The History of Numbers: Uruguay

We’ve already looked at how different numbering systems developed in Britain, Argentina, Brazil and Eastern Europe, and there is another historically distinct method which, it could be argued, is the most logical of all.

While they may not be a major power nowadays, Uruguay won two of the first four World Cups, including the inaugural edition as hosts in 1930. Shirt numbering wasn’t in operation then, but when it did come into widespread usage, Uruguay were the same as the rest of the world in numbering left-to-right in the old 2-3-5 system:

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Other countries transitioned from the 2-3-5 to four-man defences via the W-M, and that is where discrepancies in numbering arose, as different players would drop back in different countries, keeping their original number.

While the Uruguay team which won in 1950 in Brazil would have the front half of the W-M, they adapted differently in defence, moving directly from two men to four. As a result, it made sense for the right and left halves – numbers 4 and 6 respectively – to become wide defenders, outside the full-backs,  2 and 3. As in Argentina and Brazil, 5 remained as the midfield fulcrum.

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Over time, 7 and 10 would retreat to midfield to join 5 and 8, but by and large it’s a numbering system which remained strong in Uruguay, as can be seen from this line-up chosen at random, from a 1989 Copa America tie with Argentina:

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News of Andros Townsend’s switch – and proof of Chris Sutton’s

While changing numbers during the season is not uncommon in Spain, it remains a rarity in England. We did devote a previous post to the practice, and the conclusion was that it was permitted prior to the closing of the transfer window.

New Crystal Palace signing Andros Townsend availed of this option recently. Having been allocated 17 upon his arrival from Tottenham Hotspur, when Yannick Bolasie left to join Everton, the England winger sought to switch to 10:

The number 10 is one of the most iconic numbers in the game and with it becoming available I wanted to take the opportunity to snap it up. Hopefully I can do the number justice.

It’s not a perfect fit for a right midfielder, but we’ll let him off – he has, after all, made the de rigueur offer to reimburse any fans who had bought a number 17 shirt. The full story can be read here.

In the previous article, we mentioned a hazy memory of Chris Sutton swapping 16 for 9 during the 1996-97 season, but, beyond a mention here, proof was in short supply. The only way to satisfy ourselves was with snatched images from YouTube videos.

Sutton did indeed begin the season wearing the 16 he had had since joining from Norwich City for a record £5m fee – those were the days – in 1994. Here he is scoring against Derby early on in the season, which Blackburn began with just one in six games (and that at Old Trafford):

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We had assumed that the move would have been early in the season, but it appears that the arrival of Per Pedersen in the spring was the catalyst. Here he is with career caretaker manager Tony Parkes on the left (the number font is all wrong) and scoring against Chelsea on the right:

As luck would have it, Sutton actually missed a lot of this part of the season, but did return in time for its culmination. At Highbury, Blackburn trailed Arsenal 1-0 with the Gunners chasing second in the table but, after the ball was returned to the home side following an injury, Sutton pressured Nigel Winterburn into giving a corner, from which Garry Flitcroft scored.

Patrick Vieira wasn’t too happy with the now-9-clad Sutton, though oddly he wouldn’t be as interested in following protocol two years later when Nwankwo Kanu scored against Sheffield United in similar circumstances.

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Sutton continued to wear 9 for Blackburn until he joined Chelsea in 1999 and wore it for the Blues and Celtic too, finishing his career in the number 20 of Aston Villa after a spell as Birmingham City’s number 40.

Our OCD would like if the number-transferring had happened more in the 90s, but then these incidents wouldn’t be as noteworthy if they had.

The sometimes inconsistent squad numbers of Melchester Rovers

As part of a cross-blog series on Melchester Rovers, we decided to delve back 23 years to the beginning of the ill-fated relaunch of Roy Of The Rovers as a monthly comic.

Coincidentally, 1993 was also when the one-year-old Premier League decided to introduce squad numbers and the first issue of the monthly, with Roy Race coming to terms with the amputation of his left foot, references this new development as son Roy Jr (‘Rocky’) breaks into the squad.

