Monday, 4 November 2013

Wrong numbers?

Football is a game of numbers. Scorelines feature numbers, league tables feature numbers, Gareth Bale's bank balance features numbers (quite a few, actually). Perhaps the most important numbers, however, are those featured on the backs of the shirts worn by the players. Shirt numbers have been around since 1928 and though they've been somewhat crowded out by sponsor names, player names and all manner of other paraphernalia, they remain an important feature of any football shirt.

The future might be bright, but it didn't feature shirt
numbers on the front for Halifax Town
These days, you'll also see numbers on the front of the shirts when there's a major international tournament taking place, the World Cup adopting that idea in 1994. This wasn't the first time it had been tried, however. Halifax Town were pioneers of the 'number on the front' way back in 1971 when they played in the Watney Cup competition against the likes of Manchester United and West Bromwich Albion. Halifax, sporting a recently introduced kit of orange shirts and blue shorts, looked a little peculiar as they tried to set their numerical trend, and predictably enough it didn't seem to catch on to any great extent.

Francis Lee adopts the gridiron look in November 1972.
Similarly, a variation of the theme also failed to stick beyond the 1972/73 season when Manchester City wore a change strip featuring numbers on the shirt sleeves. Looking more like an American football shirt, these numbers looked good enough alright, but perhaps were a little ostentatious. On a more practical level, it begs the question "Where's a number best located?"  Presumably shirt numbers are used mostly by the ref for disciplinary situations when identification of a specific player is most important. Having a number on both sleeves, however, seems slightly excessive, one could argue.

Kenny Dalglish celebrates numbers on shorts during
the 1973 Scottish Cup Final.
Of course numbers aren't just confined to the football shirt. Numbers on shorts are not uncommon, and for a twist on that tradition, one need only look to Celtic who for many years wore numbers not only on the front of the shorts but on the backs too. The fact that they wore numbers on the shorts at all came about because (if Wikipedia is to be believed) Robert Kelly, former chairman of the club, couldn't bare to see the famous green and white hoops obscured in any way shape or form, so onto the shorts they went.

Billy Bremner looks for someone to hug that also
loves blue sock tags.
The last bastion for number wearing, it seems, is on the socks. When it comes to that piece of apparel, there was only one team setting a trend back in the 1970s, and that was Leeds United. Don Revie's team raised a few eyebrows in the early part of the decade when they were seen sporting blue tags that were stitched into the socks complete with player numbers and frilly white tassels. Another example of style over substance, it was nothing if not original but ultimately added to the cannon of trends that never quite caught on.

Middlesbrough v Coventry 1974: Too clever by calf
The same can be said of Middlesbrough who certainly showed just as much creativity with a neat variation on the numbered sock tags back in 1974. On at least one occasion, they appeared to wear red socks with numbers stitched into the backs of the turnovers, apparently embroidered in as part of the sock fabric itself.

Though just as gimmicky, there's no denying that this was perhaps the most original slant on the 1970's obsession with finding a new way to display a player's number... even if it did require the socks to stay up throughout the entire match to fulfil their usefulness.

So what now for numbers? Will we see a revival to match that of four decades ago? Can we expect numbers to be displayed on wrist bands or tattooed into the foreheads of the players of the future?  As the 1970's proved, anything's possible.


  1. As a parks referee, it is quite common to have more than one player with the same shirt number on the pitch, especially when doing a Club with several sides. Also you tend to see sides with one "Lad" who has no 69 on his back!
    Andy Rockall

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