Stupid numbers at centre-back – not only Shane Duffy’s circus

When the Republic of Ireland hosted Georgia on Thursday tonight, Shane Duffy was named named in the team and we were a bit uneasy.

Now, it’s nothing to do with the patchy start he had to the season – that was a blip, he’s a solid defender; no, as ever, it’s to do with what he had on his back:


Yes that’s right kids, Ireland had number 7 playing centre-back, partnering number 3. To be fair to Duffy, he wasn’t at fault:

While Paul McGrath often wore 7 for his country, it was always as a central midfielder. This was uncharted territory for Ireland – somehow, a 1-0 victory was achieved – though sadly there are plenty of examples of other offenders.

David O’Leary

He always wore normal 4 or 5 when playing for Ireland – well, except for his most famous moment – but, as George Graham’s go-to guy when playing a three-man central defence, he toured the high numbers, taking over from whichever attacking player missed out.

He wore 7 a lot in the 1990-91 title-winning season – and kept that while Tony Adams was in jail, meaning that 6 was often worn in midfield. Here he is scoring a rare goal against Crystal Palace in that campaign:


A year previously, he had worn 8 against Liverpool (with Irish international team-mate Steve Staunton doing likewise):


Then, in 1991-92, Alan Smith was dropped for the visit of a Leeds team who would go on to inherit the title from Arsenal, with O’Leary slotting in at 9:


Steve Bould

O’Leary was still a first-choice in 1988-89 and was number 5 in nearly every game, including the dramatic title decider away to Liverpool. While another Arsenal central defender would later wear 10, we prefer to reminisce about Bould doing so at Anfield:


It would be unfair to paint Graham as the only bad guy though, especially as Everton’s John Hurst won a league medal in 1970 wearing 10 at centre-back, having originally been a striker.

In the early 2000s, there appeared to be an infestation of defensive number 7s in the Premier League:


And of course Winston Bogarde and Bernard Lambourde aren’t even the worst Chelsea offenders, not when compared with Khalid Boulahrouz:


Up until his retirement last summer, Jonathan Woodgate had worn 39 in his last four seasons at Middlesbrough. That was his second spell with his hometown club, of course, and we hate to say it but 39 was arguably a more logical choice than what he wore in 2007-08:


And finally, a man who wore the same ill-suited number while playing in defence for Sampdoria, Lazio, Internazionale and Yugoslavia – well, would you tell Sinisa Miahjlovic that he looked stupid?


He had been a midfielder at Samp, to be fair, but then relocation is the only way a centre-back is going to end up wearing 11, unless either he or his manager is mental. At least he was moving backwards rather than sideways:


The guillotine for de Guzman; bravo Balotelli

It was a day of contrasts for those of us cursed with the affliction of thinking too much about shirt numbers. We’ll start with the bad news.

By and large, loan signings being given 1-11 numbers doesn’t sit hugely well with us, given the by-definition transient nature of it. When it’s a midfielder wearing 1, though, the levels of seething are quite high:

Jonathan de Guzman wears 15 for his parent club, Napoli. That’s free at Chievo Verona, along with 6, 7, 10 and 11, but he has decided that he should wear the number 1 – in a horrific font, we must add.

Oddly, it’s the opposite of a ruse pulled by the Italian club 14 years ago.


De Guzman is not the first to commit the most egregious of crimes. Argentina’s Norberto Alonso and Osvaldo Ardiles, as well as the Netherlands’ Ruud Geels, have done it at World Cups in alphabetical numbering systems. We don’t have as big a problem with that, as it’s part of a holistic approach.

In British domestic football, the only club that we’re aware of to go full alphabetical  was Charlton Athletic in 1993-94, when Stuart Balmer wore 1 outfield (incidentally, a goalkeeper – Bob Bolder – was number 2, similar to Sheffield Wednesday’s batshit mental numbering this season):


When Brian Clough was manager of Nottingham Forest, he began to wear an emerald green jumper on the sideline. The origins of this were as a result of him ensuring that his authority wasn’t usurped.

Having signed Peter Shilton for a record fee, he felt that the goalkeeper (and everyone else) needed reminding of who the boss was. At training one day, he donned a top in the colour traditionally worn by the keepers and said to Shilton:

There’s only one number 1 round here, and it’s not you.

