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Gers-ey numbers

I’ve recently being examining Rangers’ kit history over the last three decades, and Squad Numbers very kindly asked me if I’d like to turn my attention to Rangers’ shirt numbering history. I can never turn down a football minutiae challenge…

But before I outline some of the more curious numbering oddities at Ibrox over the decades, let’s go back in time. Around 350 million years back in time, when Earth’s continents were once one giant landmass called Pangaea. Over the intervening millennia various geophysical forces caused this supercontinent to break into 7 smaller versions that continue to move around the surface of the earth to this day, a phenomenon known as plate tectonics.

Eventually, civilisations and nations arose on each of those continents. Organised football followed, with all the attendant rules and regulations involved, including the convention of having each team’s players wear jerseys numbered 1-11. I have to confess that up until a few years ago, I had no real idea how football shirt numbering had developed. I understood the general principles, – that the left back wore 3, the right midfielder 7, and the centre forward 9, etc. – but there were some oddities that baffled me. Why were the back and midfield fours seemingly numbered out of sequence?

The answer became apparent with a greater appreciation of football formations, chiefly due to reading Jonathan Wilson’s excellent book on the subject, Inverting the Pyramid. Back in the thirties, when shirt numbering was first introduced in England, virtually every team in the world lined up with 2 defenders, three midfielders, and five attacking players. When viewed in this context, football numbering makes more sense; players wore sequential numbers denoting their position, from left to right, with the goalkeeper at the top of the pyramid;  2 and 3 at the back, 4-6 in midfield, and 7-11 the attackers.

This seminal numbering system was exported worldwide, and then, mirroring the slow movements of those landmasses beneath their pitches, each individual footballing nation developed their own numbering system through different formation tweaks. In the U.K., two of the half back (what we’d now call midfield) players eventually dropped back into defence, taking two of numbers 4-6 with them, which explains why 2 and 3 flank the two central defenders in the British convention. Conversely, in Uruguay, numbers 4 and 6 dropped back outside the fullbacks, and Argentina a more lopsided 4-2-6-3 found favour.

Closer to home, a parallel development on the European mainland saw a four person defence being numbered 2-3-4-5. And while idiosyncratic numbering happened at a national level, it was also common for clubs to evolve their own model. Liverpool in the 80s is a prime, if headache inducing, example of this ‘tectonic’ numbering.

Rangers haven’t been immune to shifting numbers around, either because of positional changes or players’ egos. I’ve picked out some of the more interesting peccadilloes below.

The number 5

Up until the start of the 1986-87 season, Rangers’ back four generally wore numbers 2, 4, 5, and 3; 6 and 8 were given to midfielders; 9 was the property of the centre forward, and the rest more or less depended on personnel and formation.

However, in an attempt to rouse Rangers out of a torpor that had seen them go eight years without a league championship (and win only 2 in almost quarter of a century,) the Ibrox board had taken the bold step of appointing Scotland captain Graeme Souness as player-manager in April 1986. Upon taking control in earnest, he made his mark on the club’s numbering.

For a start, he signed Terry Butcher to play centre-back. Fresh from a quarter-final appearance at the World Cup in Mexico, the big defender commandeered the number 6 shirt he’d typically worn for both Ipswich and England. Souness himself took 4, a number he’d been allocated as part of Scotland’s World Cup squads in 1982 and 1986, and 5 was mostly worn by young centre-back Dave McPherson.

The following season saw further tinkering. Graham Roberts had signed the previous season but had worn the number 2 jersey; for the 1987-88 season he shifted to his preferred 4, left vacant as Souness was winding down his playing career. McPherson, deemed surplus to requirements, had departed for Hearts…not for the last time.

That meant the number 5 shirt had drifted forward into midfield. It bounced around a number of players before Ray Wilkins signed for the club in November 1987 and took ownership of it. For much of the next five seasons, 5 was worn by a midfielder; after Wilkins’ departure in 1989, he was immediately replaced by Nigel Spackman who took over tenancy of the shirt. Eventually number tectonics saw it move back to a defensive posting in 1992, donned by the returning Dave McPherson, and his subsequent replacement Alan McLaren.

Then, 5 experienced a somewhat peripatetic 1997-98 season before undergoing another migration as squad numbering and names on shirts finally made their debut in the Scottish top flight in 1998, 5 years after they’d first appeared down south.

