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It's just a number

‘It’s just a number’, said the maddest man on the team.


A moment lays clear in my mind during my years of underage football. At the time (a long time ago now), I played left back or left of a back three (yes, we were ahead of our time), so naturally I only wore 3, or to put it more accurately, I only wanted to wear 3.


We played a pre-season friendly against a neighbouring town, and the manager threw me the number 2, to which I promptly reminded him I wore 3. He then proceeded to give me the number 12 and said, “Right, you don’t get a starting number as you’re no longer starting”. This was 10 minutes ahead of kick-off. It was a move full of balls from him, but I provided him an easy out, and as a LB that played football like the GAA player I was, it wasn’t detrimental to the team. To say the least.


Despite being around on a match-by-match basis for decades previously, fixed squad numbers were introduced to club football in the early to mid-90’s as a means to monetise identify players. For every iconic name-and-number partnership such as Cantona 7 and Totti 10, there’s an equally famous Baros 5 and Gallas 10. The latter flippancy has kept me up at night, and the former cleared my bank account. ‘Why did it keep you up at night?’, I hear you not ask - because there are rules to be adhered to.


Traditionally, GKs wear #1. Easy one. Although, centre-midfield legend Edgar Davids did wear 1 whilst he was player-manager at Barnet. I like Davids so I’ll gloss over that. If we’re talking the English game, right backs wear 2, and left backs 3. Centre backs 4 and 5, for me. I say for me as some would argue a CB wears 6. I can literally feel the interest leaving your body, so I’ll speed up. Centre midfielders wear 6 and 8, left midfielders 11, right midfielders 7, and forwards 9 and 10. This is the gospel according to the game, and that’s that.


With these rules in mind, squad numbers are something I believe integral to the character of a player. It can enhance their reputation both positively and negatively, and it’s not just something they drape over themselves for identification.


At this point, it feels right to first address the elephant in the room. Andy Carroll recently resigned for Reading Football Club, and as a centre forward, chose the number 2.


Now, for full clarity on this despicable decision, Andy says he left the decision up to his kids, but he should have simply not given number 2 as an option, or even better, sit them down on a Saturday or Sunday for 4-6 hours and go through the history of squad numbers, and why the closest a striker should be to the No. 2 is leaving the opposition right back on his arse en route to goal. It’s clear I don’t have kids.


If we’re talking baffling shirt numbers, Andy’s not on his own, by any stretch of the imagination. Khalid Boularhouz wore Number 9 for Chelsea FC. If Boularhouz isn’t a household name for you, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was a tricky frontman. He played centre back. Please refrain from spitting on the ground. William Gallas, in homage to the great Dennis Bergkamp, decided to wear No. 10 at Arsenal. It was against Birmingham following a 2-2 draw where he decided to pay homage to the defenders Bergkamp faced in his career by sitting on his arse on the pitch. I am very aware that is the second time I’ve said the word arse in about 100 words.


What these players failed to understand is if you wish to stray outside of the rules, you have to back it up. Zinedine Zidane for a swanky example, wore 5 at Madrid and made a ‘not-so-traditional’ number for a centre midfielder cool. Ask Jonjo Shelvey to do the same thing and it just won’t have a similar effect. No offence to Jonjo Shelvey, but I think he’d agree he is no Zidane.


Inter Milan’s Chilean striker Ivan Zamorano’s decision to wear No 1+8 on the back of his shirt will always be iconic, and due to stricter rules on squad numbers at UEFA HQ, the type of exuberance we may never see again. With legend-in-the-making Ronaldo Nazario becoming the club’s No. 9 in 1998, a number then occupied by the Zamorano, he chose the Number 18 and added a plus sign in the middle. Cool as fuck in our opinion, and the type of eccentric madness we want to see from our South American cult heroes.


In more romantic examples, there’s the obvious, aforementioned Eric Cantona. Barely a moment his name is spoken, the No. 7 isn’t mentioned somewhere soon after. The number 14, a traditionally ‘lesser’ number for the egomaniac, superstar footballer, is now a massive honour at Arsenal Football Club due to Thierry Henry adorning the shirt during his time at the club. Roy Keane’s No. 16 became so iconic not only in Ireland and Manchester, that Roma legend Daniele De Rossi revealed he wore 16 throughout his career with the Giallorossi in homage to the man from Co. Cork. What these players have in common is tremendous talent, and a footballing legacy off the back of it. They worked to have their name in lights, and the number followed.


With examples aplenty – both positive and negative – we could go on for days. We haven’t even touched on clubs’ decisions to retire shirts (here’s looking at you, Birmingham City) or players’ decisions to wear numbers in the high 60’s or high 90’s, of which you’ll be correct to assume we don’t fancy. These topics will be for another day.


Zamorano and Zidane, Gallas and Baros. Football aches for these stories. The good and the bad. In a world full of romantic scripts and calamitous storylines, squad numbers sit sweetly in lore. They’re something a young fan will scribble beside their name on their schoolbooks dreaming of being the next Didier Drogba. They’re something players use as inspiration and sentimentality. They’re something managers and clubs use to bestow honour and trust.


For us, squad numbers have rules, and if you want to stray outside the norm, you better be good. Or a South American striker.


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