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England Uniforms - Shirt Numbers and Names

For 65 years following the first international match in 1872, England’s players took the pitch with no identification—no numbers or names--on their shirts.  The players were identified in the match programmes only by their position.  Even so, there was little chance of  confusion.   Throughout this era, with the exception only of the very early years, England played in a 2-3-5 formation (two fullbacks, three halfbacks and five forwards), the players  pretty much stuck to their positions during play, and no substitutions were permitted for any reason.  

Shirt Numbers

Shirt numbers appeared in club level football before the England team wore them for the first time, although the national side regularly sported shirt numbers before the Football League required them for league play. 

On 25 August 1928, Arsenal and Chelsea wore numbered shirts in their matches against The Wednesday (renamed Sheffield Wednesday soon after) and Swansea Town, respectively.  This is the earliest record of the use of shirt numbers in Football League play.  On 29 April 1933, shirt numbers were worn for the first time in the Football Association Challenge Cup final.  Everton players wore numbers 1 through  11 and Manchester City numbers 12 through 22.  The following week, on 6 May 1933, Everton wore their numbered shirts in a Football League match against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux.  But at its annual general meeting in 1933, the Football League Management Committee rejected a proposal requiring shirt numbers after hearing objections that it would cost too much and spoil club colours. 

On 4 December 1933, Arsenal, reigning Football League champions, wore numbers as an experiment when they beat the full Austrian national side, in the guise of F.C. of Vienna, 4-2 at Highbury.  However, the Football League Management Committee again rejected requiring shirt numbers at its 1934 annual general meeting.

England wore numbers on the back of their shirts for the first time in a trial match, a 5-1 defeat against The Rest on 22 March 1933 at Fratton Park, Portsmouth.  It would be another four years that England would wear numbers in an official capacity, in a 3-1 loss to Scotland at Hampden Park in Glasgow on 17 April 1937.   For the next two decades and more,  England continued to play in the 2-3-5 formation or its variant, the W-M formation, and shirt numbers were assigned according to player position, 1 going to the goalkeeper and 2 through 11 to the outfield players beginning with the right fullback, continuing through the 2-3-5 formation from back to front and right to left and ending with the outside left.

On 5 June 1939, the Football League Management Committee finally decreed at its annual general meeting that players on each club would wear numbers 1 through 11 in league matches and that the numbers would be assigned according to position.  William Cuff, the incoming Football League president, turned aside a proposal that would have made shirt numbers optional; either all clubs would wear them or none.  The vote was 24 for numbering and 20 against.  Shirt numbers were first worn in league play during the 1939-40 season, which was abandoned after three rounds of matches on the outbreak of the Second World War.  Thus the first official season in which Football League matches featured shirt numbers was the first conducted after the war, the 1946-47 season.

Shirt Numbers in the 2-3-5 Formation

11
Outside Left

10
Inside Left
9
Centre Forward
8
Inside Right

7
Outside Right

 
6
Left Halfback
5
Centre Halfback
4
Right Halfback
 

3
Left Fullback

2
Right Fullback

 

1
Goalkeeper

 

The advent of the W-M formation modified the traditional 2-3-5 formation by withdrawing the inside forwards behind the remaining three forwards so that, viewed from the goalkeeper out, the five forwards formed a W, and by withdrawing the centre-halfback to a position between the fullbacks so that the five fullbacks and halfbacks, again viewed from the goalkeeper out, formed an M.  But this variation in formation did not result in any change in the numbering system.  Although the centre-half was no longer a halfback, but a central defender situated between the fullbacks, he was still assigned the No. 5 shirt, and, indeed, still called, in England, the centre-half, a designation confusing to many foreign observers.

Shirt Numbers in the W-M Formation

11
Outside Left

  9
Centre Forward
 

7
Outside Right

         

 

10
Inside Left
  8
Inside Right

 

 
6
Left Halfback
4
Right Halfback
 

3
Left Fullback

5
Centre Halfback

2
Right Fullback

 

1
Goalkeeper

 

Shirt numbers and positions were so closely aligned they became synonymous.   Positions were often referred to by shirt number.  To say “Tommy Lawton was England’s No. 9” indicated he was the centre-forward.  To note  “Billy Wright was England’s No. 5” was to say he was the centre-half (or, more accurately by that time, the centre-back).  To say “Stanley Matthews was England’s No. 7” meant he was the outside right. 

This identity of shirt numbers and positions meant that shirt numbers were assigned on a match-by-match basis to the players who took the pitch on the day.  No player had a claim to a particular number unless he played in the position corresponding to that number.  Tom Finney wore No. 7 when he was chosen as outside right and No. 11 when he was played at outside left, but Stanley Matthews wore No. 7 if he was selected at outside right and Bobby Langton No. 11 if he was selected at outside left.