Two other new arrivals to Scotland would make a significant mark on the incipient squad numbering system. Dick Advocaat had been appointed Rangers manager that summer, and made Dutch national team left-back Arthur Numan his first signing. Some managers don’t seem to pay too much heed to their charges’ apparel, but Advocaat was a keen sartorialist. He mandated Rangers’ outfield shirts had V-neck collars, shorts were cut short and tight, and white socks were worn as often as possible. These preferences were seemingly technical and/or psychological in nature, but whether it was Advocaat or Numan’s idea, the left-back would be assigned the squad number he normally would have had in the Netherlands, 5. With some exceptions, Rangers’ left backs have worn 5 ever since.

The latest incumbent, since the 1-11 days of 2012, has been Lee Wallace, although for a while this summer it looked like a combination of the his injury and discipline problems and 2017 signing Declan John being allocated the 3 shirt might see a return to the typical British left-back numbering. Somewhat surprisingly though new manager Steven Gerrard considered John surplus to requirements, and post-transfer window and Europa League qualification Wallace is still at the club. To tie it all off, centre-back Joe Worrall was handed number 3 when he signed on loan from Nottingham Forest.

Stuart McCall

Signed from Everton in the summer of 1991, ostensibly to offset the impact of the then ‘3 foreigners rule’, Andrew Stuart Murray McCall is a fascinating figure. He was born in Leeds, where his Scottish footballer father had settled after a solid if unspectacular career with Leeds and Halifax, and as such almost made a substitute appearance for England u21s which would have tied him to the Auld Enemy. Thankfully for Scotland and Rangers, he didn’t make it off the bench, which McCall has subsequently claimed was due to his gerrymandering after he realised he’d made a mistake in agreeing to an England call-up.

He started his professional career at Bradford, where he’s considered a club legend, and where his father was badly burned in the Bradford fire. After moving to Everton, McCall junior scored two goals in the 1989 FA Cup final after coming on as a sub and still ended up on the losing side, and a goal for Scotland against Sweden at Italia 90 showcased his ability on the world stage before he headed north to Ibrox. Always deprecating about his own abilities (he once said all he did was win the ball then give it to better players,) he had a curiously modest personality for a professional footballer. This might be symptomised by the light mullet hairstyle he has worn since 1992, but also by his willingness to wear any shirt number given to him. In fact, between his debut for Rangers in 1991 and his last game in 1998, he wore every outfield number at least once.

Season Games Played (Possible Maximum) Numbers Worn Most Common (Occasions Worn)
1991-92 45 (55) 7,8,12 8 (33)
1992-93 54 (64) 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14 2 (24)
1993-94 44 (57) 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 2 (13)
1994-95 36 (42) 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10 2 (15)
1995-96 33 (53) 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 14 10 (22)
1996-97 13 (52) 6, 7, 10 10 (8)
1997-98 40 (52) 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, 14 10 (14)

 

While the table above suggests that McCall wore 2 for most of 1992-95, and 10 from 1995-98, in reality he was only in those shirts for about half the games he played. It’s also worth noting that between 1992 and 1995, Rangers didn’t really play with a recognised right-back, with Dave McPherson largely filling in there for two seasons, so McCall seemed to end up wearing number 2 by default. It’s also perversely pleasing to note that he wore the 11 jersey on only one occasion out of 265 games, against Juventus in the Champions League.

McCall departed in 1998, part of the old guard deemed surplus to requirements by the incoming Advocaat, returning first to his beloved Bradford, and eventually Sheffield United where he retired from playing in 2004. The Scottish top tier didn’t adopt squad numbering until 1998, so it was only in his mid-30s when Bradford won promotion to the English Premier League that McCall was nailed down to a single number for a full season; that number being 4. He’d later wear 8 and then 24 during his swansong at the blades. Despite that, there are still some examples of him wearing squad numbers throughout his earlier career:

Italia 90: 16

Euro 92: 10

Euro 96: 8

Rangers Champions League 96-97: 7

The cascade

When I was growing up in the 80s, my father was a freelance press photographer. As such, there was often medium-format film chilling in the fridge, my mother could never find her hairdryer or scissors, and dad was about the only person in the town to own a mobile phone. My nieces on the other hand are firmly of the digital age. Just after the younger was born, I shot some pictures of her with an old 35mm SLR camera. The elder niece pulled the camera towards her, eager to see the images, and was confused when she was confronted by the mottled leatherette covering the film chamber door, and no pics to be seen.

