Shirt numbers have become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine a kit without them. They’re so embedded in football culture that they often infiltrate discussions about tactics.
Without any conscious thought, fans will describe players as a cross between a #8 or a #10. Fernando Llorente and Olivier Giroud are traditional #9s, Lionel Messi popularised the ‘False #9’ and Mesut Ozil is the last of a dying breed of ‘true’ #10s.
Numbers have become a major part of football dialect. Some have become synonymous with legendary players of the game. How would we differentiate between the two Ballon d’Or winning Ronaldo’s, if not for their numbers? Thierry Henry’s #14 is so significant to Arsenal that the players who went on to wear the number after him were immediately compared to the club legend.
Cristiano Ronaldo has even integrated his shirt number into his personal brand, with product lines named CR7 Footwear, CR7 Denim and CR7 Fragrances. Despite all of this, little is known about the origin of shirt numbers, at least as far as the general public is concerned.
The Origin Of Shirt Numbers
The general understanding is that shirt numbers were first used in a game between Arsenal and The Wednesday (now known as Sheffield Wednesday). On August 25, 1928, Arsenal became the first team to use shirt numbers, unusually, against a numberless Wednesday side.
Arsenal lost 3-2 on the day but popularised the use of numbers as a major feature of a football kit.
This is the widely accepted summary of the origin of shirt numbers but it cuts out a number of notable moments in the creation and uptake of the idea. As well as this, there are some doubts about its legitimacy, given the reputation of the man supposedly responsible for the idea.
The Man Who Invented Football Shirt Numbers?
Herbert Chapman is widely credited as the man behind shirt numbers in football. For the uninitiated, Chapman is a celebrated figure at Arsenal, one of five club legends immortalised in bronze outside the Emirates Stadium (alongside Ken Friar, Tony Adams, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry).
He won the 1930 FA Cup and two First Division titles (1930/31 and 1932/33) with Arsenal and is particularly famous for his involvement in a number of major advances that influenced both the club and the wider footballing world.
Most notably, it’s been claimed he was a key figure in the uptake of shirt numbers, the creator of the iconic WM formation, an early advocate for floodlights, and the mind behind training and team talks.
The true extent of his contributions to these innovations is certainly up for debate, but that’s a story for another article. However, it is likely that he was a major factor in the renaming of the ‘Gillespie Road’ underground station to ‘Arsenal’ and the change from an all-red home kit to the now famous red with white sleeves.
Read more: The History of the Arsenal Home Kit
Other Shirt Number Innovators
A combination of the mythos surrounding Chapman and the period in which this all took place makes it hard to trust the reliability of accounts. One thing we do know for certain is that Arsenal were not the first football team to use shirt numbers.
There are a number of teams reported to have used shirt numbers over a decade before any European club. A pair of Australian teams competing in 1911 appear to be the visionaries behind the first ever case. Sydney Leichardt and HMS Powerful were the first teams recorded to use shirt numbers and, within a year (in 1912), numbering was made mandatory in the state of New South Wales.
That means that, in this respect, football in New South Wales was almost 30 years ahead of the English game. Over a decade after its first use, in 1923, the Scottish team Third Lanark A. C. toured South America and played a collection of local players on a stop in Argentina.
Both Third Lanark and the Argentine team walked out for kick-off with large numbers emblazoned across the front of their jerseys. Perhaps one of these occasions caught the attention of the Arsenal hierarchy, leading to the first European case.
The second major flaw with the Chapman theory is the fact that Chelsea experimented with shirt numbers on the exact same day as Arsenal, in a 4-0 loss to Swansea Town (now Swansea City), in a Second Division match.
This puts a spanner in the works of any argument that Chapman innovated the use of numbers because, for that argument to hold true, Chapman would have had to convince the hierarchy of a single Division Two team to join him in his experiment. This seems highly improbable.
It’s more likely that the idea was discussed in football circles of the time and both Chapman and the leadership at Chelsea decided to experiment. Weirdly, Chelsea chose not to number their goalkeeper which may be why they are often overlooked in this discussion. Arsenal used the modern 1 to 11 system, while Chelsea used 2 to 11 to differentiate only their outfield players.
Regardless of this uncertainty, we could conclude that Arsenal and Chelsea both contributed to the popularisation of shirt numbers.
The Popularisation of Numbers
Their first step caught the eyes of journalists, who went on to praise the addition of numbers for their utility in the identification of players. At this point, it would have been very difficult to distinguish between players from the stands so this development would have massively enhanced the sport for spectators.
The papers even suggested that the change would likely be made permanent, with the August 27, 1928 issue of The Daily Mail exclaiming: “All that was required was a lead and London has supplied it.” Despite the success of this trial run, numbers would not be seen in the English game again for another five years.
Shirt numbers appeared again on April 29, 1933, when Everton defeated Manchester City 3-0 in the FA Cup final. Everton walked out with the numbers 1 to 11 on their backs, while Manchester City were numbered 12 to 22. Numbers would be used intermittently in the following years, with the Football League Management Committee rejecting numerous attempts to make shirt numbers mandatory.
Most detractors complained about the unreasonable cost of standardised shirt numbers, as well as their impact on the aesthetics of kits as a whole but the tide was beginning to turn. After several years of dispute, in 1939, the committee finally gave in and announced that every team would be required to wear the numbers 1 to 11 in league matches.
There were further developments, including the addition of surnames and personal numbers, bringing us to where we are today.
As far as the origin of shirt numbers go, it seems likely that multiple people noticed how hard it was to tell the players apart and experimented with a form of identification. The cost of manufacturing would have ruled names out so, at least as a starting point, numbers were the most logical option.