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Author Topic: The numbers game  (Read 700 times)

Online dave.woodhall

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The numbers game
« on: September 23, 2020, 08:37:01 PM »
Players in England first officially wore numbers on their shirts for the 1933 FA Cup Final between Everton and Manchester City. The Merseysiders’ players wore shirts numbered 1–11 and, strange as it will seem to us who remember football before it was invented in 1992, the City players had 12–22 on their backs. In hindsight it seems apt that Everton’s legendary centre forward, and scorer in a 3-0 win, Dixie Dean, was the first number 9.

However, as was the accepted manner at the time the numbers were allocated along the lines of the formations as laid out in the match programme diagram. This meant the City players’ numbering started with the left winger so in effect they were numbered backwards therefore it wasn’t the number 12 in the City goal picking the ball out of the net as the keeper was wearing 22 and Villa’s future manager, Jimmy McMullen, an inside forward in the accepted formation of the day, was wearing 13. Confusing to us nearly ninety years on but perfectly logical to the FA at the time.

This game wasn’t the first to see shirt numbering as it had been used on and off around the world for the previous twenty years with the first experiment in England, based on positions which would become familiar, had taken place in 1928 in games involving Sheffield Wednesday (then simply known as The Wednesday) and Arsenal and Chelsea versus Swansea. Despite these trials the Football League resisted mandating shirt numbering until the summer of 1939 so the first games of the abandoned 1939-40 season was the first time all players wore a number in what became the accepted 1–11 format.

It was this which persisted for the next fifty years and the numbers associated with positions became engrained in the English football psyche. Just because a player wore a particular it was deemed he should play in a specific position with someone wearing 3, for example, would play at left back. This would come back to bite the England national team in later years when Nandor Hidekuti of Hungary confused the England defence just by wearing the number 9, to English minds the number of a centre forward, but playing essentially as a link midfielder.

As formations evolved the thinking changed but only slightly and it probably wasn’t until the 1966 World Cup when squad numbers abounded that lightbulbs started going on above heads in the English game. It wasn’t until 1993 when the Premier League introduced squad numbers that many began to accept it didn’t matter what number a player wore on their shirt as it was simply a way of identifying them. That said Villa were the last club in England to send out a starting XI who were numbered 1-11, in 1993-94, but the Premier League decision to introduce a squad numbering system along with players’ names on shirts always seemed more of commercial measure than to enhance the way footballers can be identified.

This is reinforced by some of the numbers being unreadable by virtue of the colours used. In John Motson’s 1996 book Motty’s Diary’ he writes about talking to clubs who play in stripes or hoops regarding the colour of their shirt numbers. His particular problem was with red numbers of black and white stripes as this made identifying players quickly in commentary incredibly difficult.

If you can’t see where I’m going with this I am about to get to my main point. In recent years roles players perform have begun to be described by numbers based around accepted or adapted formations. A false nine for example has its roots in that Hungarian team of the 1950s and a (what Paul Lambert likes to call) number 10 is an advanced midfield playmaker who creates and scores goals.

It is the role of what is now being referred to as a ‘Number 8’ which I have most difficulty with though. In the old 2-3-5 formation played by most clubs, at least in England, had two defenders, three midfielders and five forwards. Until Herbert Chapman and others in the 1920s began to line their teams up with a ‘third back’ (arguably the advent of the modern centre back). This involved one of the three midfielders, the centre half, moving backwards to become a central defender  but formations didn’t really begin evolve and the idea or five attackers persisted. When shirt numbering began these five were usually given the numbers 7 through to 11 starting with the right winger (7) through to the left winger (11). By that token the number 8 would be one of the inside forwards, usually between the right winger and the centre forward.

This though doesn’t fit with latest modern interpretation of the number 8 but even that definition is confusing. Is the ‘Number 8’ an advanced midfielder who plays as a secondary striker or a more conventional attacking midfield player who makes late runs into the penalty area, or even something in between? I have seen Jack Grealish (who signed his new contract between me starting and finishing this) suggest his best role is a ‘number 8’ but which of the two definitions does he mean? I don’t see him as the late arriving David Platt type player so that rules out that option but, equally, I don’t think he fits the second striker role which I picture Brian Little in either so I presume he describes the role differently. The closest to a ‘number 8’ in the Villa squad, at least as I understand the role is probably John McGinn.

Certain watchwords or phrases have often been synonymous with particular times or tournaments. According to Phil Soar and Martin Tyler in their late 1970s retrospective of the world game The Story Of Football the word ‘playmaker’ was the most used technical term during the 1978 World Cup as ‘Total Football' had been four years earlier. By the early 1990s sweeper or ‘libero’ would become the fashionable phrase but is almost never used these days. Maybe referring to player roles as now virtually obsolete numbered positions is just another passing fad.

Stacey Murphy

Offline maidstonevillain

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Re: The numbers game
« Reply #1 on: September 23, 2020, 09:46:24 PM »
Thank you Stacey. Interesting, informative, and well researched article.
I still don't know what a "False No. 9" is though.


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