1-11 at international level; vacant Premier League numbers

At the time of writing (lunchtime on Tuesday), there are still nine internationals to be played in what are now being referred to as the European Qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup.

By the end of the round of fixtures, it looks like we’ll be left with a total of three countries, of the 54 in action, to have begun the game with their team numbered 1-11 – England, the Netherlands and Scotland. Even Gibraltar and the newly-formed Kosovo had squad numbers.

England stick to the origins, and, while Scotland’s system isn’t the most perfect, they still deserve kudos for not buckling.

We have doffed our hats to the Netherlands in the past, of course, and while all the rest of Tuesday’s participants are listed by squad number on the UEFA site, the Dutch players have zeroes next to their names.

Of the other nations, Denmark and Wales (who have form, to be fair) came closest, starting with nine 1-11 players:

It was also interesting to note a reassignment of some numbers in the wake of retirements. Mesut Ozil is now the Germany number 10 after Lukas Podolski’s departure – apparently he wants it at Arsenal too – while the Republic of Ireland have replaced one Robbie with another at 10.

Robbie Keane signed off with a goal in the friendly against Oman last week and for the game with Serbia last night, Robbie Brady inherited it, having previously been associated with 19. Brady played in midfield in the 2-2 draw but has played most often at left-back in recent times. We have to say, we’re feeling a bit nervous.


Elsewhere, all of the Premier League squad numbers have been finalised, following the closing of the transfer window.

Of the 220 available 1-11 numbers, 24 – or just under 11 percent – are empty.

Liverpool are the worst offenders, leaving 4, 8 and 9 vacant. Obviously, Steven Gerrard’s old number is still seen as a heavy burden which can’t be given to just anyone, but surely Ragnar Klavan – who wore 5 at Augsburg – could have taken the 4 freed up by Kolo Touré’s departure, rather than 17?

Daniel Sturridge was offered number 9 before Christian Benteke came but turned it down. Speaking of players who have left Liverpool on loan, Lazar Markovic isn’t wearing 50 anymore:

Bournemouth, Hull City, Leicester City, Middlesbrough and Southampton have allocated all of the numbers from 1-11. The most unused number is 2, which isn’t used at Everton, either of the Manchester clubs or Watford.

Séamus Coleman could have taken 2 – which he wears for Ireland – when Tony Hibbert retired but has stuck with 23, while Matteo Darmian opted for 36 upon arrival at Manchester United and remains there (he does wear 4 for Italy).

Man City have two right-backs – Bacary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta – in their numerical first 11 but they wear 3 and 5 respectively. John Stones picked 24 rather than taking 2.

Tottenham, whose first-choice team wasn’t far off 1-11 last season, have 6 and 8 free, with Eric Dier and Dele Alli opting to keep their 15 and 20 respectively. Moussa Sissoko wouldn’t have been a bad fit at 8 but will wear 17, having been 7 at Newcastle United.

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:


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.


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.


Marko Grujic, conservative or coward?

The Serbian midfielder, who will join Liverpool in the summer, has expressed reservations about taking the number 8 shirt, last worn by Steven Gerrard. Of his other suggestions, we’d certainly consider 35 a lesser evil than 88.

Last summer, Danny Ings also decided he’d prefer a higher number so as not to invite pressure from the off. Is it indulging players to allow them do this, or are they being given a free pass to shirk responsibility?

A number 1 record for Liverpool?

Following on from our recent Christian Abbiati post, another missive on goalkeepers preferring not to wear 1.

Since the 2005 Champions League final, Liverpool have played a total of 46 competitive senior games in which their goalkeeper has worn number 1.


While Jerzy Dudek was the hero that night in Istanbul, he was displaced that summer by new signing José Manuel ‘Pepe’ Reina, limiting the Pole to 12 appearances in his final two years at Anfield.


Dudek had worn number 12 in his first season with Liverpool but took the number 1 when his predecessor Sander Westerveld was moved on. On Dudek’s departure, though, Reina showed no signs of inheriting the traditional netminder’s number and retained 25 for the entirety of his Liverpool career.

With 1 having been vacant for 2007-08, Diego Cavalieri wore it for the next two seasons and the very start of 2010-11 but never suggested that he would usurp Reina as the first-choice, playing only nine times.


Likewise, his replacement as number 1, Brad Jones, was seen as a reserve – in fact, he was third choice behind Reina and Doni (who wore number 32) in 2011-12.


