Mark Flatts’ many numbers at Arsenal

From time to time, we run squad number quizzes on Twitter, asking followers to guess the player by the digits he carried:

The answer to the above is Robbie Fowler over two spells at Liverpool, by the way. One player who would be perfect for such a quiz, were it not for the fact that he would be far too difficult to guess, is Mark Flatts, once of Arsenal.

We’ve already looked at how squad numbers were introduced for the Coca-Cola and FA Cup finals of 1993, when Arsenal faced Sheffield Wednesday. At just 20, Flatts was down the Gunners’ pecking order and so was given 23 for the two deciders.


Having won the two cup finals, Arsenal’s big signing of the summer was Eddie McGoldrick from Crystal Palace. He was allocated number 11 as the Premier League adopted squad numbers, and Ray Parlour, 11 for the cup finals, was moved to 23, though he would still play 27 league games in 93-94. As a result, Flatts was bumped one numbter upwards:


Young Scottish striker Paul Dickov was Arsenal’s number 27 in 93-94, but perhaps as an indication that he might get more game-time, George Graham moved him to 24 for 94-95. That meant another switch for Flatts, taking the 25 vacated by Neil Heaney.


If the pattern was to continue, Flatts should have been given 26 for 1995-96, but instead he moved downwards as part of a number of small changes effected by new manager Bruce Rioch – David Hillier moved from 18 to 17, Steve Morrow 18 to 21, John Jensen 17 to 19 (though technically it was 17-30-19 as he looked set to depart before a change of heart).

A bigger move, though, was the catalyst for this change. Parlour swapped 23 for 15, allowing Dickov to move from 24 to 23 and Flatts to regain 24. It would prove to be his final season at the club, however.


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?

Unlucky for some sub goalkeepers

(Thanks to Mark Schueler for asking us the question and prompting this post; Bjorn and Andrew Rockall).

The number of substitutes allowed in top-level English football has grown exponentially in recent times.

They were first permitted in 1965 (Keith Peacock of Charlton Athletic was the first, stats fans) but, while clubs in Europe had the luxury of naming five, it took until 1987 for the Football League to ratify a Tottenham Hotspur suggestion that two subs be permitted in domestic games.

With the advent of the Premier League in 1992, a third sub was allowed but it had to be a goalkeeper and only two could be used. For 95-96, the necessity of including a goalkeeper was removed and all three could come on. A season later, three of five could be used and then, in 2008, Spurs were again the drivers in pushing for an increase to seven being named (three still allowed to play).

Back to 1987. While logic dictated that 12 was given to the substitute when there was just one, superstition reigned with the increase to two and almost every club allocated 14 for usage rather than the ‘unlucky’ 13.

At every World Cup from 1970 onwards (with the exception of 2010, when Fabio Capello stayed true to his Italian roots and handed Robert Green 12), England had given 13 to a back-up goalkeeper and it was also became the number of choice for the country’s reserve netminders in ‘normal’ internationals. Therefore, it made sense that the clubs in the new Premier League would follow suit and the first goalkeeper to wear something other than 1 in a domestic league game was Erik Thorstvedt in Tottenham Hotspur’s second game, at home to Coventry City in August.


Spurs trailed 2-0 when Thorstvedt appeared as a half-time replacement for the injured Ian Walker. While the Norwegian international gave away a penalty soon after his introduction, he saved the spot-kick from Mickey Gynn and would also keep a spot-kick out in the next game as he retained his place, a 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace.

Thorstvedt would also be sprung from the bench for Walker against Wimbledon in October, while a month later Spurs’ rivals Arsenal would use a sub goalkeeper for the first time in a competitive game. The Gunners would be the cup kings in 92-93 as squad numbers manifested themselves but in the league there was little joy as they finished 10th. However, they showed some form in the late autumn, beating Coventry 3-0 to go top before a trip to face champions Leeds United at Elland Road.

