Anyone who has played local league football knows that there is one very important thing to sort out pre-match. No, I’m not talking about hiding from the manager’s gaze when the nets need putting up. You did it last week anyway, right? No, I’m talking about diving into the pile of misshaped kit in the middle of the changing room, fighting off all your teammates for the one shirt number that you’ve worn since you were playing in the under-5’s.
For me, it’s always, always, been the number seven and this last few weeks has given me a heart-breaking reason and plenty of time at home to ponder the significance of the number seven. What first attracted me to that number? What attracts anyone to a number? Does a number pick you?
All I know is that from the very moment I pulled on a football shirt, I only ever wanted 7 to be on my back. Going through my past and looking at how my love of football began, it’s now easy to see why. I got into football quite late compared to most of my mates in the early nineties. Italia 90 was the first World Cup I remember at 10 years old and watching Nathan Blake curl the ball into the top corner against Manchester City in the cup in my early teens was the beginning of my love affair with the Bluebirds.
At the same time, I was completely fascinated by one player in particular. Someone who just seemed to play the game in a different way to everyone else at the time. At his own pace. Effortlessly. He made it look so easy but did ridiculously special things. That man was Eric Cantona.
He was the first player outside of the Bluebirds to make a real impression on me and the number he wore on his back, it seems, became etched in my brain. I’m pretty sure a lot of other people have the same sort of story behind their shirt choice. A hero they would love to follow in the footsteps of. Maybe it was George Best, Gazza, Maradona, Beckham or Gerrard. But most of us definitely grew up shouting a player’s name as we inevitably ended up volleying a shot over the neighbours’ fence.
To be fair though, not many of us ever achieve anything other than insulting our heroes’ number, much to our frustration. But when we have their number on, anything is possible.
Of course, the boring and most realistic reason most people wear a shirt number is because of the position they end up playing on the pitch. Football shirt numbering was originally put in place for this reason exactly. Numbers 1 to 11 were assigned to the positions, so that the fans knew who was who on the pitch and where they should be.
Traditionally, in a standard 4-4-2 formation, number 1 is the goalkeeper, 2 to 5 is your right back, left-back and centre-halves, 6, 7, 8 and 11 are your midfielders and wingers, leaving 9 and 10 for your strikers up top. Recently though, more and more players just choose whatever shirt number they want to wear and if the manager is happy for them to have it, then they do.
The reasons for player choices can vary, but some include birthdays, children’s birthdays, dog’s birthdays, lottery numbers, number of millions of followers on Twitter, etc. Ok, I might have made some of them up, but the point is players now have the freedom to choose and it’s no longer dictated by position.
Even if you wear a shirt number because of position, or if you wear it because your hero wore it, there seems to be unwritten expectations for a professional footballer which are associated with a shirt number and if you don’t meet them, it can often make or break your time at a club. If you are a number 9 and you aren’t leading the line, hanging on the shoulder, scoring goals for fun, then are you REALLY a number 9?
If you are a number 10 and you aren’t drifting around like a ghost in between your midfielders and striker, only ever playing two touches at a time, but orchestrating the whole attack, are you even a number 10? The players who played there before you were all of that, so you’d better make sure you make the grade.
The number 7 throughout history has been worn by players who are special. Players who change the game, who dictate that the game revolves around them. Worn by midfielders or strikers or wingers, but they all tend to share the same characteristics. They are magicians. Genius creatives. They don’t rush, they swagger. They make the game look so easy while everyone else runs around at breakneck speed around them. Then they go and do something ludicrously special and act like it was nothing. As if all they had done was routine. Like putting the bins out.
George Best. Eric Cantona. Luis Figo. Raul. David Beckham. Cristiano Ronaldo…. And our Peter Whittingham. He was definitely all of that. A true number 7 and our hero.
The number 7 will always be special to me and is even more significant now since we tragically lost Whitts, who was THE best number 7 I’ve ever seen at Cardiff. There have since been calls from fans to retire the number in his name and Whitts was undoubtedly and absolutely deserving of that level of honour. However, my personal view is that we should honour him in another way. A stand in his name or a statue, or both and this is why.
There will be a whole generation of children in South Wales who will have grown up watching Whitts, wearing that number 7 as he scored worldies for fun. They will have grown up shouting his name in their back garden, trying to do exactly what he did week in week out for Cardiff with that fantastic left boot. My feeling is we need to keep the shirt open. One of those children might just one day pick up where their hero left off.