It’s rare to hear TV commentators talk about squad numbers, but the BBC’s Steve Wilson (we think it was him anyway – post Motson and Davies, the Beeb’s commentators seem to blend into each other) had been reading his history before the FA Cup semi-final between Arsenal and Reading at Wembley.
Rather apropos of nothing, he mentioned that the first time squad numbers had been worn in a club game was the 1993 Coca-Cola Cup final between Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday at the venue, and then again in that year’s FA Cup final between the same teams, citing Arsenal’s then-vice-chairman David Dein as the driving force.
So far, so normal, we’ve looked at these numbers here and here. What is less-widely remembered is that Dein was also the man behind another initiative late in the 1993-94 season. In what was offered as an alternative to squad numbers, Arsenal lined out in shirts numbered 1-11 but with players’ names on them.
According to Bjorn Barang (aka @squadnumberfan), it only happened in four games, all at home, against Manchester United, Chelsea, Wimbledon and West Ham United. Strangely, it wasn’t done for the matches at Highbury against Liverpool and Swindon Town, which cam between the United and Chelsea clashes, nor at Newcastle United on the last day of the season, when the home kit was worn.
Ideally – to our minds, anyway – with such a practice, the players with squad numbers 1-11 would wear that number if included, but there were a few exceptions to this. Part of the reason here was that Kevin Campbell (squad number 7) most often played as a striker, vying with Alan Smith to partner Ian Wright. Had he kept 7 for these games, Ian Selley or Ray Parlour would have had to wear 9 in midfield, something which almost never happened in George Graham’s tenure.
Andy Linighan, who had been given 5 at the start of the season, only appeared in one of the four games and wore 6 alongside Steve Bould, who was the first-choice partner for Tony Adams but had strangely been allocated 12. It wasn’t until 1995-96 that Bould and Linigihan would swap numbers to better reflect their squad status.
The last of the four games, against West Ham, came just before the European Cup Winners’ Cup final against Parma and so many first-teamers were rested. That meant that Eddie McGoldrick filled in for Lee Dixon at right-back and so wore 2 rather than his squad number of 11. Incidentally, he had also played there in a European tie earlier that season but kept 11 with Selley wearing 2 in midfield.
Both Selley and Ray Parlour, 22 and 23 respectively, played in all four games without settling on one number. In fact, against United Selley was 7 and Parlour 11 but the opposite was the case against West Ham – strange, given that two new shirts would have to be printed. The line-ups in full:
Unfortunately, the scheme was regarded as a failure due to the printing costs mentioned above. Ironically, in this day and age they would hardly be a consideration and such a method would presumably be a lot easier to execute. The following was reported in The Irish Press on June 9, 1994, with an intriguing mention of a new plan for the Football League:
Arsenal’s bid to lead a return to traditional shirt numbering in the FA Carling Premiership has failed.
And there could be worse to follow for fans, with today’s Endsleigh Football League annual general meeting in Walsall being asked to give clubs the option of displaying numbers on shorts!
It is the opposite stance to Scotland, where Celtic were recently told to abandon that long-standing custom and begin carrying numbers on shirts in league games.
Endsleigh League clubs are heading in the other direction because of “cash implications” connected with the optional squad numbering system introduced at the start of last season.
The plan was compulsory for Premiership club, whose strip must also sport players’ names. It became both confusing an contentious as numbers went through the roof! Wimbledon’s Gary Blissett stepped out wearing number 36, Chelsea’s Jakov Kjeldberg 35 and Manchester City’s Peter Beagrie and Coventry’s Lloyd McGrath 32.
In March, Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein persuaded the Premiership hierarchy to allow the Gunners to revert to 1-11 as an experiment. Premiership chief executive Ricky Parry recognised that “the ideal way is to have names with traditional numbers”.
Now Dein has reported it was too expensive because of the number of team changes – so next season many shirts will continue to reflect waist measurements.
“Arsenal reported they didn’t feel it was the answer,” said Premiership secretary Mike Foster.
“They had gone through an inordinate number of strips. Now we will leave things as they are for the next 12 months.”
Meanwhile, the Endsleigh League’s Board of Directors want to make it easier and less expensive for their clubs to play the name and numbers game.
“The board has put forward a proposal that the rules are amended to read that shirts OR shorts must be clearly numbered in accordance with the list handed to the referee,” said League spokesman Ian Cotton.
They hope that by allowing numbers on shorts, club will show players’ names on shirts but also retain the 1-11 system which became compulsory in 1939.
From our viewpoint, it looks like the league wanted squad numbers on shorts, for identification purposes, with the traditional numbering on the shirts. However, the last line about names on shirts jars with this and one would imagine that if Arsenal couldn’t afford it then teams lower down would have found it tougher.
Edit: Jay29ers’ interpretation in the comments below makes more sense.
In any case, nothing appears to have come of it. The optional squad numbering available to clubs in 93-94 was done away with and 1-11 remained the system of choice until the start of the 1999-2000.
I possibly agree with the Irish press writer’s intepretation of the Ensleigh League statement. If you have a name but no number on a shirt (or perhaps a squad number), this can be retained by that player for the whole season, and matchday identification can be provided by the 1-11 numbered shorts he is allocated on a match-by-match basis, hence no need for further printing aside from when new players are signed/new kits are released.