In 2012-13, he did play 15 times, but, despite Reina joining Napoli on loan in the summer of 2013, it was new signing Simon Mignolet (number 22) who Brendan Rodgers favoured in goal.


Reina left for good in 2014, joining Bayern Munich, while Jones remained until the end of 2014-15 before departing for Bradford City. After just a few months there – wearing 22 – he left by mutual consent and is now with Dutch side NEC Nijmegen, with 30 on his back.

The vacating of number 1 didn’t affect Mignolet, however, as he revealed back in August. Neither did new signing Adam Bogdan follow the recent tradition of the back-up keeper wearing 1, as he opted for 34. That was the number he had had in his first season with Bolton Wanderers, 2007-08, but since then he had worn 1. At his first professional club, Vasas in Hungary, he had been number 12 in 2005-06 and 2006-07.


Humble beginn-Ings

Danny Ings has recently joined Liverpool on a free transfer from Burnley. The Reds have a number of low numbers free – so many, in fact, that we feel they should try to emulate their classic 1970s and 80s system – but, instead of taking 7, 8 or 9, he has opted for the number 28 shirt.

It’s not that he’s one of those who wants a high number for the sake of it, though. One day, he would like to wear a single digit, but he wants to feel he deserves it:

I stayed away from the low numbers. You have got to take that pressure off yourself as a young lad coming through. That is what I personally think.

I would make sure I am established before taking any of those numbers. It is such a huge club. That was the thinking behind it. I wouldn’t want to go to Liverpool and chuck a shirt on my back like that … it is pressure you don’t need. The expectation at clubs like that is huge. Obviously I am going to work my socks off to earn that number one day. For now I will take a high number and work hard.

It’s interesting to contrast this with, say, Cristiano Ronaldo when he arrived at Manchester United in 2003. He wanted (coincidentally) 28, having worn it at Sporting Lisbon but Sir Alex Ferguson decreed that he should take 7, which was regarded as THE number at United (how accurate that status is discussed here).

When Joe Allen came to Liverpool in 2012, he and Brendan Rodgers discussed what number he might wear, a conversation shown in the Being: Liverpool documentary. Having been compared to Xavi, he had notions on wearing 6 but wasn’t overly forceful in demanding it and when Rodgers dismissed it as “a big centre-half’s number“, Allen had to make do with 24.

The first player to wear 6 at Arsenal after Tony Adams was Philippe Senderos, four years after the legendary captain had retired. In his early displays wearing 20, the Swiss defender had done a lot to suggest that he might become a fitting heir, but he suffered at the hands of Didier Drogba in 2005-06 and then, after getting 6 in the summer of ’06, the arrival of William Gallas – wearing 10 – meant that Senderos was relegated to back-up and he never really rediscovered his form.

Still, though, we’d far prefer to see heroes’ numbers being recycled than retired.

Liverpool’s beautiful imperfections

Regular readers of the blog will know that we have a fondness for the numbering system used by Liverpool in their glory days of the 1970s and 80s.

It’s something we felt warranted investigating and it’s important at the outset to credit the LFC History site and the excellent book written by its creators Arnie Baldursson and Gundmundur Magnusson, Liverpool: The Complete Record.

Why was their system fascinating? For one, if everybody had so many ‘wrong’ numbers, it would be tiresome, so the Reds’ distinctiveness definitely helped. Take a look at the formation below, which was how Liverpool lined out against Manchester United on September 16, 1990. We were actually going to use the team from the 4-4 FA Cup draw with Everton – Kenny Dalglish’s last game before resigning – but, as we will explain below, that was actually too off the wall.

The layout was what had by then become accepted as the default mode. A 4-0 win against United, with Peter Beardsley scoring a hat-trick, convinced pundits that the Pool were well on the way to a 19th title, with The Guardian gushing:

This time it seems Liverpool are determined not to let potential rivals for their League title even dream a little.

You certainly wouldn’t number your side like this if you were starting from scratch, though (by the way, if you haven’t read it already, now might be a good time to learn how the ‘traditional’ English system came into being):


Therein lies the other genius (in our view, anyway) element – the team evolved over two decades or so, with the changing of players’ positions affecting the numerical layout. Going through the team from that game in 1990 (apart from goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar – they always kept number 1 in goal), we’ll examine how each number came to be sited where it was.

