By Tony Attwood
On 25 August 1928 or put it another way, 84 years ago to the day, Arsenal lost 2-3 to Sheffield Wednesday in a match that is still regularly quoted in football history – for Arsenal came out wearing numbered shirts for the first time.
In the mythology of Arsenal, it is often stated that Herbert Chapman, the manager at the time, “invented” the notion of numbered shirts, in the same way that he got the name of Gillespie Road underground station changed to “Arsenal”, promoted floodlighting, and changed the club’s name from The Arsenal, to Arsenal.
As already shown on this site, “The Arsenal” became “Arsenal” in 1919, long before Mr Chapman came to power. However Gillespie Road station became “Arsenal Highbury Hill” on 5 November 1932, so Mr Chapman could have been involved in that one.
As for the floodlighting issue it is said in some places that he proposed it for the first time – but this is certainly not so. As early as 1910 there were experiments going on with gas powered lighting at football matches. What Mr Chapman may well have done is been a strong advocate for flooodlighting but the first floodlit match at Highbury was not until 19 September 1951.
But what about numbered shirts – for they certainly were tried during Mr Chapman’s time at Arsenal.
Certainly before the first match of the 1928/9 season no league team in England had turned out in numbered shirts. But…
On the same day Chelsea played Swansea Town and they had their shirts numbered. The difference between the two games was that at Chelsea the goal keeper did not wear a number – a tradition that continued in English football once numbering of players became common.
So if Mr Chapman was the keen advocate of numbering as the stories say, he rather cleverly managed to persuade Chelsea to undertake the same experiment on the same day.
The Monday newspapers on 27 August picked up on the story and deemed the idea a success, and it is reported in some sources that for both these matches one team would wear numbers 1 to 11, and the other 12 to 22, but I can’t find any pictures to confirm this, and verification is sketchy.
Either way the Football Association didn’t like the idea and ordered the experiment to be abandoned. I don’t know what justification they gave for this, and it would be good to find the relevant paperwork.
The next appearance of numbered shirts on an Arsenal team was on December 4, 1933 in a friendly against F.C Vienna, which Arsenal won 4-2.
In the 1934 AGM of the Football League Management Committee numbers was however once again rejected but finally on July 5 1939 the Management Committee decided that players should wear numbered shirts, with both sides wearing 1 to 11 in the format described for the first games in 1928.
Arsenal’s first game at Highbury under this system was on August 30, 1939 – a 1-0 win over Blackburn Rovers. This was the second match of the 1939/40 season (the first game had been away to Wolverhampton W). I am unclear if Arsenal also wore numbered shirts on the third match against Sunderland on September 2.
However there were no more league matches that season as war was declared and the League programme abandoned. But the decision had been taken, and when League football returned on August 31 1946 numbered shirts were available for all teams, both in England and Scotland.
As most teams still played the same tactical formation as existed during the 1928 experiment the standard numbering of shirts followed the classic 2-3-5 formation, with numbers 2 and 3 assigned to the full backs, 4, 5, 6 to the half backs, and 7 to 11 the forwards. Thus Arsenal in their first numbered game in 1928 lined up as
Parker (2) Cope (3)
Baker (4) Bulter (5) John (6)
Hulme (7) Blyth (8) Brain (9) Thompson (10) Jones (11)
(although I am not sure if Lewis did have a number 1 on his back) and that same standard system was used in the UK from 1946 onwards.
But as the number 5 typically dropped back to play between the two defenders the numbering was illogical from the start.
In 1993 the Premier League moved further by having squad numbers instead of positional numbers. In 1994 players started to wear their names on their shirts as well. Squad numbers became mandatory in the Football League in 1999 but as recently as 2002 the Football League have refused to allow specific numbers to be worn.
As you’ll appreciate from this piece, there are huge gaps in my knowledge – if you have any sources that will help clarify the situation, please do let me know.
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