So too those of us born before, say, 1986, will have clear memories of 1-11 numbering, what the numerals generally signified, and how to recognise when number tectonics have occurred. Numbers acted as semiotics then. Will they still do so in the future?

Younger generations might not have the same understanding of player numbers at all; after all, it’s common now for players to request an ordinal high up in the double digits. Celtic, for instance, are a club that allocates high value numbers to its young players, and then seemingly expects them to retain them through their career with the club.

Shaun Maloney (29) [changing to 13 in his second spell], Callum McGregor (42), Liam Miller (43), Stephen McManus (44), Aidan McGeady (46), James Forrest (49) and Kieran Tierney (63) are examples of this approach.

Rangers on the other hand operate a policy where a shirt number between 1-11 is Shangri-La, the signifier of completion of the pathway from young prospect to first team player. In fact, young players at Ibrox often shed 10 from their number between seasons, as they progress from academy to senior player. Examples of this can be found below.

The Fleeting Return of 1-11

While the switch to mandatory squad numbering in the Scottish Premier League in 1998 might have signalled the end of the traditional numbering system, between 1998-2012 the club would play in numerous cup matches where they would eschew squad numbers.

However, a longer term return to 1-11 commenced in 2012 when Rangers found themselves in tier 4 of the Scottish league after financial regularities. At that time the bottom 2 tiers in Scotland didn’t wear squad numbers, so Rangers progressed through the next two seasons resplendent in the traditional style. (The ‘X’s in the table above denote a player was at the club during this time.)

There was some evidence of number tectonics though. Captain Lee McCulloch wore 6 and had signed for the club as a midfielder, but played as centre back or centre forward. Lee Wallace continued the modern tradition of Rangers left-backs wearing 5, and Andy Little made the 7 shirt his own, despite playing mostly in an inside right/forward sort of role.

In 2013, the Scottish Football League and the Scottish Premier League re-merged, and the first tier was rebranded the Scottish Championship, with squad numbering introduced. Rangers’ allocation matched up with what the stalwart players had worn the previous two seasons in the 1-11 system.

 

1. Bell (GK)

5. Wallace (LB)

6. McCulloch (CB)

7. Law (M)

8. Black (CM)

9. Daly (CF)

10. Macleod (LM)

11. Templeton (AM)

Macleod was normally listed as a left-midfielder, but would often during games drift infield into more of a ‘number 10’ position. Templeton on the other hand liked to operate in the inside-left channel.

3 was allocated to a centre back, no real complaints there under Rangers’ continental numbering system, but 2 was worn by Steven Smith, the back-up left back/left mid, and 4 by Fraser Aird, a winger. A year later a new manager and the first of many personnel overhauls would rid the squad of some of the more egregious numbering issues.

The sojourn in lower league football aside, outwith (a good Scots word) league competition, where regulations surrounding squad numbers and shirt names become a little less clear, Rangers often reverted to 1-11 post 1998. Instances often occurred in the early rounds of cup competition, both domestically and continental, but they would most often come in the League Cup, for reasons that are not entirely clear. If you’ve been reading my anthology of Rangers kits over the years, you’ll know that mysterious outfitting decisions are not unusual for the Ibrox club.

1-11 numbers and their archetypal players

As of 2018, Rangers have never retired a number in honour of a former player, but that’s not to say certain players haven’t become synonymous with the numbers they’ve worn over the years. Below is a selection of players from 1987 to date that have become associated with wearing a particular number for Rangers. Square brackets note other significant numbers they wore.

1. Andy Goram (1991-1998)

2. Gary Stevens (1988-1994)

3. David Robertson (1991-1997)

4. Richard Gough (1987-1997, 1997-98) [2, 3, 6]

5. Ray Wilkins (1987-1989)

6. Barry Ferguson (1996-2003, 2005-2009)

7. Trevor Steven (1989-1991, 1992-1997) [2]

8. Paul Gascoigne (1995-1998)

9. Ally McCoist (1983-1998) [7, 8, 10, 11]

10. Mark Hateley (1990-1995, 1997) [8, 9]

11. Brian Laudrup (1994-1998)

Nine of these players could have played in the same side during the 1996-97 season, the campaign Rangers equalised Celtic’s 9 League Championships in a row record. It wouldn’t quite be a 4-4-2 formation though; more of a 3-5-2, although in the modern era I suppose you could have had Wilkins as a ball-playing centre half, akin to Javier Mascherano’s role at Barcelona.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that these players exclusively wore the numbers above, but apart from substitute appearances, most of them did. Of the exceptions, Richard Gough bounced about a little during his first season before settling on 4. Trevor Steven wore almost exclusively 7 apart from a couple of games at the end of the 1995-96 season when he filled in at right-back. Barry Ferguson actually wore 7 and 8 in most of his first dozen games for the club (and 3 in central-midfield against Kilmarnock in February 1998.) He was allocated number 6 for his breakout season in 1998-99, and that would be the number he’d wear for Rangers thereafter, even returning to it after an 18 month spell at Blackburn.

