I have a theory that part of Liverpool’s success in the late 1970s and early 1980s was down to shirt numbering. I’m interested if other people remember this, as I can’t find anything about it on the net.
From the time that shirt numbering was introduced in the 1920s right up to the 1970s, the numbering system was very rigid: 1 was the keeper, 2 was right-back, 3 left-back, 4 defensive midfield, 5 and 6 centre-backs, then 7-8-9-10-11 across the forward line from right to left (originally when playing with three ‘half-backs’ in front of the full-backs these were numbered 4-5-6 from right to left, but as the 4-man defence became common number 4 became a midfielder, leaving 5 and 6 as the centre-backs). There were terms like ‘inside-left’ (10) that eventually became simplified to ‘left-midfield’ and so on, and some teams played 4-3-3 and others 4-4-2 or other slight variations, but basically, in English football at least, you knew where someone was going to be on the pitch and largely the job they were doing by the number they were wearing. The defensive numbers and formation were particularly rigid. No way was number 2 going to be anywhere other than right full-back, not a chance.
So managers, pundits, newspapers, supporters and of course the players themselves all got used to this and a couple of generations of players grew up using the terms ‘number 7’, ‘right-wing’ and ‘outside-right’ completely interchangeably. It didn’t matter: as a manager you could tell your number 8 to mark any of the opposing number 11 / outside-left / left-wing, and he would go to the same place and pick up the same man.
Then at some point, I think in the late 1970s, Liverpool started to subvert this system and mix the numbers up. They would play, for example, a full back with number 10 on his back and an attacker with number 4 (the example I particularly remember is Alan Kennedy at left-back wearing 10, unless my memory is completely playing tricks on me). I don’t think they did it all the time, or for all positions. Amazing as it sounds now in the time of squad numbers, when players can have any number on them and no one bats an eyelid (except perhaps at the fact Nicklas Bendtner’s ego is even bigger than his pay packet), this caused a lot of confusion and worked to Liverpool’s advantage. I firmly believe that opposing managers would do a team talk and say to a defender, “Stay tight on their number 10, stop him doubling up with the 11 down your side,” and the defender would nod and run out on the field to look for the Liverpool number 10. If number 10 happened to be playing left-back then the opponents would be marking the wrong men. Many footballers aren’t very intelligent. Some managers aren’t much better (I heard of one who can barely read and write!), so Liverpool gained an advantage that in my memory at least, lasted several seasons.
The Scousers were already successful before this, and before they bombard me with abuse I’m only employing the Daily Mail-style headline for comic effect. Their run of trophies starting in 1973 with the League title, and I’m fully aware Alan Kennedy scored in the 1981 European Cup final wearing 3, but I still think this helped them to a lot of victories over a number of years. Don’t forget that there was far less live football on TV in those days, so everyone didn’t see everything immediately, and there was no internet, twitter, Sky or smartphones. Most people didn’t even have a video recorder. Anyway, if this was deliberate then well done Bob Paisley and his backroom team. Deliberate or not, am I the only one who remembers this, or have I imagined the whole thing?
Please let me know here or on twitter: @AngryOfN5
Post script: It’s been suggested (by @archerste) that Liverpool’s strange numbering might have started with squad players coming in to replace those who were injured, taking the injured man’s number but not necessarily taking the same position as others shuffled around to accommodate. It’s also been suggested that in at least one European game Liverpool lined up in the positions their numbers indicated, then moved to where they were actually playing once the game started. If the latter is true, then that would confirm that even if it started because of injuries it was eventually used as a deliberate attempt to confuse.