As new formations—4-2-4, 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 3-5-2, 5-3-2 and their variants—were introduced beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, no longer was there a strict correlation between positions and shirt numbers, although England’s starting  goalkeeper always wears No. 1, the two fullbacks usually wear Nos. 2  and 3, a central defender usually wears No. 5 and a striking forward usually wears No. 9.    The introduction of substitutions into international play as a matter of course in 1970 meant that players wearing  numbers higher than 11  routinely appeared on the pitch for England. 

Yet, outside the major final tournaments, England still cling to tradition and assign shirt numbers 1 through 11 to the players who start a match, whoever they are, with the substitutes, whoever they are, wearing the higher numbers, 12 and above.  When a player has established himself as a regular in England’s starting 11, he usually is given the same number, but he has no claim to that number beyond matches in which he is a starting player.  For example, David Beckham invariably wears No. 7 when he plays for England, but another starting player wears No. 7 when Beckham is injured or suspended.  Similarly, when Michael Owen starts for England, he invariably wears No. 10, but if he is unavailable for a particular match, another starting player wears No. 10. 

Beginning with the 1954 tournament, FIFA’s competition regulations have required teams taking part  in World Cup final tournaments to adopt a squad numbering system.  Shirt numbers are assigned to all the players on a national team’s entire squad for the duration of the tournament.   At World Cup 2002, each national team was allowed  23 squad members, and the competition regulations required assignment of numbers 1 through 23 to squad members.  UEFA’s competition regulations also have required  the squad numbering system at European Championship final tournaments.  Under this squad numbering system, England’s starting team often includes players wearing numbers higher than 11, and, correspondingly, the substitutes often include players wearing numbers below 12.

Some national teams have adopted a squad numbering system for all their matches, final tournament or not, with players assigned their own numbers for the duration of the season or even the duration of their international careers.  Although there has been some discussion at the Football Association about adopting a squad  numbering system, England have thus far persisted in the traditional custom of assigning shirt numbers on a match-by-match basis, so that England players starting a match wear numbers higher than 11 only at one of the major final tournaments, where FIFA or UEFA regulations take precedence.  

The squad numbering system is, however, firmly entrenched in English football at club level.  On 11 June  1994, the Premier League decided at its annual meeting to adopt the squad numbering system  for the Premiership's second season, 1993-94. 

Shirt Names

England jerseys first sported player names in major tournament play before shirts with player names became a regular feature of English club football.   But almost another decade passed before the national side shirts bore player names in qualifying and friendly matches as well as final tournament matches, and by that time shirts bearing  player names were well-established in English club level play.

Shirts bearing player names as well as numbers were first worn in European Championship final tournament play at the 1992 tournament in Sweden.  England's first match in that tournament, the dismal goalless draw against Denmark at Malmö Stadion in Malmö on 11 June 1992, was the first occasion on which England jerseys bore player names as well as numbers.  Shirts bearing player names as well as numbers were first used in World Cup final tournament play at the 1994 tournament in the U.S.A.  England, of course, did not qualify for that tournament, and so the first World Cup final tournament at which England shirts bore player names was the 1998 tournament in France.   

Player names first appeared on top-flight English club shirts in the League Cup final of 18 April 1993, which pitted Arsenal against Sheffield Wednesday, and the Football Association Challenge Cup final of 15 May 1993 (replayed following an extra-time draw on 20 May 1993), which featured the same two teams.  On 11 June  1994, the Premier League decided at its annual meeting not only that clubs should adopt the squad numbering system, but also that players would  wear shirts bearing their names as well as their squad numbers in league play at the start of the Premiership's second season, 1993-94. 

Outside the World Cup and European Championship final tournaments, England shirts did not bear player names as well as numbers until the World Cup qualification 2-2 draw against Greece at Old Trafford in Manchester on 6 October 2001.  This change was a long time in coming precisely because of England’s continuing adherence to the practice of assigning shirt numbers on a match-by-match basis.  Since the players who start a match, whoever they are, wear numbers 1 through 11, which name should go with which number may not be decided until the day of the match when the coach delays lineup decisions, as when a player's fitness is in doubt.  Modern technology has made affixing the appropriate lettering to a jersey much easier and quicker so that last-minute changes in the starting lineup may be readily accommodated.  

The commercial prospects of shirts bearing player names were, of course, irresistible.  England's players thereby gained additional exposure, which helped their promotional prospects.  The addition  of names also boosted the already-booming fan market for replica shirts, benefiting the Football Association and Umbro, the long-time manufacturer of England's uniforms, as well as the players.

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