Which was fine – Clough was unique, and generally backed up his bluster with results. As player-manager of Barnet in 2013, Edgar Davids wanted to make a similar statement, and felt that that was best achieved by actually wearing number 1 on the field.


In the interests of fairness, we should point out that the inhabitant of 1 in 2013, Liam O’Brien, had left the club and so nobody was displaced by this decision. Unfortunately for Davids, it didn’t really have any inspirational effect as Davids was sent off three times before the end of December and resigned on January 18, 2014.

Scottish striker Derek Riordan left Hibernian to join Celtic in 2006, but returned to Edinburgh in 2008. In his first spell with Hibs, he had been number 10, but that was occupied by Colin Nish on his return, and so he went for a solution of sorts.


For 2009-10, he was back in 10 and number 1 was taken by the new goalkeeper – Graham Stack, who would go on to be Davids’ first-choice at Barnet, albeit wearing 29.

A more interesting example – to our biased eyes – comes from the 2010 Gaelic football season. For Monaghan’s first game in the Ulster championship, goalkeeper Shane Duffy failed to heal from injury in time and, in a brave/unusual move, manager Séamus McEnaney decided to play full-back (the defender directly in front of goal – similar to how the term was used in football in the 2-3-5 days) Darren Hughes in goal. He wore the number 1 jersey left vacant by Duffy crying off, with a substitute wearing the full-back’s number 3.


Monaghan won, and Hughes was retained in goal for the next game against Fermanagh, which they won as well. Meanwhile, Seán Gorman, who had been regarded as Duffy’s deputy, decided to withdraw from the panel. For the Ulster final against Tyrone, when the team was named three days beforehand, Hughes was listed at number 1 but, come game-day, he lined up outfield.

You might be confused as to why Hughes is still wearing blue, as in the first picture. Monaghan are normally white shirts and blue shorts, but Tyrone are white shirts and red shorts, so that 2010 Ulster final saw both teams change jerseys. Monaghan’s regular goalkeeper outfit is the same as the change kit. In this game, Duffy was able to wear the white in goal, number 16 on his back:


Thankfully, the bullshit of de Guzman wearing 1 was slightly counter-balanced by The Universe.

Mario Balotelli enjoys wearing number 45. However, stricter rules at international level have seen him look conventional and his latest transfer, to OGC Nice, has meant a similar limitation applied.

As with La Liga in Spain, the French Ligue 1 employs some control on numbering. Goalkeepers must wear 1, 16 or 30 and higher numbers are only allowed if absolutely necessary.

The league’s rules state that ‘novelty’ numbers are not allowed (forgive Google Translate’s own rigidity):

Every Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 club must establish the number assignment list on Isyfoot 72 hours before the start of the competition. This list can not exceed 30 names, the number 30 is the last in the list may be supplemented and updated with every movement in the club. If a club justifies employ over 30 professional players under contract, the board may grant an exception to the preceding paragraph. Whimsical dials are prohibited (example: 45 – 82).

The numbers 1, 16 and 30 are exclusively and necessarily reserved for goalkeepers. Ultimately, the number 40 can be assigned. All teams must have a jersey with number 33 that is not assigned to a player and reserved for breaking replacements. A directory is established early in the season and available to referees and delegates by the LFP.

As a result, Balotelli has had to conform and, luckily, the number 9 is free. Hopefully, success in this digit will signal a turnaround in his career.


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:


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.

Arsenal simultaneously please and frustrate

There have been plenty of changes afoot at Arsenal of late. They have almost done things really well, only to be tripped up at the last.

The departures of Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta at the end of the 2015/16 season freed up 7 and 8 respectively. Alexis Sanchez has an affinity with 7 – so much so that he took 17 when he joined, necessitating Nacho Monreal’s move to 18 – and so it was logical that he switched. The other move caught us by surprise, but was no less pleasing.

Not all of Aaron Ramsey’s decisions lately have been good ones, but the Welsh midfielder changing from 16 to 8 is a good fit. It’s also nice to see a player in the modern game who wishes to trade up (technically ‘down’, we know) to a 1-11 number, even if he wasn’t that far outside them to start with.

