Is this why Liverpool were so successful in the 1970s/1980s?

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.

Liverpool celebrate the League title.
Yes, it’s in black and white.

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.


22 thoughts on “Is this why Liverpool were so successful in the 1970s/1980s?

  1. And there was me thinking their success was due to Littlewoods pools money given by their owners making them the 1st financially doped club ever

    • Sorry to burst your bubble, but David Moore only bought the club in 1991, and when the Lottery started in 1994, he lost all his money. And our last league title was 1990. So you are wrong on so many levels, but thanks for trying!

  2. Very interesting article, and this is something i never really thought of before and it could be possible as during that era English football where very stuck in there ways….but the Liverpool team back then played nearly every team off the field, so i think its rather down to excellent scouting to find the players they had.

      • So many Gunner, so wrong on here! The only established player we brought in those days was Dalglish himself, who was only established in Scotland. Oh sotty and Ray Kennedy from your good selves, but wasn’t he a striker for you?

  3. I see your reasoning, but I disagree. Yes, the “numbering system” was accepted by most clubs and Liverpool were probably the first to number their players differently – I remember Tommy Smith (yes, I’m that old!) wearing the No10 shirt and playing as a “right half” Their success in the 60s,70s and 80s owed more to good players adapting to “the Liverpool way” which, in turn was nurtured by the old “Boot Room” of Shankly, Paisley, Fagan and latterly, Moran and Roy Evans. They were all innovators in their own right, and between them made Liverpool the most successful English club in the history of the game. Everyone knew that Smith was no “inside left” Ray Kennedy (No 3) was no “left back”

  4. i think best possible formation in the epl is
    —–0—-0—- 2 strikers carroll and a new signing
    -0—–0—–0- 2 wingers+1 cam/cf joe cole+ stewart downing and luis suarez as cf
    —–0—-0—– 2 center midfield/cdm gerrard and lucas
    —0—0—0— 3 defenders agger,skrtel and a new signing
    ——–0——- the keeper pepe
    subs:aqua,new striker,sterling,doni,coates,henderson
    will they dare to try this

  5. I like your thinking, but do you think that players looked for the number for who to mark? You maybe right, footie players are not the brightest of creature…

    Personally I put it down to great managers, the Pass and Move ideology, intelligent players, stability of the management structure, and how players played a year in the reserves before getting into the first team. Oh they were the days…

  6. Liverpool’s success was consistent because even when they were winning they were not scared to lose players and replace them with others to freshen their squad. They would burn out players reject them and get in others. A lesson for our management I feel.

  7. Ian rush, emylyn Hughes, PhilNeal, Graeme Souness, Craig Johnston, Toshack, Keegan, Hansen lawrenson, I could fill a page with players bought from lower league who were nowhere near established. As for being financially doped laughable – can anyone back this up with figures? If I remember rightly we broke the record with beardsley and buying rush back from juventus. We were frequently outspent by utd and even notts forest! We may have bought big occaisonaly – but can anyone remember the old adage success breeds success? Football used to be organic in growth, you have a good base, then your success creates a snowball effect of buying better players and improving your infrastructure. obviously this would be a foreign concept to most Chelsea and city supporters.

    Nice tongue n cheek article, spoilt but daft comments!

    • Yeah, fair play, it was a bit later when they got desperate and started buying everyone in sight, once the magic of the freaky numbering had worn off. And the boot room days were over, and Dalglish handed over to a succession of managers who foolishly tried to stamp their own mark on a club that had developed a great system. But nothing lasts forever. Even Fergie will bugger off eventually.

      • Too true, the dark lord must surely fall off his perch some day, that’s if he is human and not powered by that Casio watch of his…

  8. They were successful because they passed it back to the keeper all the n
    Bloody time! Every clip I see is Hansen passing it back and forth with the keeper they lacked balls and ambition just like today. Hope they enjoy mid table battles with Fulham and Everton in the coming years

  9. close but no cigar! The secret was 10 outfield players who were comfortable on the ball; and therefore could play in any position. Allied to a pass and move philosophy, refined in Europe, they outplayed most of the opposition. As for moneyball how about this group:
    Clemence £35k Keegan £30k both Scunny; Neal £30k Northampton, Hughes £65k Blackpool; Larry Lloyd Bristol Rovers, Hansen £100k partick thisltle; Lawrenson £200k Brighton; Houghton and Aldridge Oxford; Beardsley Vancouver; Barnes Watford; Redknapp Bournemouth, Smith Whelan Fowler Owen home grown I could go on
    happy days Nev the Red

    • Obviously they were a very good team with a couple of great managers, but you seem to be claiming they invented Total Football. A few players could play in various positions, but nowhere near all of them, that is a bizarre claim.

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