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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 getting 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 now 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 assume, 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.

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The Many Numbers of Ray Houghton