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:


Wearing 10 for his coin-try means a lot to Robbie Brady



We’ve already mentioned that Robbie Brady has inherited the Republic of Ireland number 10 shirt in the wake of Robbie Keane’s retirement, fearing that he might wear it at left-back.

An upcoming international week – Ireland host Georgia and then travel to Moldova – brings about that possibility again, but Brady’s presence at a press conference on Monday allowed him to reveal how he actually ended up moving from 19 to 10, as reported in The Irish Examiner.

There was a few of us wanting it. Me and Jonny Walters were the last two and he sort of said, ‘You have it’. I said, ‘No, it wouldn’t be fair’. So we flipped a coin for it and I ended up getting it. I texted Rob to say, ‘I’m taking it over and I’ll try not to dirty it too much’.

He said, ‘All you have to do is score 69 goals!’. Nah, he’s a top man. I just thought it was an opportunity not to be missed and I want to do as much as I can for this country. It’s near enough impossible to do what Robbie has done but I’ll do as best as I can.

Throughout the ages of my Ireland career I’ve scored goals, I like scoring goals. I want to score as many goals as I can for Ireland but I don’t think a number on a jersey will make a difference.

Having worn 14 for much of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign and the finals tournament, Walters then took advantage of Brady’s switch to move to the vacant 19 – which he used briefly in 2014 for his country and which he also wears for Stoke. So everybody’s happy.

Ireland’s forty shades of numbers

We’re aware of the irony, that this is called the Squad Numbers Blog but the curator prefers the older 1-11 style.

When squad numbers became ubiquitous, we accepted it under protest but comforted ourselves that at least international football retained the traditional numbering – with, of course, the exception of major finals, once so exotic because they were the only times we got to see high numbers.

Slowly, the status quo began to be eroded. We recall seeing Cameroon play in squad numbers for a friendly at Wembley in early 1991 but it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that they began to proliferate in competitive qualifying games. France and then Spain were the first to adopt this as we recall but no doubt there were others. At least the consolation remained that England – the home of football – and our native Republic of Ireland stayed with 1-11. It was a source of pride that Ireland had been 1-11 in four of six European Championship finals games, comprising the 1988 and 2012 tournaments.

To their credit, England still do stay true to the way it should be, but apart from them and the Netherlands, everybody else seems to number their squad 1-23 for every game. The first time Ireland did this was their World Cup 2014 qualifier away to Kazakhstand, when Kevin Doyle (number 9) came on to help turn the game as a scarcely-deserved 2-1 win was achieved. Stephen Kelly (2) and James McClean (11) were also subs, with Jon Walters (12), Simon Cox (14) and Darren O’Dea (15) starting.

In the aftermath of that, we thought that Ireland’s 1-23 numbering was for ‘pairs’ of games, the two internationals scheduled for each break, but the recent Euro 2016 qualifiers belied this. It took a while for us to notice the inconsistencies but some are glaring from game to game, as you can see (black indicates a starting player, with the subs in red):


It’s interesting to note that the players who wore 1-11 for the opener against Georgia were all in situ for the last one, the play-off second leg against Bosnia & Herzegovina, though Robbie Brady was now wearing 19 instead of 11. He wore that as a sub against Georgia and then switched to 17 as McClean took 11 for the remainder of the campaign but it wasn’t until Brady donned 19 that he became a regular starter.

Jef Hendrick (8-13-21) was another who saw his number rise as he became more of an integral member of the team. In contrast, David Forde retained number 1 as he went from first-choice goalkeeper to second and then third choice, with captain Robbie Keane likewise welded to 10 despite losing his status. Shay Given initially had 23 as Forde’s back-up, but when he resumed in goal he wore 16 before injury against Germany saw Darren Randolph take up residency between the posts, 23 on his back.

Exactly why Jon Walters and Darron Gibson swapped 14 and 19 between the Georgia and Gibraltar games – which were part of the same break – is unclear, as is why Richard Keogh had to surrender 5 to Ciarán Clark, wearing 22 instead, when starting against Scotland away. By the end of the campaign, Keogh had 5 back and Clark was wearing 14 and then 12. Also strange is Wes Hoolahan wearing 20 throughout the campaign, except for the home game against Germany, when he had 11.

That match, with Seamus Coleman, Marc Wilson and Glenn Whelan unavailable saw their 2, 3 and 6 respectively taken by unused subs Paul McShane, Eunan O’Kane and David McGoldrick. Whelan had 6 whenever he was involved, missing only Germany at home and Scotland away, when Cyrus Christe wore it. He is a defender, so it was one of the rare examples of 6 not being worn by a midfielder for Ireland – perhaps the first time since Roy Keane inexplicably wore 4 against Lithuania in 1997.

The most numbers worn by one player? That’s Alex Pearce, who had (in order) 15, 21, 20, 5 and 4, without ever starting a game. Darron Gibson is next closest, with 19, 14, 20 and 18 on his back.

Roy Keane, Manchester United’s number 7?

For Ireland, Roy Keane was always number 6 (except for one game against Lithuania in 1997, when he wore 4). This was a good fit as he had worn it at Nottingham Forest too, though his debut against Liverpool in 1990 had come wearing 7 as Brian Clough chose him on the right of midfield.

Keane signed for Manchester United in the summer of 1993, when squad numbers were introduced for the first time. For the Charity Shield, United stayed 1-11 and Keane was 9, though when the Premier League numbers were announced he was 16, with the first-choice players in the 92-93 league win retaining their numbers.

That meant that captain Bryan Robson, for so long the number 7, had to be content with 12, with Eric Cantona now 7. When Cantona retired at the end of 1996-97, he was replaced by Teddy Sheringham, who always preferred 10, and David Beckham moved from 10 to 7 to accommodate him.

According to Keane’s new autobiography, The Second Half, it could have been him taking over 7 when Cantona left. How different might things be?