The first leg defeat of Manchester United by Porto was the moment when I realised that football had, beyond all reasonable doubt, gone mad.
Like many, I’d had a feeling that the game had been pushing at the boundaries of sanity in many ways for a good few years, with no idea too tawdry, too cheap or just plain laughable to be ruled out of consideration. I had still not had my own personal moment of epiphany, though. In the form of Benni McCarthy, I got it. Unlike the United defence, I couldn’t take my eyes off him, or more accurately his back, which showed he was No 77.
What in the name of all that’s holy is a player doing on the pitch with the No 77 on his shirt? This isn’t American football. But beyond a traditionalist cry for the way things used to be, there’s a serious point. Football actually used to be more like gridiron, with player numbers denoting a position in the team, with quarterbacks wearing between 1 and 19 for example. In football it was decided in 1939 that every position should have a set number, with a close-run 24-20 vote at the league management committee opting to allow them – but only Nos 1-11, mind. Positions changed as W-M gave way to 4-4-2 and that rigidity gave a little. Goalkeepers still wore No 1 and defenders four of the numbers between No 2 and No 6. It wasn’t perfect, but usually the higher the number, the more advanced the player was. It had a sense to it.
Through this period though, the shirt became the prime gift of the club and could be the pinnacle of a career. You were finally good enough to inherit the mantle of the legends who had played themselves into club history and fans’ misty-eyed memories. When your performance dipped, or career ended, the shirt was passed to the next generation. So George Best’s shirt ended up with Bryan Robson, who gave it to Eric Cantona, then to David Beckham.
But by then squad numbers were here, introduced in 1994 at the same time as another “innovation”. Shirt names were one of the new and exciting ways the now Premiership clubs were finding to earn money from the gullible, but squad numbers weren’t as much of a cause for concern. The two were inextricably linked, however, as shirt names only work with squad numbers. You can’t have Beckham’s name with a No 7 one week and a No 8 the next. The name and the number had to stay together to take the replica shirt to the next level of marketability.
It seemed vaguely exciting to me at the time. Squad numbers suggested World Cups, with great players, hot weather and staying up late to watch games in far-off time zones. But over time, 1-22 no longer seemed enough for clubs and players. Maybe it’s useful at clubs such as Manchester City in the late 1990s, where it can come in handy when you’re trying to work out who’s actually on the books. But on the pitch, we can see the full impact of the horror that has been unleashed.
We’ve not only broken the link between the number and the position but also found a good way to demonstrate the changing relationship between clubs and players. Who better to illustrate this than Beckham? When he moved to Real Madrid he couldn’t have the No 7 with which he was associated at United; that belonged to Luis Figo. So Beckham became No 23, building a new symbol for the Beckham brand, one that was already conveniently associated with Michael Jordan, who remains the template for any aspiring sportsman-brand. He might not know what position is his best, but wherever it is and with whoever he’s playing for, the chances of there being a world-class 23 ahead of him would seem to be slim.
The number is no longer the cherished gift of the club; you are more likely to be handed the previously hallowed No 9 because no one else wants it. So passé, these single figures. You can see where 77 comes in here – the more memorable, the more marketable.
Most leagues in the world now have squad numbers, with that wonderful way football has of sharing naff practice, and it will soon be a quaint relic of a bygone age when you couldn’t run a spread bet on the total shirt number figure of the starting XI. And anything the super-duper Champions League can do, the lower reaches can ape in a manner that is part endearing and part plain awful.
So step forward Danny Naisbitt, who appeared for Dagenham & Redbridge this year wearing No 73. Seventy! Three! A Goalie! Whatever next? There’s a whole world of non-numerological symbols out there. Did Prince ever get around to copyrighting that squiggle?