Ally McCoist is probably the most interesting case. While his name is synonymous with the number 9 shirt, and by extension the centre forward position that number denotes, McCoist did play a fair number of games for Rangers wearing other numbers. In fact, in the earliest part of his career, many of his managers preferred he play in midfield due to the game intelligence that made him such a potent goal scorer. And while his position drifted forward as he slowly grew into a striker’s role, it was 80 league games into his Rangers career before he first wore the number 9 shirt, against Dundee United. He scored.

After that, 9 became his de facto squad number. Only in 1990-91 when Souness preferred Hateley and Mo Johnston as his striking partnership, and 1997-98, his final season at Ibrox when Marco Negri wore it instead, did he not don it. There was something of a nice bookend though, in that swansong campaign, as Super Ally mostly wore 8 when he started, the same as he had in his maiden year.

Back to Squad Numbers

Following the newly-formed SPFL Championship’s adoption of squad numbering in 2014, as mentioned above, Rangers’ squad numbering seemed to get a little more erratic. While numbers 1-1 had previously been seen as ‘blue chip’ allocations, something for big new signings to request and young players to aspire to eventually receiving, post-2014 they seemed to be less venerated.

In the first squad number era, numbers 1-11 were re-allocated on average once every three seasons. Notably, Allan McGregor wore 1 for five season, and Barry Ferguson the 6 shirt for 11 campaigns. Since 2014 though, things have been a little more transient – whether that’s due to a football-wide depreciation of the game’s traditional numbers or a result of the club’s rapid recycling of players and management staff is a little less clear.

Compared with 1998-2012, the 1-11 numbers have been allocated on average once every 1.8 seasons. This has in part been due to the number 10 shirt being worn by 6 players in five seasons (three of those being loan signings.) Similarly, the 8 shirt has been allocated to five players over the same time period. Perhaps symptomatic of how regularly Rangers have had to rebuild their squad recently, those particular numbers were each worn by two separate players over the course of two separate seasons.

Following the 2011-12 season, Rangers retired the number 12, or rather they allocated it to the fans in perpetuity (the 12th man, as per the cheesy trope.) A similar fate has often been thought to have befallen the number 13 shirt, but the truth is that very few players seem bold enough to request the ‘unlucky’ number. Some have though, and exclusively they’ve been goalkeepers. Antti Niemi wore it in 1998-99, and Wes Foderingham has moved to it for 2018-19 having being evicted from the number 1 jersey due to the return of Allan McGregor. The third notable example was Neil Alexander. Upon signing for the club in January 2008, the new back-up keeper took the number 25 shirt from the recently departed back-up keeper Roy Carroll. However, due to UEFA rules regarding squad numbering changes Alexander wound up being registered as 13 for the remainder of the UEFA Cup run that season, including the final in which he played. By the same token, fellow winter window signing Steven Davis would wear two separate numbers, 12 domestically and 35 in Europe.

A similar situation has emerged at the start of the 2018-19 season, involving the Gers’ much-maligned understudy fullback Lee Hodson. Allocated the 17 shirt upon signing in the summer of 2016, this summer he moved to the 14 vacated by Joe Dodoo to allow Ross McCrorie to switch from 40 to 17. Shortly afterwards, Steven Gerrard finalised the signing of Ryan Kent from his former club, Liverpool. Hodson moved again, this time to 26, allowing Kent to take number 14.

However, in European competition, before his loan move to St. Mirren, Hodson continued to wear 14 and Kent 26. Similarly, the returning Kyle Lafferty will wear 11 in the league, but as Josh Windass previously turned out in this number in European competition, the Ulsterman will wear 38 in the Europa League.

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1 Comment

  1. James
    October 8, 2018 at 00:41 — Reply

    Just a note on the Celtic numbers- Stephen McManus did switch from #44 to #4 from the 2008-09 season onwards, but he appears to be the only one I can remember doing so. Tierney was supposedly offered #3 at the start of last season, but declined.

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Gers-ey numbers