Unfortunately for them, goalkeeper David Seaman would pick up an injury in that game, hampering his ability to reach Chris Fairclough’s header for the opening goal. He departed the field before play restarted, with Alan Miller replacing him (fun fact about Miller – we once vandalised his Wikipedia page and it wasn’t changed for ages. Even the official Arsenal site was fooled).

Initially though, Arsenal had followed on from giving 14 to the second sub and so put 15 on the second goalkeeper shirt:


All well and good you’d say, except that day at Leeds, which ended in a 3-0 defeat – the first of four consecutive losses which ended title hopes – one of the outfield subs wore 13. It’s not easy to make out but Ray Parlour is in the bottom left of this shot. We can’t prove it but it may well have been a top-flight first.


Love me Ten-der

It’s 20 years to the day since Dennis Bergkamp signed for Arsenal for what was then a British record of £7.5m – though, as it was widely accepted that Stan Collymore would soon be joining Liverpool for a million more, Bergkamp was never really hailed as the record-holder.

He would, of course, go on to become one of the most successful foreign imports into the Premier League and is regarded as an Arsenal legend. At the time, though, we recall feeling a little miffed that the new signing had been allocated the number 10 shirt, meaning that Paul Merson had to switch to 9, recently vacated by the retired Alan Smith. Edit – Bjorn Barang (aka @squadnumberfan) informs us that Smith had initially been relegated to 19 before he was forced to retire due to injury. His departure meant that John Jensen moved from 30 to 19, having been switched from 17 when it looked like he was leaving.

It’s the first high-profile example that we can recall of a new signing requesting the number of an incumbent and getting his way. Perhaps not coincidentally, the others which stand out from the 1990s involve the number 10 shirt too: at Middlesbrough, Juninho took 25 when he came in 1995-96 but took 10 from John Hendrie at the start of the following campaign, while Teddy Sheringham’s arrival at Manchester United in 1997 meant David Beckham inheriting a legend.

In the summer of 1996, West Ham United pulled off a coup in signing Portuguese forward Paulo Futre, but committed an oversight with regard to his shirt number. In his autobiography, Harry Redknapp recounted the scene in the away dressing room at Highbury before the opening game of the season away to Arsenal.

Eddie Gillam, our trainer, had given him the No 16 shirt and got it thrown back in his face. Next thing, Paulo was in my face, too. ‘Futre 10, not 16,’ he said. ‘Eusebio 10, Maradona 10, Pele 10; Futre 10, not f***ing 16.’

By this point, there were 45 minutes to kick-off. ‘It’s changed now, Paulo,’ I explained, as gently as I could. ‘We’ve got squad numbers and your number is 16. We didn’t choose that number. When you came, all the numbers were gone, so the kit man gave you No 16.’ ‘No 10,’ he insisted. ‘Futre 10. No 10. Milan, Atletico Madrid, Porto, Benfica, Sporting — Futre 10.’

Now it was getting desperate. I tried to be firm. ‘Paulo, put your shirt on, get changed, please, we have a big game. If you don’t want to wear it, Paulo, off you go,’ I said. And he did…

A solution was eventually found, according to Harry’s recollections.

At first we tried to tell him that we had sold so many replicas with ‘Futre 16’ on the back that it would be impossible to change, but he called our bluff.

‘How many?’ he asked. ‘I will pay £100,000.’ And that was when I knew this was an argument we could not win. Futre was willing to spend £100,000 just to be No 10.

In the end, he got it a lot cheaper. John Moncur, the No 10, agreed to swap, and Paulo let him have two weeks in his villa in the Algarve, which is about the best one there, on the cliffs overlooking the best golf course.

Arsenal’s brief reversion to 1-11

It’s rare to hear TV commentators talk about squad numbers, but the BBC’s Steve Wilson (we think it was him anyway – post Motson and Davies, the Beeb’s commentators seem to blend into each other) had been reading his history before the FA Cup semi-final between Arsenal and Reading at Wembley.

Rather apropos of nothing, he mentioned that the first time squad numbers had been worn in a club game was the 1993 Coca-Cola Cup final between Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday at the venue, and then again in that year’s FA Cup final between the same teams, citing Arsenal’s then-vice-chairman David Dein as the driving force.

