Socceroos centenary: how the Pacific pioneered numbered football shirts | Australia

The New Zealand versus Australia match at Carisbrook in 1922 offered so many sporting contest firsts that its claim as an important milestone in the history of international football has been overlooked. This was the first full international match featuring two national teams wearing numbered shirts. Twenty-eight years before Fifa insisted on team numbers at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, the trans-Tasman neighbours pioneered an innovation that would become a standard requirement in the global game. But even this historic move in 1922 came long after New Zealand and New South Wales started using numbers on their home and away 1904 and 1905 tours.

The numbers were intended to help fans identify players by matching the numerals on players’ backs with the corresponding names on a scorecard or match programme, which could be purchased or provided at the ground. This was particularly useful for international and inter-regional matches where visiting players were unknown by sight to even the most avid of home team football aficionados. Numbered shirts came to soccer via New Zealand rugby. Australian sports fans saw the All Blacks wearing numbers on their jumpers on their 1897 tour. The idea caught on among Australia’s rugby fraternity and was used at least sporadically in representative matches. Rugby and Australian Rules football codes had experimented with numbers as far back as the 1880s, but the practice was not fully embraced or retained.

Alex Gibb, the captain of Australia for the country’s full international match.
Alex Gibb, the captain of Australia for the country’s full international match. Photograph: State Library of South Australia

Numbers were already commonplace in the early 20th century, but number schemes and systems were still changeable. The link between numbers and positions on the fi eld was not necessarily a part of early football culture but evolved over time. One system that gained traction in Australia saw no markings for the goalkeepers and outfield players numbered one to 10. New Zealand played their first match on the 1905 tour against Metropolitan, the Sydney district representative team, at what was then known as Epping Stadium at Forest Lodge in the city’s inner west. An action shot from the match published in the Sydney Mail shows numbers on the backs of both sets of footballers, with a New Zealand outfield player wearing the No 1.

A line-up diagram from the 1904 New Zealand versus New South Wales match in Dunedin sets out the teams in 2-3-5 formation, but with No 1 allocated to the outside right and the rest of the forward line completing the 1 to 5 numbers. The numbers work back to the goalkeeper listed as number 11. The Australians on the 1922 tour were allocated squad numbers from 1 to 16. Another match programme diagram for the tour match against Taranaki in New Plymouth assigns no numbers to the Australians but starts the local identification with 17 being given to the goalkeeper, with the progression ending with the outside left wearing 27.

The Australian team which drew with New Zealand in Wellington in the second Test on 24 June, 1922.
The Australian team which drew with New Zealand in Wellington in the second Test on 24 June, 1922. Photograph: Hocken Collections, University of Otago

A 1928 Canterbury versus Otago match has the keeper as No 2 and finishes with a winger wearing 12. In this case, the listing gives the number 12 to the right winger for Otago and the left winger for Canterbury. On the 1922 trip, the Australian players were allocated squad numbers in alphabetical order, which they used for the whole tour. Forward Wilf Bratton got number one. Again, the numbers helped a Kiwi crowd unfamiliar with the visitors to identify players. But they served no purpose in indicating any position on the field, even in those days of rigidly defined positions in a 2-3-5 formation.

Alphabetical squad numbers became a curiosity at the World Cups of the 1970s, more than half a century later. The ‘total football’ Dutch squad at the 1974 tournament was arranged alphabetically with goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed given the No 8. Johan Cruyff was the exception to the rule, retaining his favoured No 14. Cesar Menotti’s Argentina side at the 1978 World Cup saw keeper Ubaldo Fillol in a No 5 shirt in another alphabetical squad. Shirt numbering finally spread to football’s English homeland. There, the numbers’ purpose was again telling fans who the players were rather than defining their positions on the pitch.

