The squad numbers on the back of a football player’s shirt can represent a host of different things. Perhaps they chose it themselves, or maybe the club gave it to them when they arrived.
There are some numbers, however, that seem to carry more than their fair share of weight in the footballing world; namely the centre forward number “9” and the winger or second striker number “7”.
But why is this the case? Read on to find out more.
Tradition: almost a century of squad numbers
The Economist reports that shirt numbers were first used at club level in the UK almost 100 years ago. More specifically, they were worn in two games on 25 August 1928, when both Arsenal and Chelsea wore them in their matches against Sheffield Wednesday and Swansea Town respectively.
In these games, each member of the team was given a number based on their position, as follows:
2. Right full back
3. Left full back
4. Right defensive midfielder
5. Central defensive midfielder
6. Left defensive midfielder
7. Right winger
8. Right attacking midfielder
9. Centre forward
10. Left attacking midfielder
11. Left winger
Not long after, it became mandatory in top-flight football for teams to include the numbers 1 to 11 on the back of their players’ shirts depending on their position. The numbers helped with player and position identification.
When formations were changed between games, it was the position that moved rather than the player, so the number changed with it. This often led to players switching shirts to signify their position on the pitch, rather than who each player was.
This traditional numbering style was maintained for almost 70 years, until the Football Association (FA) abandoned it in 1993 in favour of a permanent system. This allowed both players and clubs more choice when allocating or choosing squad numbers.
Funnily enough, the first event to use the new numbering style was the Football League Cup final between Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday.
Arsenal claimed revenge for their 3-2 away defeat in 1928, beating Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 in normal time.
Permanent squad numbers were introduced at the start of the following season for the Premier League and the three divisions of the Football League.
Remnants of an old system
Since the change, occasions in which teams have adopted the old 1-11 system are few and far between. The Guardian report that the most recent examples are West Bromwich Albion in 2015, and Manchester United in 2008, with both clubs doing so on commemorative occasions.
The Squad Numbers Blog claims that the last time a top-flight team’s starting 11 wore the standard array without a commemorative reason was in the 1998/99 season. Charlton Athletic brandished the traditional 1-11 in their opening two games, from which they secured a total of 4 points.
Despite this, parts of the old number practice are still used today. The number 1 shirt is almost always reserved for a team’s first choice goalkeeper, and the number 9 is typically reserved for the most lethal in front of goal.
You’re also still likely to see a defensive line-up sporting at least some of the traditional numbers: 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. And a creative, attacking midfielder donning the number 8 or 10 is also not uncommon, like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.
In honour of the old numbering system, you may remember a Watford player by the name of Steve Palmer, who wore every shirt number from 1 to 14 in the 1997/98 campaign.
Though he spent mere moments in goal in Watford’s final home match of the season before switching positions, it is a rather impressive (and humorous) feat to have achieved, nonetheless.
Player names can build a reputation just as easily as tradition
Tradition isn’t the only way a shirt number can gain a reputation. The players who wear a shirt can be just as important for the legacy of a shirt and may influence why a player may choose to wear it.
For example, the Manchester United number 7 shirt is rich with history and synonymous with several footballing legends: David Beckham, Eric Cantona, and of course Cristiano Ronaldo, just to name a few.
Ronaldo has worn the number 7 shirt at other clubs throughout his career, and Edinson Cavani even sacrificed the number upon Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United in 2021.
The famous number “9” is no less worthy of its legendary status, with players like Alan Shearer, Robbie Fowler, and the Brazilian Ronaldo each donning the shirt during their careers.
To share a shirt number with players so universally recognisable is a goal for many footballers, and one that often drives them when competing.
Whether to obtain the shirt or keep hold of it, the allure of the number alone could be enough to keep a player at the top of their game.
Only the players truly know what it means to them
So why do so many strikers wear the number “9” and wingers the number “7”? Well, be it tradition or player history, the only people who really know are those who strive to wear it.
For some, their choice of number may be down to the club, or it may mean nothing to them sentimentally. For others, their shirt may represent who they are or aim to be, or the history of their position.
Whether they wish to be compared against the greats who wore it before them, or simply because the number traditionally reflects where they play best, the reason can only ever be known by the players themselves.