halt with the arrival of Nigel Clough. Steve McManaman wandered about in the No 7 for a few seasons; and, significantly, it was handed to the potentially inspirational Harry Kewell.

Every number has its particular potency. No 3 bears the bruises of the recent fashion for no-nonsense left backs: Stuart “Psycho” Pearce, Julian “The Terminator” Dicks and Mark “no real nickname but sent off a lot” Dennis to name a few. In Europe and South America the most skilful player tends to wear No 10. That is the playmaker’s number, the creative outlet, the man born to higher things. Diego Maradona, Pelé and Michel Platini all wore 10. In France, 10 is the most fetishised number on the field, more so even than 9 in British football, a shirt that tends to be “owned” by a particular player who will then hand it on to the most likely pretender.

Squad numbers have introduced a more personalised system of numbering. No 37 can spend a whole season cementing a defensive partnership with No 19. Roy Keane wears No 16 when he would have been a classic 4. Paul Scholes is a genuine 8 for his country, but wears No 18 for his club.

Meanwhile, at Derby, there are currently no players listed as wearing the 2, 4, 5, 8 or 11 shirts, while Leeds have no 4, 6, 7, 8, 10 or 11. Both  clubs have been ushered into a demeaning downwards spiral of transfer and loan after losing out in the financial gamble of Premiership success. Even shirt numbers have been feeling the pinch of being at the wrong end of the party.

From WSC 207 May 2004. What was happening this month