Those switches freed up 16 and 17, and it appeared that the club had been on the ball with filling them too. Alex Iwobi had established himself as part of the first-team squad in the second half of the season, putting the likes of Theo Walcott to shame, and it was a further indication that he will be more involved next season as he was given 17 instead of 45.

And then, Granit Xhaka came into play. Before it was officially announced that the Swiss midfielder would join from Borussia Moenchengladbach, he was in London to complete a medical and have publicity pictures taken. Those images – featuring him in the then-unreleased new home kit – were leaked, and the leaker also conveyed information on numbering changes.

According to him, Xhaka would take 34 (he wore it in Germany and has it tattooed on his neck), with Francis Coquelin moving from that to 8. Incidentally, had that happened, it would have been a fifth different number for him at Arsenal, having had 35, 39 and 22, in that order, before 34.*

Obviously, that didn’t happen and then it appeared that Xhaka would assume Ramsey’s old 16. For us, it’s a number which really suits a central midfielder, so this was quite pleasing, until Xhaka had a change of heart. Jay from Design Football was probably delighted as 29 is ‘his’ football number, but it doesn’t sit well with us when first-team squad members are given numbers higher than 22, 25 at a push.

Arseblog has his theories on the rationale behind Xhaka’s switch. If he’s a success at the club, it’ll hardly matter what’s on his back, but, rest assured, if it doesn’t work out, we’ll be at the forefront of the campaign to tell you why it hasn’t.

Incidentally, the same rumour which suggested that Coquelin would move to 8 with Xhaka taking 34 said that goalkeeper Petr Cech would move from 33 to 1 and right-back Hector Bellerin would take 2 when Mathieu Debuchy departs, having had 39 in 2014-15 and 24 last season. Both changes would appeal. A top-quality centre-forward wearing 9, and the Gunners’ first-choice XI wouldn’t be bad at all.

* The change from 35 to 39 was down to Arsenal’s way of numbering younger players alphabetically by surname, explained here. Being given 22 was a sign that he was part of the first-team squad but then he went out on loan and Yaya Sanogo inherited that shirt, so 34 was something of a stop-gap measure when he came back in 2014.

Nicklas Bendtner, we hardly knew ye

Nicklas Bendtner is looking for a new club after Wolfsburg decided to terminate his contract more than a year early.

Whether we like it or not (we don’t), the Danish striker is inextricably linked with the primary subject matter of this site, so it’s about time we gave him a post of his own.

The Dane made his Arsenal debut in the 2005-06 season, wearing 33 – not that out of the ordinary. For 06-07, he was on loan at Birmingham City, for whom he had number 27 and then, on his return to the Emirates for 07-08, he was given number 26, an indication of his rise up the pecking order.

He kept 26 for 2008-09 but, on the eve of the following season, it was announced that he would change – to 52. The badly-written press release didn’t give much real info:

Before [the season] starts I wanted to change my squad number from 26 which I’ve obviously had for a number of seasons now. I chose to move to 52 because it’s a special number to me personally, and I hope that it brings me good luck for the new season.

I appreciate that a good number of fans have bought their kits for 2009/10 already with names and numbers printed up so I’d like to personally cover the cost of replacing anyone’s shirt that has my previous number. It means a lot to see supporters wearing your name and number, and I want to ensure people aren’t inconvenienced by the change.

It was never revealed how much he had to pay to reimburse fans who had bought ‘Bendtner 26’ shirts, but there was certainly never any fear of him going bankrupt. Later that season, though, his own official website offered a different reason for the change:

Nicklas Bendtner plays with the number 52 on his back, but actually his favourite number is 7. But when he joined the Arsenal team, the number 7 was already taken by the Czech Tomas Rosicky. So when Nicklas Bendtner was presented with the opportunity to change his old number 26 before the season 2009/10, he chose the number 52 because 5 and 2 equals 7. He also thinks that 52 sound good.

At the time when Nicklas Bendtner changed his number, some fans had already purchased the new Arsenal shirt with his old number. And Nicklas Bendtner was not going to disappoint these fans. So, he invited them to return the shirts, and he would pay for a new one. That story travelled the world.

The last sentence perhaps gives some insight into how Bendtner was once off the charts in a self-confidence test. Why he preferred 7 to the traditional centre-forward’s number of 9, we don’t know, but it was perhaps the reason why he wore 17 when he joined Juventus on loan in 2012-13 (after continuing to wear 52 when with Sunderland in 11-12).