2. Glenn Hysen

The Swedish centre-back joined Liverpool in the summer of 1989 and was seen as an eventual successor to Alan Hansen, who had begun to struggle with injury. Hansen was able to play much of 89-90, though, so Hysen slotted in alongside him as Gary Gillespie missed much of the campaign.

Number 2 had been the right-back’s number until 1985-86, a season when Phil Neal, Steve Nicol and Sammy Lee all wore it. Gillespie established himself at 2 towards the end of the season, but at centre-back, with Mark Lawrenson, who had worn 4, slotting over to the right to accommodate him.

3. David Burrows

In the graphic above, 3 – along with 6 and 9 – is in what would be considered its ‘right’ position and, by and large, it was always that way at Liverpool. However, when Hansen emerged in the late 70s, occasionally he – or Phil Thompson – would wear 3 at centre-back with Emlyn Hughes (6) moving to left-back, giving them a Brazilian look in defence.

4. Steve Nicol

If you’ve read about how the 4-4-2 was generally numbered in England, you’ll know that 4 was usually alongside 8 in midfield, but some teams had it at centre-back alongside 5 with 6, the old left-half, pushing up when the W-M begat the newer system. This was the way it was at Liverpool, where Tommy Smith wore 4 and anchored the defence (incidentally, he would later switch to right-back though, in contrast to what would transpire later, he also swapped numbers and saw out his Pool days as number 2 as Phil Thompson inherited 4).

After his arrival in 1981, Nicol wore a variety of numbers as he filled in in different positions, though by ’87 he had settled on either 2 or 8, depending on whether he was playing right-back or right-midfield. For the opening game of 87-88, away to Arsenal, Gillespie and Hansen were the centre-backs and so Nicol took 4 at right-back. He marked that match with a 30-yard winning header and, while he settled at right-back, his versatility still came in handy. He never started a game wearing a different number thereafter, though.

5. Ronnie Whelan

We’ve already touched on the Dubliner’s liking for wearing 5, without really examining how the most centre-backish of numbers came to be almost exclusively used in midfield at Anfield.

As mentioned above, 4 and 5 were the accepted Liverpool central defenders in the early 70s, with Smith and Larry Lloyd the men in possession for the majority. In early 1974, Lloyd was sold to Nottingham Forest but, instead of purchasing a replacement, Bill Shankly reckoned that the man to fill the role was already in his ranks.

Emlyn Hughes had played a bit at left-back but was generally a marauding midfielder with 6 on his back. Where Lloyd’s uncompromising nature meant that he lacked a bit of finesse, Shankly felt that Hughes’ greater footballing ability could help Liverpool play it out from the back. He retained 6 as he dropped back to partner Smith – on the pitch they were excellent but they had no relationship off it and Smith was very sore at how the captaincy was taken off him and given to Hughes.

Midfielder Peter Cormack had generally worn 8 up until then but happened to miss a few games immediately before Lloyd’s removal. When he returned, he was given 5 and so a tradition was born. Ray Kennedy would inherit it from him and then be switched to the left wing, with Whelan taking over there before John Barnes’ arrival saw him move to the middle.

Interestingly, before Whelan nailed down full ownership of 5 in 1982, Lawrenson had worn it in a couple of games early that season with Whelan wearing 6. Clearly, the defender didn’t feel as strongly about it as his Republic of Ireland team-mate.

6. Gary Gillespie

After Hughes’s relocation, 6 was a centre-back’s number apart from the few times he slid across to left-back. Hansen displaced him early in 1978-79 and, when fit, he was the undisputed choice there, assuming the captaincy after Kenny Dalglish’s appointment as manager in 1985.

He missed a lot of 1988-89, with Gillespie and Jan Molby – despite being regarded more as a midfielder – wearing 6 at centre-back. In addition, Nigel Spackman and David Burrows wore it at full-back as Nicol filled in in the middle (the late Gary Ablett was pretty much ever-present wearing 2). Hansen returned for the final seven games of the season.

He played in the bulk of games in 89-90, but didn’t play at all in 90-91 as Gillespie and Ablett shared 6. New signing Mark Wright took over the number at the start of 91-92 but, as Whelan related, eventually managed to snare 5.

7. Peter Beardsley

THE Liverpool number, and definitely regarded as such before a similar mysticism was retroactively applied to the same digit at Manchester United.

