During the halcyon days before the advent of squad numbers for the Premier League’s 1993-94 season, the tradition in English football when playing with a back four was of course to have the right-back wear number 2 and the left-back don number 3 (it still is, as a matter of fact). However, possibly in an attempt to confuse the opposition, Tottenham Hotspur decided to buck this trend now and again during the early 1990s by switching the two numbers.
A good example of this is from the FA Cup final of 1991 – the highlight of the football calendar in those days – when their back four was numbered like this:
Here we can see that the two fullbacks, Pat van den Hauwe and Justin Edinburgh, are clearly wearing their ‘wrong’ numbers and had actually done this on numerous occasions throughout that season and would continue this chaos into 91-92.
It wasn’t a case that it was a club tradition since the 1950s or anything like that, but the genesis of the switch was that van den Hauwe, primarily a left-back, often played on the right but carried number 3 with him.
Having signed from Everton in 1989, he made his debut wearing 3 against Aston Villa on September 9, with Guy Butters wearing 2. A week later, Gary Stevens, who started the season in 3, came back into the side for Butters, with van den Hauwe switching to 2, but for the next game, against Southend United in the Littlewoods Cup, Butters was back in wearing 2 and van den Hauwe would only wear 3 for the next two and a half seasons, whether he was playing right- or left-back.
So it was that Edinburgh, having been in and out of the Spurs team in 1990-91, wore 3 that January with Terry Fenwick in 2, before coming back into the team wearing 2 against Portsmouth in the FA Cup in February with van den Hauwe 3. Against Wimbledon the following week, Gudni Bergsson was 2 with Edinburgh 3, but for the remainder of the season, including the cup final, he wore 2.
For the 1991 Charity Shield, Fenwick was back in the team inside of Edinburgh, who returned against Manchester City in October wearing 2, wearing 3 in one game against Crystal Palace in December as Fenwick wore 2. As 1992 began, it was Edinburgh 2 and van den Hauwe 3 though, oddly, when Fenwick returned to the team instead of van den Hauwe against Manchester City on February 1, he wore 3. He then switched to 2 against Nottingham Forest in the Rumbelows Cup semi-final as van den Hauwe reclaimed 3.
Edinburgh wore 3 again when he got back in the team for the Luton Town game in March and kept it for the remainder of the season. While van den Hauwe was selected again at the end of March against Liverpool, he wore 10 then had number 2 for rest of the games. These were the only matches in his Spurs career where he didn’t wear 3 as a starter.
The inaugural season of the Premier League, 1992-93, was the last to use the traditional 1-11 numbering system and, while Spurs had returned to the conventional full-back numbering at the end of 1992-93, there was still time for them to keep playing the RB3/LB2 trick on bemused fans and commentators alike. Spurs began the season away to Southampton, with Fenwick right-back and Edinburgh left-back.
Interestingly, there was a numbers switch in the centre of defence – having only worn 6 since the 1988-89, captain Gary Mabbutt wore 5 in all of his games this season to allow new signing Neil Ruddock take 6. He missed the Southampton game, with Jason Cundy at 5. Previously, 5 had generally been the property of defensive midfielder David Howells but he took 4, though he often wore 7 that season too with Vinny Samways wearing 4.
Van den Hauwe came into the team instead of Edinburgh against Sheffield United on September 2. By this stage, Dean Austin, a new signing from Southend United, had replaced Fenwick but when he got injured against Sheffield Wednesday at the end of September, Edinburgh substituted him and then replaced him in the number 2 shirt again.
The Edinbugh-van den Hauwe 2 and 3 double-act was back for one final encore but it didn’t last too long. Austin was available again for the game at Wimbledon on October 25 and replaced van den Hauwe at number 3. After six games in the ‘wrong’ numbers, Edinburgh and Austin swapped for the Nottingham Forest clash on December 2 and retained the conventional number for the rest of the season.
When squad numbers kicked in the following year, the club were forced to put a halt to any nonsense and Austin was given 2 with Edinburgh 3. However, it wouldn’t be until the FA Cup game against Peterborough United in January that they would appear together.
Spurs began the season with Sol Campbell at left-back, wearing the number 23 with which he would become familiar:
Then, when Edinburgh did get back in the team, Austin had been displaced by David Kerslake, who had joined from Swindon Town.
For the Peterborough tie, number 14 Steve Sedgley partnered Colin Calderwood – another signing from Swindon – at centre-back. Mabbutt had regained 6 in the wake of Ruddock’s move to Liverpool (where he wore 25, supposedly in honour of his £2.5m fee).
While writing this article, I reminisced about my days as a 17 year-old who had just broken into the local men’s team as a left-back. The right-back was some old boy who had been playing in the side for aeons and would unfailingly wear number 2.
To get under his skin, I would arrive in the dressing room early and nab that shirt for myself, leaving him with little choice but to sport 3. It must have worked out for our very own ‘Pat/Dean’ though, as, possibly fired by the young upstart having snatched his shirt, the opposition generally found themselves bearing the brunt of his ire. Come to think of it, I’m amazed I got away with it in the first place, or had even had the audacity to pull off such a stunt.
Maybe Edinburgh was a wind-up merchant too, rocking up at White Hart Lane a few hours early so he could have his pick of the numbers and in the process, rattle the cage of either van den Hauwe or Austin? I sincerely hope so, but van den Hawue’s preference for 3 seems to be the real reason. Oddly, having joined Millwall in 1993, he didn’t wear 3 again, donning 4, 5, 8 and 11 while the Lions.
Edinburgh wouldn’t depart the Lilywhites until 2000 (wearing 12 in his final year after George Graham reorganised the numbering) with distinction of never winning a man-of the-match award, not to mention getting sent off in the 1999 League Cup final for attempting to slap that old charmer, Robbie Savage.
Anyway, while seeing a right-back bomb up the flanks sporting the number 3 shirt has been known (Bacary Sagna and Maicon spring to mind), I can’t recall a case of a left-back doing likewise wearing 2.