He was back at Arsenal for 2013-14 and, as Arsène Wenger engaged in his usual transfer-market dithering – pulling out of an almost-confirmed move for Gonzalo Higuaín – Bendtner was the back-up to Olivier Giroud, but now wore 23. He even scored two goals in his limited game-time, but eventually tried Wenger’s patience too much, enjoying the night-life at home in Denmark when he should have been recuperating from injury.

Wolfsburg provided him with another chance, and also another opportunity for numerical trickery. The reason for him taking number 3 in Germany was put down to his mother’s influence. Unfortunately, Mama Bendtner’s choice ended up signifying the total league goals he would score across 2014-15 and 15-16.

Where to, and which number, next?

‘Mark no. 6!’ ‘Which one?’

Friend of the site Jay from Design Football – the brains behind the excellent podcast of the same name – asked us an intriguing question recently: have there been instances, apart from testimonials, where two team-mates have worn the same number?

He suggested Peter Crouch for England against Uruguay in 2006, when he was officially number 21 but a printing error meant that, while the front of his shirt and his shorts reflected that, he had 12 on his back.


Unfortunately, the ‘real’ number 12 was Luke Young and he stayed on the bench for the duration.

The first example that came to our heads was the play-off for the final Euro 96 qualifying spot, when the Netherlands met the Republic of Ireland at Anfield, two Patrick Kluivert goals giving the Dutch victory and ultimately making it Jack Charlton’s last match in charge of Ireland.

Edgar Davids would come to prominence for his number choices later in his career, but back then he was firmly established as number 8 for Ajax and Holland (though it would be another year before squad numbers were brought in in the Eredivisie). Either it was the kitman’s error or he wasn’t paying attention in the dressing room and plucked the wrong shirt, but he ended up wearing a short-sleeved 6 in the first half, the same as the player who usually wore it, Ronald de Boer, who had opted for the warmer option (click for bigger versions).


Irish commentator George Hamilton was quick to spot the mistake, but it wasn’t until half-time that it was rectified, with Davids wearing the proper number 8 in the secondhalf.


Stephen Folan’s tribute

The 2016 League of Ireland season began last Friday, with Galway United taking the early lead in the table as they beat St Patrick’s Athletic 3-1 away from home.

Making his Galway debut was centre-back Stephen Folan. The Galway native spent four years as a trainee with Newcastle United before returning to Ireland, first with Limerick, then Sligo Rovers and Cork City.

In his first season with Limerick, 2013, he wore number 4 before switching to 5 for 2014 and he retained that number when he went to Sligo at the start of 2015. When he signed for Cork City midway through the season, he was given 32. For his new club, he will be number 57, but it’s not a love of Heinz or just a random whim – as he explained to the Irish Daily Mirror’s Paul O’Hehir last Friday, it’s a tribute to his late father, who was born in 1957 and died last September at the age of 57.

Manchester City – a new low

Well, technically a new high.

A picture paints a thousand words, or 447 numbers, anyway. We don’t have any great affinity for Chelsea but a 5-1 win was the least they deserved after Manchester City committed this offence.

A mean average number of just over 40.5, and a median of 51. Adding insult to injury is the fact two of three 1-11 numbers are grossly out of place – the right- and left-backs wearing 5 and 11 respectively. Of the numbers from 31-47, City have only allocated 42 (Yaya Toure), so this could have been made slightly less worse.

Not much else to say, other than to hope that the FA might insist that teams go back to 1-11 rather than us having to put up with this shit.


Celtic’s hoop dreams are dashed

It’s rare that we focus on the visuals of shirt numbers, in the way that the excellent book Football Type did. For what it’s worth, the style used by adidas in World Cups from 1978-90 (similar to our logo in the banner image) is probably our favourite.

This post deviates from the norm in that it centres around a notable numbers development in the aesthetic sense, but there’s enough going on in terms of what we usually cover too.

Until 1964, Celtic didn’t wear numbers anywhere on their kit and when they finally did, chairman Bob Kelly decided that they should be on the shorts rather than sullying the famous hoops. While Celtic had to wear numbers on their shirts in European games from 1975 on, it’s perhaps surprising that it took the SFA until 1994 to insist that they also did so in domestic matches.