Before Nigel Clough, Vladimir Smicer, Harry Kewell and Robbie Keane threatened to dilute the prestige of the number, Kevin Keegan and then Kenny Dalglish had built the legend and then Beardsley and, arguably to a lesser extent, Steve McManaman carried the mantle admirably before Luis Suarez restored the power.

How did a number normally seen as that of a right winger’s come to be mostly used by a second striker at Liverpool? The answer – or what we reckon to be the answer, anyway – is fairly boring, really: Keegan used to be a winger.

He was signed as such from Scunthorpe United by Shankly in 1971, seen as Ian Callaghan’s replacement. However, a full-scale intra-squad practice match before the 71-72 season opener against Nottingham Forest convinced the manager that Keegan could be a striker of renown and so it proved.

Liverpool had lost the Charity Shield to Leicester City the week before and the attack was almost totally re-nosed for the Forest game. Of the players who wore the numbers 7 through 11 against Leicester, only Steve Heighway (9) remained, and he switched from the left wing to the right.

Callaghan had worn 7 but, rather than new left winger Peter Thompson taking that, he was 8 with Keegan 7 – we can only presume at his own request. Midfielder John McLaughlin wore 11 before Callaghan came back into the team in the middle, now with the double digits on his back. Up front, John Toshack took the number 10 from Bobby Graham and a devastating partnership with Keegan was born.

Keegan played 230 games for Liverpool before he joined Hamburg in 1977 and he wore 7 in every single one, with Dalglish inheriting the number and remaining similarly faithful before Beardsley followed suit. As of the time of writing, it remains unoccupied since Suarez’s departure to Barcelona last summer.

8. Ray Houghton

We’ve already dedicated a post to Houghton and his number-hopping, but John Aldridge’s departure meant that he effectively settled on 8, which had been worn by Craig Johnston and Sammy Lee before him on the right of midfield. Prior to that, Alun Evans had worn it when playing as a striker after Steve Heighway retained 9 when he moved to the wing.

Brian Hall had set the ball rolling in terms of right-midfielders wearing 8 as it was he who had been given the shirt when Peter Cormack missed a couple of games before returning in the number 5.

9. Ian Rush

One of only three ‘correct’ numbers in the 1990 iteration, but even this most sacred of institutions – 9 at centre-forward – had been dabbled with. As you read above, Steve Heighway had taken the number on a tour of the wings but when John Toshack left, midfielder Terry McDermott became the new number 10 while Irish international Heighway moved back up front – he wasn’t an automatic first choice though, with David Fairclough and David Johnson also wearing 9.

Johnson was the man in possession until Rush’s arrival in 1981 and it was the only shirt the Welsh international wore until he joined Juventus in 1987. Rush’s last game before the transfer was against Chelsea and he was partnered by mid-season signing John Aldridge, who wore 7 in only his second start (he had worn 11 in the other).

As 1987-88 dawned, manager Dalglish felt that Aldridge already had enough to live up to given that he was Rush’s doppelganger and so decided that he would wear the number 8 rather than 9, which now became the main number used by the right-winger.

Rush returned in 1988. Though squad numbers were five years into the future, it was effectively the case that 9 was his and 8 was Aldridge’s, with Houghton taking whichever one of those was available until Aldridge left for Real Sociedad in 1989.

10. John Barnes

The reasons for McDermott taking 10 and bringing it to midfield after Toshack left are unclear, but there’s no doubting that it firmly became a midfielder’s number thereafter. Craig Johnston, John Wark, Kevin MacDonald, Michael Robinson and Jan Molby all wore it with varying degrees of success but when Barnes arrived from Watford in the summer of 1987 as part of the three-pronged approach to replace Rush (Beardsley was also signed then while Aldridge had been a few months earlier), he assumed tenure of 10 and, from then on, if he was in the team that was what he wore.

11. Steve McMahon

Barnes’ signing, and placement on the left of midfield, led to Ronnie Whelan reverting to the centre and retaining the number 5. It was Ray Kennedy’s move in the opposite direction in the mid-70s which had led to 11 being worn by central players, first the re-tooled Ian Callaghan and then his replacement, Graeme Souness.