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Rocky would make his debut against Felixstowe Town (basically an avatar for Ipswich – Museum of Jerseys will cover this in the near future), though unfortunately wouldn’t manage to mark it with a goal, instead being booked and then substituted. While the squad numbers were in effect, the shirts had no names and the numbers themselves were white, for the only time in the lifespan of the new comic. Rocky’s replacement was a unnamed player wearing number 12, who wouldn’t be seen again.

Issue 2 would revolve around Melchester signing another striker, Paul Ntende, and he would wear the number 14 for the duration of the strip. Img_5366.jpg

Come Christmas 1993 and those behind ROTR entered into an agreement with the makers of Shoot!, whereby the weekly magazine would run two pages of Roy in each edition. It was in this first instance of the collaboration that Johnny Dexter – a Melchester stalwart – first appeared in the new iteration, and not as likeable as he used to be.

It was also the first time that more information on the squad numbers was provided, by way of manager ‘Blackie’ Gray’s teamsheet for an upcoming FA Cup tie, where Rocky would make his comeback after a spell AWOL.

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However, one of the problems of running a strip across two publications was that more than one artist was needed, and the near two-year run saw a multitude of people on the pencil. As a result, consistency of details was hard to ensure.

Even the teamsheet above wasn’t gospel, as Dexter would always be seen wearing 6 on the pitch despite being listed as 25 (Neil Ruddock reference, perhaps?). Some artists had names on shirts, while Karl Brucker, who generally wore 4 in the old weekly, now appeared most often in 5, but sometimes 7 or 8.

Other inconstencies were were Kevin Clark sometimes being 11 and occasionally 13 (when it was unheard of for an outfield in the PL to do so), while the changing hair-colour must have worried him too:

In the spring of 1994, another teamsheet appeared and a reader wrote in to the comic to ask why there were two number 16s, with the reply being that Blackie Gray was ‘tired and emotional’ after a long season. It must also be the explanation for the degeneration of his handwriting.

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Wes Harper, one of the two 16s above, was listed as 18 in the other teamsheet, but on the pitch was always 16 (see below). The other 16, Steve Wooten, so central to the old weekly, was never actually seen in the monthly but would would re-appear in the late 90s when the strip was resurrected in Match Of The Day magazine. We would have to assume that, as the first-choice right-back, he was ‘really’ number 2.

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A non-Melchester occurrence came in the final edition of the monthly, in March 1995. Melchester were playing Teesbrough (Middlesbrough) in the FA Cup. Leaving aside the fact that an away kit should have been worn, the opposition have number 1 playing outfield – as Charlton Athletic did in 1993-94 – but generally the reason for this would be alphabetical numbering.

We’ll give them the benefit here and assume that Toley joined in a swap-deal with a player called Anderson or Allen or somesuch after the season started.

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That was it for ROTR for a few years, but in 1997 it came back as a two-pager in MOTD, running until that magazine stopped in 2001, when the BBC lost the rights to Premier League highlights.

This time round, the numbers were a bit more straightforward, though perhaps too boring and tidy – having gained promotion under the management of Roy Sr, the first team was the 1-11. The only deviation in the 5-3-2 was that, Wooten had kept 2 as he moved to centre-back, with Anton Gronvold wearing 4 at right wing-back (that’s something we enjoy).

In the summer of 1998, Blackie was on holidays in Ireland and a barman recommended a young local player to him, with he in turn suggesting to Roy that he sign him. That was Declan McKaffree (McCaffrey is far more common as a spelling in Ireland) and, really, as a teenager joining a top club from nowhere, he should have had a far higher number than 15.

Back-up goalkeeper Peter Marshall wore 12, with 13 left empty, presumably for superstitious reasons.

