Saturday 12 February 2011
Brian Viner: Think of a number – and double it to be a winner in football's bizarre shirt lottery
The Last Word
At the Emirates last week, having noticed that the young Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was wearing No 53 on his back, I felt one of those fleeting but frequent little stabs of regret that I get at the passing of old football traditions, in this case the one whereby the number on a player's shirt related to his role in the team.
I grew up knowing that No 1 was a team's goalkeeper, No 2 the right-back, No 3 the left-back, and so on. Now, going to watch football is like going to your local Mecca: a goal following touches by Szczesny, Wilshere, Arshavin, Walcott, Fabregas and Bendtner equates to 53, 19, 23, 14, 4, 52 and bingo! So, while our still-beloved game could profitably borrow many things from American football, which is astutely administered so that no team has the monopoly on honours (in the last two decades, 13 different NFL franchises have won the Super Bowl, while in all but two of those 20 years, the FA Cup winners have been Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United or Liverpool), the incontinent allocation of squad numbers is not one of them.
Coincidentally, in any debate on the topic, Arsenal should always loom large. The first time numbers were worn on football shirts was at a match between Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday on 25 August 1928. And, even more coincidentally, unless it was engineered by someone with a keen sense of history, the first time that shirt numbers did not relate to positions on the field was in the 1993 Coca-Cola Cup final between ... Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday. Squad numbers were pioneered that day, and David O'Leary wore the wholly unfamiliar 22 shirt, while Arsenal's winning goal was scored by No 15, Steve Morrow. The ghost of Herbert Chapman doubtless didn't know whether to wince or applaud.
As for Szczesny, he does not enjoy the distinction of wearing a higher shirt number than any other goalkeeper, not in worldwide terms, the Brazilian Rogerio Ceni having well and truly pipped him in 2005 by wearing 618, to mark his record-breaking 618th appearance for Sao Paulo. Ceni, incidentally, has an even better claim to a place in the record books; as taker of his team's penalties, and even some of their free-kicks, he has scored more than 90 career goals, making him the highest-scoring goalie of all time.
Szczesny could, however, boast the biggest number in the history of the Premier League until a few minutes before the end of last Saturday's match between Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion, when the City substitute Abdul Razak came on wearing an extravagant 62. Until then, the only player to run Szczesny close was his own team-mate, Nicklas Bendtner, who at the start of last season decided to switch from 26 to 52.
I'm not sure why 52 was significant to Bendtner; perhaps it was the number of skiing holidays the poor chap had been forced to miss, the sacrifice he somewhat unwisely identified the other day as the most painful he's had to make since becoming a professional footballer, and one of the reasons he is worth such a fat pay packet. Still, he generously offered to reimburse from that very pay packet any Arsenal fan who had shelled out on a Bendtner shirt with the defunct 26 on the back. How much this magnanimous gesture cost him is not on record, but knowing the big Dane's level of popularity with many Gooners, I suspect the figure might not be unadjacent to the wacky shirt number briefly worn by the late Moroccan striker Hicham Zerouali when he played for Aberdeen 10 years ago. A clue: his nickname at Pittodrie was Zero.
Money could talk the loudest even in Finney's day
As a proud Evertonian, I'm rarely happy to see Liverpool win, but I surprised myself with a flush of pleasure when the Reds beat the Blues at Stamford Bridge last Sunday. What was so satisfying for the more-or-less neutral was that Liverpool were not fielding either of their expensive new strikers, while the £50m Fernando Torres looked utterly toothless for Chelsea. It's always good to be reminded that winning teams are forged with materials other than chequebooks and pens.
Were I a Liverpool supporter, however, I don't think I'd be burning the Torres shirt or even booing him, just as I understood (while being properly heartbroken by) Wayne Rooney's reasons for leaving Everton. Money has always talked in football, indeed the other day I was leafing through my battered 1959 copy of Finney on Football, in which the great Tom Finney, contemplating what might happen if football's maximum wage were abolished (which two years later it was), wrote this: "I think Preston North End are the greatest club in the world, but if North End offered me £25 a week and Newcastle United offered me £50, I would certainly sign for Newcastle." It was fair enough then, and it's fair enough now.
Get a close-up, bird's-eye view of sport
A splendid new website has just been set up, celebrating Britain's remarkable sporting heritage. It gives details of more than 80 museums and other attractions, including tours, and lists some of the stranger exhibits on show, of which my own favourite is the dead sparrow, killed in 1936 by a delivery from Jahangir Khan of Cambridge University, at the MCC museum at Lord's.
Check it out: www.sportcloseup.co.uk
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