The Scot left for Italy in 1984 and Wark for 11 for a lot of the following season but McMahon, a signing from Aston Villa in 1985 – Dalglish’s first – began to be seen regularly in it then. McMahon did wear 7 for the first two games of 86-87 as MacDonald played in 11 but Dalglish’s return to the side saw the England international return to 11 and there he stayed.

As can be seen, from ’87 on, Dalglish tended to play favourites as certain players – Nicol, Whelan, Hansen, himself and then Beardsley, Aldridge, Rush, Barnes and McMahon – were always allowed to wear their preferred numbers.

That meant that others, like Houghton, had to switch around, but he wasn’t even the worst ‘sufferer’. We mentioned above that we didn’t base this piece on the 4-4 Everton game and a reason for that was that McMahon missed it so Nicol played in midfield and Barry Venison appeared at right-back wearing 11.

That was the only time he wore it and it completed his outfield ‘set’, wearing every single shirt. To what extent Dalglish was aware of this is unknown (he probably wasn’t), but Venison wore 9 – the only other shirt he hadn’t played in – two weeks previous in a league game, also against Everton.

Aside from Venison, the other players to come closest to wearing all the shirts were Steve Staunton – who never wore 2 – and Gary Ablett, who saw action in all except 9. A factor in this was the versatility of Nicol, who could play anywhere, so he kept 4 and Vension/Staunton/Ablett and others took the number of the player who missed out.

Perhaps strangely, given that he was a striker, Ronny Rosenthal also played musical shirts, missing out only on 2 and 5. He wore 3 twice and 4 once, with 9 being worn by midfielders Steve McManaman and Mike Marsh in those games.

When Liverpool beat Sunderland to win the 1992 FA Cup final, the numbering system was almost identical to the way it was when Dalglish left, with the only switch being between 2 and 4, Nicol playing centre-back as new signing Rob Jones tended to wear 2 whenever he played (he was selected at number 5 on his debut against Manchester United, though).

By the time squad numbers came in 1993-94, it was as if Liverpool had never tinkered – Wright was 5, midfielder Don Hutchison 6, new signing Clough wore 7 but was generally used in midfield and 11 was now on the back of left winger Mark Walters.

Perhaps Liverpool need to return to the idiosyncratic numbering to usher in a return to the glory days? Numbers 5, 7 and 11 are all free now, so if they could be filled by a central midfielder, striker and another midfielder, they’d be well on the road to recovery. Get rid of Glen Johnson and Kolo Toure and ensure that the new right-back is 4 and centre-back 2, and title number 19 would surely be an inevitability.

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?

The Many Numbers of Ray Houghton

We will indeed run a feature in the future on how Liverpool’s numbering system evolved from the 1970s to the 1990s, but this post will look at one particular player, Republic of Ireland international Ray Houghton.

While Irish readers of a certain may now think of Houghton as a co-commentator completely lacking in optimism of any kind, he was a more-than-useful right-sided midfielder for Liverpool in the late 80s and then later for Aston Villa. Of course, he also featured in both the 1990 and ’94 World Cups, scoring against Italy in the latter and famously got the winner against England in the 1988 European Championship.

In his time with Liverpool, there seemed to be something of a hierarchy in that certain players had preferred numbers which they always wore, with others then having to switch to whatever was free. Houghton, Jan Molby and Steve Staunton were among those ‘other’ semi-regular players who indulged in musical numbers. The Liverpool Annual 1992 – essentially a review of the 1990-91 season – had a feature looking at Houghton’s various switches:

Most of Liverpool’s players wear the same number week in, week out during the season – Glenn Hysen at No. 2, Steve Nicol at No. 4, Ronnie Whelan in the ‘lucky’ No. 5 strip he inherited from Ray Kennedy, Peter Beardsley at No. 7, Ian Rush at No. 9, John Barnes at No. 10 and Steve McMahon at No. 11.

Ray Houghton? Yes, he usually does wear the No. 8 jersey – but in his time at Liverpool he’s also switched from No. 7 to No. 8 to No. 9 to No. 10 to No. 11 to No. 12 and on to No. 14.

He made his first-team debut for Liverpool in the No. 9 shirt when he lined up for the game against Luton Town at Kenilworth Road on October 24, 1987; and when he scored his first goal for Liverpool at Wimbledon, early the following month, the number on his back was 12. By that time, he had also figured on the bench while wearing the No. 14 jersey, and later he had a run of 22 consecutive matches with No. 9 on his back.