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Liverpool and Manchester United tidy up their squad numbers, 1996

We do enjoy when clubs ‘tidy up’ their numbers, i.e. the re-assignment of first-teamers with higher numbers. Arsenal giving Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey 7 and 8 respectively for the coming season is an example (though Granit Xhaka wearing 29 isn’t as nice), while Tottenham Hotspur’s re-jigging in the summer of 1999 was very pleasing.

As the days of 1-11 fade further, there is less of this re-allocation of numbers, with most one-off instances pushed by the player in question. In 1996, though, there was still a culture of wanting something close to the first XI in the lowest numbers and the two biggest clubs in England effected big alterations. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, given that Liverpool and Manchester United are already responsible for two of the widest-ranging articles on this site (here for Liverpool’s unique numbering system of the 70s-90s and here for the story of the United number 7).

In the spring of ’96, an Eric Cantona-inspired United were reeling in Newcastle United in the Premier League title race, while Liverpool – using what Johnny Giles had described as “a three-man back four” – were playing some exellent stuff, eventually winding up in third place in the table.

The clubs also made it to the FA Cup final, with Cantona’s goal giving United a 1-0 win to clinch the double. It is, to be fair, worth noting that that goal came in the 85th minute, and had more to do with David James’ uncertain goalkeeping than Liverpool’s choice of pre-match attire.

These are the way the sides lined out for the final (Liverpool wore a green-and-white quartered change kit but representing that would make the numbers harder to see, which is, after all, the point of the whole thing):

With both goalkeepers wearing 1, between them the sides had nine players numbered above 11, but, if the same two line-ups had met three months later, there would have been just two offenders:

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Let’s start with Liverpool. When Roy Evans decided to switch to a 3-5-2, it meant that Mark Wright (5) and Phil Babb (6) were joined by John Scales (12). Ideally, he would have taken 4 but Jason McAteer, playing right wing-back, had that, with number 2 Rob Jones switching to the left flank. Therefore, it made sense to give Scales 3, which had been vacant since Julian Dicks re-joined West Ham United during 1994-95.

In midfield, Jamie Redknapp, John Barnes and Steve McManaman somehow made an effective trio, despite the seeming lack of defending/attacking balance. Obviously, Barnes had been 10 since joining at the start of 1987-88, and 7 and 11 were empty after the departures of Nigel Clough and Mark Walters respectively. Looking at it objectively, Redknapp might have been a better fit for 7 but, given its mythology at Anfield, it made sense for McManaman to take that with Redknapp in 11.

The other switch was the most straightforward. Robbie Fowler had been 23 since his breakthrough in 1993-94, but with Ian Rush leaving after the final, Fowler to 9 was a no-brainer. More satisfying still was the re-tooling didn’t stop with the first XI, as Steve Harkness – whose brief loan spell with Hudderfield should have had more headline-love – moved from 22 to the 12 vacated by Scales, and Neil Ruddock swapped 25 for 14.

Sadly, the cup final side never played together again and we were robbed of seeing the 1-11 in action. Redknapp and Jones both suffered with injuries – the latter only made two appearances in 1996-97 – while Scales was sold to Tottenham. Incidentally, we have a clear memory of Liverpool trying something similar before 1994-95, with Ruddock moving to 6 and Fowler taking 12 among others, but we haven’t been able to locate the copy of Match magazine in which this news featured. If anyone out there has it, we’d be delighted if you got in touch.

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In the first three seasons in the squad-number era, none of the Manchester United 1-11 numbers had been worn by more than one player in the league. However, 8 and 10 lay idle for 95-96 after Paul Ince and Mark Hughes left, and in the summer of ’95 Alex Ferguson had a mini clean-up – Gary Neville moved from 27 to 20, Paul Scholes from 24 to 22 and David Beckham from 28 to 24. All three were key components of the double-winning side, though Neville and Scholes were on the bench in the cup final – Neville’s place taken by his brother Philip with Denis Irwin moving across to right-back.