The programme from the first Test.
The programme from the first Test. Photograph: supplied by Fair Play Publishing

The commonest English version of the numbers story casts the forward-thinking Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman as the major force for change. He started trials of the innovation in matches in the late 1920s for a cause which took ten years before the British establishment fully endorsed it. British rugby players had long encountered numbered players. But one wonders whether Chapman’s assistant Tom Whittaker played a role in firing his boss’s enthusiasm. As an Arsenal player, Whittaker played on the 1925 tour of Australia – against many men wearing numbers. England cruised to an easy 8-0 victory over the Illawarra selection in Wollongong, but Whittaker was kicked by Tom Thompson just before half-time, cracking his knee cap. The referee report notes with restraint that Thompson ‘was spoken to by some of the visiting side’. The serious injury not only forced Whittaker out of the tour but meant he never played again. He subsequently trained in physiotherapy and joined Chapman’s coaching staff.

Chapman’s Arsenal tried out using numbers for the first time in a loss to Sheffield Wednesday in 1928. The trial was occasionally repeated, Arsenal using numbered shirts in their friendly with FC Vienna in December 1933. The first major English event with shirt numbers was the 1933 FA Cup final between Everton and Manchester City. A match line-up diagram of the kind which had already become standard shows Sagar in goal for Everton as 1, full-backs Crook and Cresswell as 2 and 3, up to outside left Stein at 11. After that it continued going across the City forward line as 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16, finishing with goalkeeper Longford as No 22. It had been common practice well prior to 1933 to ascribe numbers of 1 to 22 to players in match programmes. Yet, the players on the field did not wear numbered shirts. Perhaps the reasoning behind this was to attribute formality to the programmes as opposed to assisting identification of players. In the late 1930s, the number issue became a point of contention between the Football Association, in favour of numbers, and the Football League, against. The matter was finally resolved in meetings held in 1938 and 1939. A protocol for the use of numbered shirts was secured at the FA Council thirty five years after the dawn of New Zealand’s initiative. Once again, New Zealand played a role in locking it in.

The retirement from the Council of Arthur Gibbs brought the era of Australasian representation in London to an end. From that point, the two countries ran their own race. In 1931, the president of the Auckland Football Association Ernest Davis gave an account of the state of relations with England at the trophy presentation night of the Auckland Football Association. Davis, later Sir Ernest Davis, was a wealthy brewer and anti-prohibition lobbyist who was a major financial supporter of the New Zealand Labour Party and would become mayor of the city of Auckland as well as the president of the New Zealand Football Association. He was said to have held significant positions in more than 90 sporting bodies. The Auckland Star reported that in his 1931 speech Davis described soccer as the football of the millions and that, in England, for every game of rugby were twenty games of soccer. ‘The time is coming,’ he also said, ‘when the New Zealand Football Association should arrange to send a team to England.’

It sounded like a shift to a more independent position. He emphasised a national difference further when he expressed the view that there was a well of goodwill in England for New Zealand rugby and cricket teams which did not apply to, for instance, the Australian cricket teams. He told the gathering of his meetings with the FA’s Sir Frederick Wall, who he said had a keen interest in the Association game in New Zealand and had requested that General William Madocks be appointed the NZFA representative on the FA Council. The British Brigadier-General William Robarts Napier Madocks had no link to football but had gone to New Zealand as a military staff officer in 1896, leaving in 1901. He was famous for acts of bravery while leading New Zealand soldiers in battle during the Boer War. He married the New Zealand-born Laura Butler in London in 1903. Despite this somewhat tenuous link to New Zealand, and with no direct link to soccer, Madocks ended up an unheralded figure in a hugely important development in the game.

The 1938 FA Council meeting agreed to a proposal from Madocks that players wear 1-10 with no number allocated to the keeper. The following year, the Football League fell in line with the general notion, still leaving out the custodian, but with numbers listed 2-11 for outfielders. The FA, keen to avoid having dual systems afoot, rejigged its position with a new Madocks motion opting for the 2-11 formula. The circle was complete. The numbered shirt move began with New Zealand and reached its international point of acceptance through a New Zealand appointee.

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