The following season he kicked off at No. 9, switched to No. 8, then to No. 7, then to No. 10, changed again, to No. 8, and then to No. 9, went back to No. 10…all in the course of the first eight matches. Later he wore the No. 11 shirt, alternated between Nos. 8, 9 and 10, was on the bench again wearing No. 14, switched back to No. 7, played 18 games wearing No. 9 then rounded off the season with two outings in the No. 7 shirt.

In season 1990-91 things changed, as Ray pulled on the No. 8 jersey for the opening games, and stuck with that shirt while Liverpool were clocking up their record-breaking unbeaten run. At last, it seemed, Ray Houghton had been able to stop playing the numbers game…but even if he did switch non and again, one thing remained constant…and that was no matter what number he wore his role was always to ply [sic] up and down the right-hand side of midfield. Except of course, when he was cutting inside to make – or take – a scoring chance!

Houghton wearing 12 and 14 is hardly revolutionary – with only two subs, it was almost inevitable that players would end up wearing both numbers over the course of a season. Aside from the nonsensical padding in the last paragraph, the article also fails to look at why Houghton had to switch around so much.

The wearing of 9 when Houghton arrived first in 1987-88 was down to the fact that centre-forward Ian Rush had left to join Juventus. Kenny Dalglish felt that giving 9 to his replacement, and lookalike, John Aldridge would put too much pressure on him and so he took 8. Interestingly, Aldridge had actually worn 7 while playing up front with Rush in the final game of 1986-87 against Chelsea. That season, 8 was generally the preserve of Craig Johnston.

It was the return of Rush in the summer of ’88 which was the real reason for Houghton having to wear a variety of numbers. In his book Liverpool From The Inside, 1988-89, co-written with Brian Woolnough, Houghton muses at the start of the season on what Rush’s re-signing might mean for him:

Now that Ian has returned it will be interesting to see what shirt I am given to wear. I wore No 9 last season but, when he is in the side, Ian like to wear that number and so I will probably be handed another one. It seems I get the number no-one else wants and the only one I refuse to wear is No 4, a throwback to my West Ham days when the future looked bleak. Ronnie [Moran, we assumed, rather than Whelan] says I shouldn’t care what shirt it is, as long as it is not No 12 or higher.

By and large, 88-89 saw Houghton alternate between 8 and 9 depending on whether Aldridge or Rush led the line alongside Peter Beardsley, who wore 7. As mentioned at the start of the article in the annual, John Barnes always had 10 when he started and Steve McMahon was 11. When both Aldridge and Rush started together, Houghton’s number was determined by which one of Beardsley, Barnes or McMahon wasn’t playing.

When Aldridge left, 8 effectively became Houghton’s number, which was also the case at international level. He left Liverpool for Aston Villa in the 1991-92 season and generally wore 7 there, with it being his squad number in 1993-94 and 94-95 before he left for Crystal Palace.

Changing numbers mid-season

Note: We revisited this topic in 2016.

In Spain, as far as we can see, players are allowed to change numbers during the mid-season break. In 2004-05, Henrik Larsson switched from 17 to 7 when the previous incumbent, Javier Saviola, joined Monaco. A year later, Lionel Messi would swap his number 30 for 19, though of course his destiny as number 10 wasn’t too far away.

Messi had to continue to wear 30 in Europe that season, however, as UEFA’s rules are far stricter. So strict are they, in fact, that no number can be used more than once in the same season. This meant that when Andy Carroll joined Liverpool in 2011, he had to wear number 29 in the Europa League, despite the fact that he had inherited the number 9 from Fernando Torres domestically.

Back to mid-season changes, though – in the the Premier League handbook, section M4 states that:

While he remains with the Club a Player will retain his shirt number throughout the Season
for which it was allocated.

By and large, this has unsurprisingly been the case (we do have a fuzzy memory at the back of our heads though that Chris Sutton began 1996-97 wearing 16 for Blackburn before realising Alan Shearer had left and then changing to 9), but Aston Villa in 2010-11 are a massive exception.

No fewer than four players finished the season wearing different numbers than those with which they began it:

Player                                   Old Number       New Number

Moustapha Salifou               17                       37

Andreas Weimann                42                       26

Barry Bannan                        46                       25

Ciarán Clark                          47                       21

Why were they allowed to do so, and in such relatively high numbers, when the practice would seem to be outlawed, and why are there seemingly no other examples? Please get in touch if you know.

