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Ireland’s forty shades of numbers

Ireland’s forty shades of numbers

We’re aware of the irony, that this is called the Squad Numbers Blog but the curator prefers the older 1-11 style.

When squad numbers became ubiquitous, we accepted it under protest but comforted ourselves that at least international football retained the traditional numbering – with, of course, the exception of major finals, once so exotic because they were the only times we got to see high numbers.

Slowly, the status quo began to be eroded. We recall seeing Cameroon play in squad numbers for a friendly at Wembley in early 1991 but it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that they began to proliferate in competitive qualifying games. France and then Spain were the first to adopt this as we recall but no doubt there were others. At least the consolation remained that England – the home of football – and our native Republic of Ireland stayed with 1-11. It was a source of pride that Ireland had been 1-11 in four of six European Championship finals games, comprising the 1988 and 2012 tournaments.

To their credit, England still do stay true to the way it should be, but apart from them and the Netherlands, everybody else seems to number their squad 1-23 for every game. The first time Ireland did this was their World Cup 2014 qualifier away to Kazakhstan, when Kevin Doyle (number 9) came on to help turn the game as a scarcely-deserved 2-1 win was achieved. Stephen Kelly (2) and James McClean (11) were also subs, with Jon Walters (12), Simon Cox (14) and Darren O’Dea (15) starting.

In the aftermath of that, we thought that Ireland’s 1-23 numbering was for ‘pairs’ of games, the two internationals scheduled for each break, but the recent Euro 2016 qualifiers belied this. It took a while for us to notice the inconsistencies but some are glaring from game to game, as you can see (black indicates a starting player, with the subs in red):


It’s interesting to note that the players who wore 1-11 for the opener against Georgia were all in situ for the last one, the play-off second leg against Bosnia & Herzegovina, though Robbie Brady was now wearing 19 instead of 11. He wore that as a sub against Georgia and then switched to 17 as McClean took 11 for the remainder of the campaign but it wasn’t until Brady donned 19 that he became a regular starter.

Jef Hendrick (8-13-21) was another who saw his number rise as he became more of an integral member of the team. In contrast, David Forde retained number 1 as he went from first-choice goalkeeper to second and then third choice, with captain Robbie Keane likewise welded to 10 despite losing his status. Shay Given initially had 23 as Forde’s back-up, but when he resumed in goal he wore 16 before injury against Germany saw Darren Randolph take up residency between the posts, 23 on his back.

Exactly why Jon Walters and Darron Gibson swapped 14 and 19 between the Georgia and Gibraltar games – which were part of the same break – is unclear, as is why Richard Keogh had to surrender 5 to Ciarán Clark, wearing 22 instead, when starting against Scotland away. By the end of the campaign, Keogh had 5 back and Clark was wearing 14 and then 12. Also strange is Wes Hoolahan wearing 20 throughout the campaign, except for the home game against Germany, when he had 11.

That match, with Seamus Coleman, Marc Wilson and Glenn Whelan unavailable saw their 2, 3 and 6 respectively taken by unused subs Paul McShane, Eunan O’Kane and David McGoldrick. Whelan had 6 whenever he was involved, missing only Germany at home and Scotland away, when Cyrus Christe wore it. He is a defender, so it was one of the rare examples of 6 not being worn by a midfielder for Ireland – perhaps the first time since Roy Keane inexplicably wore 4 against Lithuania in 1997.

The most numbers worn by one player? That’s Alex Pearce, who had (in order) 15, 21, 20, 5 and 4, without ever starting a game. Darron Gibson is next closest, with 19, 14, 20 and 18 on his back.

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Ireland’s forty shades of numbers