Pick a number, any number

Andrew Robertson wears 26, Kieran Tierney’s number is 63, Gary Hooper liked to wear 88. We’ve come a long way from the days when players lined up with shirt numbers from 1-11.

By Graeme Webster

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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More and more players are now inextricably linked with a squad number. When you think of a footballer, more often than not, a shirt number will come to mind.

“An ice cream cone with a flakey chocolate stick protruding from the side.” This would have been the response from Hamilton Accies fans in 2009 if you asked them what was the first thing that came to mind at the mention of the number 99. Fast forward to 2010, ask the same question again and the answer this time would be “Mickael Antoine-Curier”. Why? Because that season the then Accies striker was the first player in Scotland to wear the number 99 on the back of his shirt.

Season 2017/18 marks the 20th season that Scottish top-flight footballers have worn allocated squad numbers. It’s hard to believe that it has been two decades since the traditional one to eleven was discarded in favour of pre-assigned digits that a player carries on his back for an entire season. In the early 1990s, Scottish football was clinging onto the coat tails of the English Premier League, which was modernising at a rapid rate. Squad numbers were introduced down south for season 1993/94 at the onset of the Premier League. However, it wasn’t until the SPL was formed in 1998 that squad numbers became a ‘thing’ up here. While it was effectively a change to simplify administration, the history of squad number allocation has woven a number of quirky stories into the fabric of Scottish football.

When the Scottish international striker, Derek Riordan, returned to Hibs in 2008 after a short spell with Celtic, there was one aspect of the move that wasn’t quite to his liking. During Riordan’s sabbatical from Easter Road, striker Colin Nish had claimed the No.10 jersey, the shirt that Riordan had worn for the three seasons prior to his move to Glasgow. Somewhat irked by this, he persuaded the club to flip the digits and let him wear 01 instead. The forward ran out in the 01 jersey to a few strange looks from those in attendance at Easter Road during his second ‘debut’, against Dundee United.

While Riordan was the only player to wear 01, there was a trio of lads bold enough to try the ‘99’. As well as Antoine-Curier, Partick Thistle’s Mathias Pogba also dared to take the highest shirt number available under top-flight rules. With most of the football attention on his brother Paul, maybe this was his way to grab some of the limelight. The last of the three was millennium Bhoy, Jack Aitchison. In May 2016, the Celtic youngster became the first player born this side of the millennium to feature in Scotland’s top league. The ‘99’ proved to be a lucky number for Jack, as scored on his debut with his first touch in a 7-0 thrashing of Motherwell at Celtic Park.

If ice creams might have been in supporters’ thoughts when watching Antoine-Curier and Pogba, it was the British tradition of bingo that sprung to mind when the former Celtic striker, Gary Hooper, took to the field. The forward sported No.88 during his time in Scotland. It is a number synonymous with a famous, if now slightly politically incorrect, cultural reference associated with the number calling game. Hooper chose that particular number as it was the year of his birth. It was also, albeit purely coincidentally, the year that Celtic was founded.

The rationale for players’ squad number selections has been wide and varied over the 20 years they have been mandated. While most simply take the number given to them by their clubs, there have been a few who have wanted a more democratic approach. Aberdeen’s Moroccan forward and cult hero, Hicham Zerouali, requested a shirt with ‘0’ on the back, for the simple reason that ‘Zero’ was his nickname. He was the first player to take this number, and also the last. Not long after, a rule change was invoked and the use of zero was banned in both Scottish and English football.

In 2012, Dundee United manager Peter Houston was forced to apologise to Hibernian fans after allowing his new signing, Rudi Skacel, to select the squad number 51. The former Hearts midfielder chose the number in tribute to his old team’s 5-1 victory over Hibs in the 2012 Scottish Cup final. Despite being a former Hearts coach, Houston failed to pick up on the significance of Skacel’s number selection until after it was registered, by which time it was too late.

The Czech midfielder has not been alone in choosing a number to please a set of supporters. In season 2011/12, Victor Wanyama became the first player in Celtic’s history to wear the No.67 shirt. He declared that his selection was in tribute to the 1967 Lisbon Lions, much to the appreciation of the Celtic fans.