Gary Neville was still a first-choice for England during Euro 96 and there was never any likelihood of his staying out of the United team for long, so when Paul Parker left that summer, he was the natural choice for the number 2 shirt. Club captain Steve Bruce also departed, so David May switched from 12 to Bruce’s 4, with Philip Neville taking 12. The younger Neville had previously been 23.

Nicky Butt, 19 for the previous three years, move to take Ince’s old number 8 shirt while Beckham was given 10. The only instance of a 1-11 player being moved to accommodate a change was Brian McClair switching from 9 to 13 to allow Andy Cole inherit it. He had previously been 17 and, perhaps strangely, this was now given to new reserve goalkeeper Raimond van der Gouw.

Scholes made another move, from 22 to 18, in a straight swap with Simon Davies (this one, not that one), indicating the contrasting directions they were heading. New signing Ronny Johnsen took over the number 19, but in the Champions League he wore 5, following Lee Sharpe’s transfer to Leeds United, and would take it over permanently from 1997-98 on. Also wearing different numbers in Europe were Scholes and Phil Neville, 12 and 28 respectively. Basically, it was to do with UEFA’s rules on ‘A’- and ‘B’-listed players.

Ben Thornley (29 to 23) and John O’Kane (30 to 24) completed the downward movements. The one notable exception was Roy Keane, who kept 16 when taking 5 on Sharpe’s exit would have seemed expected. Apparently, he was later offered 7 by Ferguson but declined as having a higher number kept him motivated to prove himself.

His status as one of the first names on the teamsheet, and the lack of a number 5 in the league, meant that opportunities for United to play 1-11 were limited. The closest they came was in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final at home to Porto when, with Keane absent, Ferguson went with a very adventurous side and was rewarded with a 4-0 victory.

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Rotherham endear themselves to us

Tell ya what, football’s back – and we have a new outside-the-Premier-League favourite team.

We only happened upon the tweet by chance this afternoon, but it sealed the deal for us as Rotherham United showed that clubs can still be civilised if they try:

If you were being very picky, you’d say that their midfield was 8-4-10-7 with 9 and 11 up front, but if that’s your first reaction then you probably can’t take any joy from anything.

Unfortunately for Rotherham, they lost an early 2-0 lead and had to settle for a point at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers, but they gained a fan, at least.

Any Owl number will do

In the same way that St Andrews holds a special place in the hearts of those who love golf, the announcement of the Sheffield Wednesday squad numbers should be a reverential annual occasion.

On August 25, 1928, the Owls were one of four teams to wear numbers, the first time they were seen in English football, while they also hold the honour of being there at the birth of domestic squad numbers in 1993. Imagine, then, the horror of seeing the list released by Wednesday for the 2016-17 season:

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Without any details other than numbers and names attached, the initial horror may not be apparent, apart from only six numbers less than or equal to 11 being occupied. Here, then, are the main takeaways:

  • Number 2, Joe Wildsmith, is a goalkeeper. He was 28 last season and Liam Palmer – who has played at right-back – has moved from 2 to 16 to accommodate this. We’ve mentioned before that we don’t like the practice.
  • Sam Hutchinson has moved from 4 to 23.
  • Attacking midfielder Kieran Lee will wear 5, having previously been 20. Centre-back Glenn Loovens has swapped 5 for 12.
  • New signing Steven Fletcher – a centre-forward – will wear 6. He has form for disrespecting numbers, having switched from 9 to 26 at the start of last season when he was at Sunderland.
  • Another new signing, attacking midfielder Almen Abdi, has been given 8. We’re not sure how such an example of normality crept in there.
  • The former owner of 8, Filipe Melo, has gone to 22, while Marco Matias is trying to become three times the player he was, transferring from 7 to 21.
  • Austrian striker Atdhe Nuhiu was 9 last season, but will now don number 44.
  • Lucas Joao has moved from 18….to 19.

Thankfully, Wednesday fans didn’t take too kindly to this whole farrago.