For the opening two games of 1994-95, Celtic followed the instruction – but by having the numbers on the sleeves of their shirts rather than the backs. Unfortunately for them, the governing body clarified their stance, meaning that the trip to Ibrox on August 27 would be the first league game where numbers were worn on the back.

Again, Celtic displayed a bit of bloody-mindedness, as the digits were green:


This was acceptable, however, and green numbers also appeared when Celtic premiered a new kit in the 1-0 win over Airdrieonians in the 1995 Scottish Cup final. However, for the 95-96 season, there was a white solid background on which the number sat.

Now that the boring visual stuff is out of the way, on to the super-exciting stuff. In the game – a 2-0 win for Celtic, though Rangers would ultimately win a seventh title in a row – both number 2s – Stuart McCall and Peter Grant – were in midfield. Dave McPherson wore 6 at right-back for Rangers, while Celtic’s Mike Galloway had 7.

Not called ‘Mad Jens’ for nothing


Let’s be honest, few goalkeepers could pull it off, or would even attempt it, but for some reason it doesn’t look horrific.

It certainly sits better with us than Emiliano Viviano wearing 2 for Sampdoria. That just seems like a reserve keeper’s number – in a ‘block’ numbering style, for instance – whereas 9 feels like a part of an alphabetical system, where anything can go.

As it happens, if Germany had gone alphabetical at the 2006 World Cup, Jens Lehmann would have worn 15 (with Gerald Asamoah number 1 and Oliver Kahn 11), but by that stage he had taken number 1 as he had usurped Kahn as the first-choice goalkeeper. How did he end wearing the most centre-forwardiest of numbers in goal? Well, the explanation is (unfortunately?) fairly straightforward.

Lehmann wore 12 when backing up Kahn in the 2005 Confederations Cup, but he missed the first friendly of the 2005-06 season, a 2-2 draw with the Netherlands. Klinsmann decided to assign permanent numbers for the season in that game and, as Kahn started, it was no surprised that he wore 1. Another Arsenal German, Per Mertesacker, wore 29, the number he had for both Hannover 96 and Werder Bremen before taking 4 at Arsenal.

For Germany’s next game, away to Slovakia, Lehman was back in the squad but, as Kahn was obviously 1, it meant that he had to pick a different number. Perhaps wanting to avoid being seen as the second-choice goalkeeper by wearing 12, he took the lowest available option, which was 9, though he joked that he’d have preferred 10 (see comments section for clarification on this, we initially thought that Timo Hildebrand had taken 12). In 05-06, he enjoyed the best season of his life, playing so well that Klinsmann installed him as first choice for the World Cup.

He could have kept 9 – FIFA’s rules stipulate that squads must be numbered 1-23 and 1 has to be worn by a goalkeeper at the World Cup, but beyond that there are no other regulations – but he wanted to conform. “I must speak to Klinsmann again,” he said. “I’d prefer to play in 1 rather than 9.” The manager acquiesced, with Kahn having to make do with 12.

Lehman shone wearing 1, performing heroics in the penalty shootout quarter-final win over Argentina, and he was named in the 23-man all-star team.

Incidentally, wearing 9 was one of only a few deviations away from 1 for Lehmann. When squad numbers were introduced in the Bundesliga in 1995, he was Schalke’s first choice and so was allocated 1. In 1998, he joined Milan and was given the number 16 but it was a short-lived spell, as he returned to Germany after a half a season, joining Borussia Dortmund.

Their goalkeeper, Stefan Klos, had joined Rangers on Christmas Eve, so 1 was for Lehmann and, when he signed for Arsenal in the summer of 2003, it was to replace David Season, who had just vacated 1 as well. After five years there, it was back to Germany again, this time to VfB Stuttgart and again number 1, with Rafael Schäfer having left after just a season.

Two seasons there looked to have wound down his career, but there was to be one last outing in an Arsenal shirt. While undertaking his coaching badges there, he was re-signed as emergency cover by Arsène Wenger due to injuries to Wojciech Szczesny, Lukasz Fabianski and Vito Mannone. It was still only intended that he would sit on the bench, but an injury to Manuel Almunia in the warm-up before Arsenal’s away game at Blackpool – a game featuring a far-from-ideal colour-clash – meant that Lehmann was called into action, wearing number 13.