Guilty pleasures at Christmas

Early in the life of this blog, we elaborated – or tried to, at any rate – on the things about squad numbers which got our goat. It’s not to suggest, by the way, that we’re perfect ourselves, as proven by the fact we once signed attacking midfielder Stefano Fiore for Roma in CM99-00 and gave him the vacant number 6 rather than 28.

It seems only fair, therefore, that we should welcome the upcoming festive season with a balancing article which looks at the things which don’t follow the ‘classic’ numbering pattern but for which we have a ‘grá’ [it’s an Irish word similar to ‘affection’, pronounced ‘graw’]. The fact that each example has a caveat helps to ease our conscience.

We’ll limit our own to three, but we’ll open the floor to suggestions:

1. Number 2 at centre-back (but only if 4 is right-back)

Ryan McGarrity entered my office. The Northern Irish youngster had performed well since breaking into the Cork City team, forming a strong partnership at centre-back with German international Jurgen Becker. I should point out at this stage in the story that it technically occurred in the setting of a game of Football Manager 2012.

Captain Nathan Todd was retiring. He only had the armband for a year and was only ever intended to be stopgap after the retirement of club stalwart Aiden Kelly, who had come up through the ranks and gone on to become the Republic of Ireland left-back as well as winning everything domestically and leading the club to the Champions League group stages.

As Todd was getting on in years, I decided to leave him in the number 13 shirt he had made his own in proving a highly dependable back-up for Kelly or else playing in front of him at midfield. That was fine, but McGarrity was going to be the new captain, hopefully for more than a decade, so he couldn’t keep 17. Becker wore 5 and Lars Larsson, a D/DM C of high quality, was still an important squad member despite getting on and I couldn’t just take 4 off him. There was another vacant number, though.

“You’re the new captain,” I told McGarrity, “and you’re also the new number 2.”

“Am I moving to right-back?” he asked, incredulously.

“No, you’re staying where you are but I can’t have my long-term captain wearing a number higher than 11. You’d end up riding team-mates’ former girlfriends, parking in spaces reserved for disabled drivers and getting up to no good in general.”

Kasado was the first-choice right-back and kept number 22 until Larsson left at the age of 35. The Brazilian was also capable of playing centre-back and so 4 was a good fit for him. Most of the rest of the first team wore the ‘right’ numbers though and so, in some European games, when Larsson would come on for Swiss playmaker Adolfo Cappelletti as we switched to 4-1-4-1, the right-back was nominally number 10. It was an occupational hazard.

Apart from fictional examples, Argentina haven’t done too badly with 4 at right-back and 2 in the middle, while it worked out okay too for Liverpool in the 1980s.

2. Number 9 in the hole behind a strikeforce of 8 and 10

The ‘three foreigners’ rule came against Barcelona in the 1994 Champions League final as Johan Cruyff had to drop Michael Laudrup to accommodate Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov and Romario. Without limitations, the Spanish side may have put up more of a fight against AC Milan, who beat them 4-0, but then maybe Milan might have had better foreigners too.

In La Liga, however, Barça played some lovely stuff. While they took the title based on their head-to-head record with Deportivo La Coruña, the sides were 10 clear of third-placed Real Zaragoza and this was with only two points for a win – had it been three then Cruyff’s side would have won the title.

With no restrictions on foreigners, Laudrup provided the bullets for Stoichkov and Romario, who had arrived from PSV Eindhoven. The Dane retained the number 9 he had worn in a more advanced role with Romario taking 10 and it just looked right – we wouldn’t have been as keen on, say, 8 and 11 or 7 and 10. Honourable mention for Arsenal in 1996-97, with Paul Merson playing behind Ian Wright and Denis Bergkamp.

3. Number 7 in central midfield but only if 8 or 10 plays on the right

Bryan Robson is mentioned a fair bit in this piece about Manchester United number 7s and he’s the first example of this trope who springs to mind.

We can’t exactly say why, but we like the look of a 7 being an all-round, domineering midfield, possibly more so than one in the playmaking role, though that fits fine too.

If 4 or 6 were moved to the right to accommodate this, then the OCD alarm might begin to sound, likewise 11 as it would mean another central number moving across to the left. A small amount of ‘wrong’ numbers is bearable, but don’t go too far with it.