It hasn’t just been the players who have made attempts to gratify the fans with auspicious squad number choices. Clubs themselves have also got in on the act. For the last few years, Aberdeen, Hibs and Rangers have all avoided giving the No.12 shirt to any player, instead dedicating it to their supporters. This has been done in acknowledgement of their value as the ‘12th man’.

While the number 12 may have been left for the fans, move one digit higher and number 13 has also been eliminated from the roster of many clubs. History highlights that back in the days of 1-11, the two players left warming the bench would typically wear numbers 12 and 14. This trend continued into the modern era and at the inception of the squad number rule, players gave the unlucky 13 a wide berth. Last season only two Scottish Premiership clubs allocated a No.13 shirt, with Hearts and Motherwell ‘keepers Viktor Noring and Dean Brill the unsuperstitious recipients.

The choice of numbers is currently restricted to 1-99 and it seems unlikely any club would need a wider scope to accommodate their squad. However, one individual did his best to fully utilise the maximum squad numbers available. Russian businessman Vladimir Romanov, in his quest to transform Hearts into an Old Firm conquering side, ploughed large sums into the Tynecastle playing squad. By season 2007/08, there were almost 60 squad numbers in use at the club, one of the largest groups of players ever assembled at a club. By season 2013/14, following Romanov’s departure and Hearts’ subsequent slip into administration, the playing squad had shrunk to 22.

There are some squad numbers that clubs deem so special that only a privileged few get the opportunity to wear. At Celtic, the No.7 has legendary status. Jimmy Johnstone, Kenny Dalglish and Henrik Larsson all played their part in the building the myth around the number. However, since the Swede’s departure in 2004 few have managed to live up to the expectation that the squad number brings with it. The majority of those who have since been handed the number have been big-name signings but none of them have matched the contribution of the aforementioned trio. Maciej Żurawski, Scott McDonald, Robbie Keane, Fredrik Ljungberg, Miku and Nadir Ciftci have all tried and failed.

Clubs have also held squad numbers close to their hearts for more poignant reasons. Dunfermline Athletic retired the No.4 shirt in memory of the player who held the record number of appearances for the Fife club. Norrie McCathie, a defender and club captain, passed away in January 1996, midway through Dunfermline’s promotion season of 1995/95.

Tragedy also struck Motherwell in December 2007 when they suffered the sad loss of their captain Phil O’Donnell. The midfielder had worn the No.10 jersey for four seasons. However the Fir Park side issued the No.10 to one other player in the subsequent eleven seasons: his nephew, David Clarkson, wore the shirt up until he left the club in 2009. A nice touch by the club and since his departure, the number has remained un-allocated.

More and more players are now inextricably linked with a squad number. When you think of a footballer, more often than not, a shirt number will come to mind. Andrew Robertson is a prime example. The youngster burst onto the Scottish football scene when he signed for Dundee United from Queen’s Park at the start of season 2013/14. At the time of joining the club, manager Jackie McNamara didn’t expect Robertson to be a regular in his first season. He was handed the number 26 shirt, giving an indication of his relatively humble position within that particular squad. However, Robertson got his chance in the side and never looked back, playing the majority of the games that season, including a Scottish Cup final. This earned him a move to Hull City and then a subsequent transfer to Liverpool. At all three clubs, Robertson has clung to the number 26 shirt and this random number now looks like it will feature in many of the defining images that will illustrate the left back’s burgeoning career.

Robertson’s rival for the Scotland left back role, Kieran Tierney, also looks to have stuck with the squad number he was given at the start of his professional footballing life. The defender was handed No.63 when he broke through from the youth ranks at Celtic. Now a first team regular, he could command any number he desired. Instead he has vowed to continue with 63 on his back. 

Perhaps one reason for this long-term connection to particular squad numbers is the trend in football of players adding the digits to their signature. Footballers’ autographs have always been sought after, and nowadays the scrawls have evolved to include the squad number. If nothing else, it helps distinguish the proprietor of what is often an indecipherable scribble.

Love them or loathe them, squad numbers are here to stay. The days of 1 to 11 are long gone. But while some of the squad number choices can be irritating to an older generation of football fans, there is a new generation for whom name and number are one and the same.

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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