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.

1-11 in the Premier League redux, Part 3

You know the drill by this stage, we’re examining how the Premier League teams would look if they picked the players numbered 1-11. Next up, the middle four alphabetically:



  1. Brad Jones
  2. Glen Johnson
  3. José Enrique
  4. Kolo Touré
  5. Dejan Lovren
  6. Steven Gerrard
  7. Rickie Lambert
  8. Philippe Coutinho
  9. Oussama Assaidi

No numbers 5 or 7, but the way the rest of the players are allows us to put those numbers in historically appropriate locations for Liverpool (4-4-2 might have been better but Brendan Rodgers does tend to prefere 4-2-3-1 and the number 7 often played just off 9 in the great ‘Pool teams).

Switch 2 with 4 and 8 with 11 and it’s like Kenny Dalglish assigned the numbers.

Manchester City


  1. Joe Hart
  2. Micah Richards
  3. Bacary Sagna
  4. Vincent Kompany
  5. Pablo Zabaleta
  6. Fernando
  7. James Milner
  8. Samir Nasri
  9. Alvaro Negredo
  10. Edin Dzeko
  11. Aleksandar Kolarov

We could have gone 4-4-2, with Sagna at right-back, Zabaleta left-back and Kolarov on the wing, but Kolarov is more of a defender, though two right-backs in a back three distorts the balance slightly.

Manchester United


  1. David de Gea
  2. Rafael
  3. Luke Shaw
  4. Phil Jones
  5. Marcos Rojo
  6. Jonny Evans
  7. Angel di Maria
  8. Juan Mata
  9. Radamel Falcao
  10. Wayne Rooney
  11. Adnan Januzaj

Pretty perfect numbering for this formation (apart from 5 and 6 the wrong way round), though if United were to ever line up like this it could be 6-5. You’d need a couple of good defenders and mid-2000s Michael Essien instead of Jones.

Could have gone with three at the back but then there’d be no midfield at all. W-M, perhaps?

Newcastle United


  1. Tim Krul
  2. Fabricio Coloccini
  3. Davide Santon
  4. Ryan Taylor
  5. Mike Williamson
  6. Moussa Sissoko
  7. Vurnon Anita
  8. Papiss Demba Cissé
  9. Siem de Jong
  10. Yoan Gouffran

The lack of a 5 is a help in terms of making a playable formation, and while it’s not the ideal place to put it, Ruel Fox did wear that number while playing as a winger for the Toon. Coloccini likes 2 as he’s Argentinean and luckily the others fall into that system.