So far, so normal, we’ve looked at these numbers here and here. What is less-widely remembered is that Dein was also the man behind another initiative late in the 1993-94 season. In what was offered as an alternative to squad numbers, Arsenal lined out in shirts numbered 1-11 but with players’ names on them.

According to Bjorn Barang (aka @squadnumberfan), it only happened in four games, all at home, against Manchester United, Chelsea, Wimbledon and West Ham United. Strangely, it wasn’t done for the matches at Highbury against Liverpool and Swindon Town, which cam between the United and Chelsea clashes, nor at Newcastle United on the last day of the season, when the home kit was worn.

Ideally – to our minds, anyway – with such a practice, the players with squad numbers 1-11 would wear that number if included, but there were a few exceptions to this. Part of the reason here was that Kevin Campbell (squad number 7) most often played as a striker, vying with Alan Smith to partner Ian Wright. Had he kept 7 for these games, Ian Selley or Ray Parlour would have had to wear 9 in midfield, something which almost never happened in George Graham’s tenure.

Andy Linighan, who had been given 5 at the start of the season, only appeared in one of the four games and wore 6 alongside Steve Bould, who was the first-choice partner for Tony Adams but had strangely been allocated 12. It wasn’t until 1995-96 that Bould and Linigihan would swap numbers to better reflect their squad status.

The last of the four games, against West Ham, came just before the European Cup Winners’ Cup final against Parma and so many first-teamers were rested. That meant that Eddie McGoldrick filled in for Lee Dixon at right-back and so wore 2 rather than his squad number of 11. Incidentally, he had also played there in a European tie earlier that season but kept 11 with Selley wearing 2 in midfield.

Both Selley and Ray Parlour, 22 and 23 respectively, played in all four games without settling on one number. In fact, against United Selley was 7 and Parlour 11 but the opposite was the case against West Ham – strange, given that two new shirts would have to be printed. The line-ups in full:


Unfortunately, the scheme was regarded as a failure due to the printing costs mentioned above. Ironically, in this day and age they would hardly be a consideration and such a method would presumably be a lot easier to execute. The following was reported in The Irish Press on June 9, 1994, with an intriguing mention of a new plan for the Football League:

Arsenal’s bid to lead a return to traditional shirt numbering in the FA Carling Premiership has failed.

And there could be worse to follow for fans, with today’s Endsleigh Football League annual general meeting in Walsall being asked to give clubs the option of displaying numbers on shorts!

It is the opposite stance to Scotland, where Celtic were recently told to abandon that long-standing custom and begin carrying numbers on shirts in league games.

Endsleigh League clubs are heading in the other direction because of “cash implications” connected with the optional squad numbering system introduced at the start of last season.
The plan was compulsory for Premiership club, whose strip must also sport players’ names. It became both confusing an contentious as numbers went through the roof! Wimbledon’s Gary Blissett stepped out wearing number 36, Chelsea’s Jakov Kjeldberg 35 and Manchester City’s Peter Beagrie and Coventry’s Lloyd McGrath 32.

In March, Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein persuaded the Premiership hierarchy to allow the Gunners to revert to 1-11 as an experiment. Premiership chief executive Ricky Parry recognised that “the ideal way is to have names with traditional numbers”.

Now Dein has reported it was too expensive because of the number of team changes – so next season many shirts will continue to reflect waist measurements.

“Arsenal reported they didn’t feel it was the answer,” said Premiership secretary Mike Foster.

“They had gone through an inordinate number of strips. Now we will leave things as they are for the next 12 months.”

Meanwhile, the Endsleigh League’s Board of Directors want to make it easier and less expensive for their clubs to play the name and numbers game.

“The board has put forward a proposal that the rules are amended to read that shirts OR shorts must be clearly numbered in accordance with the list handed to the referee,” said League spokesman Ian Cotton.

They hope that by allowing numbers on shorts, club will show players’ names on shirts but also retain the 1-11 system which became compulsory in 1939.

