We started watching football in 1990-91 and, from an early stage, became aware of the generally accepted way of numbering a 4-4-2. Non-conforming systems, like Liverpool’s (more in the future), were fascinating though, and we often wondered just how Manchester United came to have numbers 4 and 6, Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, at centre-back while 5 – often, but not exclusively, Mike Phelan – was generally in midfield.
Bruce made his debut for United in December 1987 against Portsmouth wearing 4 and kept it for the entirety of his time with the club. Midfielder Remi Moses, who had been 4 for the previous few games, switched to 6 while Bruce slotted in alongside number 5 Kevin Moran.
Later in the season, Graham Hogg would move from midfield to central defence while wearing 6 with Liam O’Brien wearing 5 in midfield. The club still started 88-89 with 4 and 5 as centre-backs but when O’Brien got another run of games it was at 5 again and this time the change stayed permanent.
To find out why Bruce came to be so attached to 4, though, you have to go back to his time with previous club Norwich City. His defensive partner there was Dave Watson, who revealed all in the 1986 Shoot! annual.
In the course of a piece outlining how great things were for the Liverpudlian, there was a note of caution sounded:
But Dave has harboured one secret hate about Norwich City.
“Wearing the number 5 shirt. It’s just a superstition that involves Steve Bruce and myself.
“When Steve arrived here last summer he was reluctant to wear the number 5 because he’d scored three own goals while wearing that number for Gillingham.
“Then after just minutes of his debut for us against Liverpool Steve put through his own goal again.
“He was so uptight about it, I offered to swap my number 6 with him. But while I was wearing the number 5 I scored two own goals myself! The only time I enjoy carrying that number is for England.”
In 1985, Norwich had won the Milk Cup with Bruce wearing 4 and Watson 6, though when Watson joined Everton he overcame his dislike of 5 and wore it with distinction there. The luck with that number deserted him with England, however. He wore it in Euro 88 but only featured in the final game against the USSR, a 3-1 defeat. He never played for his country again.
Meanwhile, Bruce’s love of 4 has transferred to his son Alex, who has worn it for Leeds and Hull City.