It’s 20 years to the day since Dennis Bergkamp signed for Arsenal for what was then a British record of £7.5m – though, as it was widely accepted that Stan Collymore would soon be joining Liverpool for a million more, Bergkamp was never really hailed as the record-holder.
He would, of course, go on to become one of the most successful foreign imports into the Premier League and is regarded as an Arsenal legend. At the time, though, we recall feeling a little miffed that the new signing had been allocated the number 10 shirt, meaning that Paul Merson had to switch to 9, recently vacated by the retired Alan Smith. Edit – Bjorn Barang (aka @squadnumberfan) informs us that Smith had initially been relegated to 19 before he was forced to retire due to injury. His departure meant that John Jensen moved from 30 to 19, having been switched from 17 when it looked like he was leaving.
It’s the first high-profile example that we can recall of a new signing requesting the number of an incumbent and getting his way. Perhaps not coincidentally, the others which stand out from the 1990s involve the number 10 shirt too: at Middlesbrough, Juninho took 25 when he came in 1995-96 but took 10 from John Hendrie at the start of the following campaign, while Teddy Sheringham’s arrival at Manchester United in 1997 meant David Beckham inheriting a legend.
In the summer of 1996, West Ham United pulled off a coup in signing Portuguese forward Paulo Futre, but committed an oversight with regard to his shirt number. In his autobiography, Harry Redknapp recounted the scene in the away dressing room at Highbury before the opening game of the season away to Arsenal.
Eddie Gillam, our trainer, had given him the No 16 shirt and got it thrown back in his face. Next thing, Paulo was in my face, too. ‘Futre 10, not 16,’ he said. ‘Eusebio 10, Maradona 10, Pele 10; Futre 10, not f***ing 16.’
By this point, there were 45 minutes to kick-off. ‘It’s changed now, Paulo,’ I explained, as gently as I could. ‘We’ve got squad numbers and your number is 16. We didn’t choose that number. When you came, all the numbers were gone, so the kit man gave you No 16.’ ‘No 10,’ he insisted. ‘Futre 10. No 10. Milan, Atletico Madrid, Porto, Benfica, Sporting — Futre 10.’
Now it was getting desperate. I tried to be firm. ‘Paulo, put your shirt on, get changed, please, we have a big game. If you don’t want to wear it, Paulo, off you go,’ I said. And he did…
A solution was eventually found, according to Harry’s recollections.
At first we tried to tell him that we had sold so many replicas with ‘Futre 16’ on the back that it would be impossible to change, but he called our bluff.
‘How many?’ he asked. ‘I will pay £100,000.’ And that was when I knew this was an argument we could not win. Futre was willing to spend £100,000 just to be No 10.
In the end, he got it a lot cheaper. John Moncur, the No 10, agreed to swap, and Paulo let him have two weeks in his villa in the Algarve, which is about the best one there, on the cliffs overlooking the best golf course.