From our viewpoint, it looks like the league wanted squad numbers on shorts, for identification purposes, with the traditional numbering on the shirts. However, the last line about names on shirts jars with this and one would imagine that if Arsenal couldn’t afford it then teams lower down would have found it tougher.

Edit: Jay29ers’ interpretation in the comments below makes more sense.

In any case, nothing appears to have come of it. The optional squad numbering available to clubs in 93-94 was done away with and 1-11 remained the system of choice until the start of the 1999-2000.

Just in case you thought we always gave the impression it was better in the past

We never thought that we’d become one of those ‘everything were better in my day’ merchants, but the truth of it is that we have, especially when it comes to shirt numbering.

If it were up to us, we’d get rid of squad numbers and make everyone go 1-11, or at the very least limit the numbering to 1-25 and dispense with names on shirts (we are aware of the commercial realities which mean this will never happen). Every so often, though, it is good to get a reminder that the past shouldn’t always be viewed through rose-tined glasses either.

A game between Arsenal and Liverpool towards the end of the 1989-90 season provides a good example of this. Both sides had number 1 in goal (obvs) and 9 and 10 up front but, beyond that, there were a few discrepancies. Let’s look at Arsenal first:


Not a whole lot wrong, with David O’Leary wearing 8 at right-back the stand-out according to ITV’s pre-match graphics. That shows a 4-4-2, with Lee Dixon pushed up to midfield, but there is a chance that Arsenal actually played a sweeper system, which George Graham was fond of.

The presence of Perry Groves – more of a winger than a midfielder – would seem to endorse the 4-4-2 idea. In most of his Arsenal career, Paul Davis wore either 4 or 8, and 7 playing in the middle in Graham’s time wasn’t completely unheard of but it was something of a rarity. If Arsenal’s numbering was out of the ordinary, though, then Liverpool’s certainly raised an eyebrow:


Let’s be honest, it looks fairly incongruous, doesn’t it? And yet, it can be explained, kind of.

As our starting point, we have to accept Liverpool’s esoteric numbering of that time – Argentine-esque – as an article of faith. In that regard, 2 and 6 playing centre-back and 11 and 5 alongside each other in midfield are all present and correct, along with 3 and 9 in their the conventional spots.

Liverpool were trying to ward off Aston Villa in the title race and a forgotten quality of Kenny Dalglish was that he was well able to set up a side to get a draw (which they did here, 1-1). John Barnes playing off Ian Rush was a better MO than someone like Peter Beardsley or Ronny Rosenthal as Barnes could drop back into midfield. Therefore, it was logical that the extra centre-back – the late Gary Ablett in this case – would take the number 7 normally used by the support striker.

Steve Nicol was an outstanding right-back, but he was a real Swiss Army knife of a player and during his career with Liverpool he played in every outfield position. Not matter where he was sited, he had number 4 on his back, having kept it when he initially moved from centre-back to right-back.

In a game like this, his defensive qualities would come in handy in midfield as he could add extra heft to the back five when required. He played in midfield quite a bit in this season and the ‘proper’ right-back – Steve Staunton here, despite being left-footed, or Ablett or Gary Gillespie – would then take the number 8 which Ray Houghton generally wore.

That’s how you end up with a defence of 8-2-6-7-3. Seems simple now, doesn’t it?

Arsenal, the team of the 70s

Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Stefan O’Connor made their debuts for Arsenal away to Galatasaray in the Champions League last night.

Traditionally, Arsenal’s younger players are numbered in alphabetical order from the late 30s upwards, but this season this is done in two tranches – the players born in 1995, ’96 and the first half of 97 go from 37 (Semi Ajayi) to 57 (Josh Vickers). Then, the players from the second half of ’97 onwards are listed, starting with number 59 Marc Bola and going as far as Elliott Wright, who is 78.

Both Maitland-Niles and O’Connor are in this younger sector and so wear 70 and 73 respectively. It certainly looked strange.


Update: For 2015-16, Maitland Niles is on loan at Ipswich, where he wears 7. O’Connor is in the first rank of youths numbers this season, so he has 52.