Midweek fixture: The secrets of Oxford United squad numbers

Now, this blog isn’t afraid to tackle the tough issues; Brexit, coronavirus, Black Lives Matter, but I’m sure we can all agree, there are few more contentious issues in world football than squad numbers.

The announcement of squad numbers is part of any pre-season ritual. The allocation is often analysed to get an insight into who’s in favour and who isn’t. The graduation from a ho hum number 24, to the number seven is the sign that someone is coming of age. This year, there was a lot of focus on Mark Sykes’ graduation from 18 to number 10 and anyone who was paying attention will have realised that the initial announcement didn’t include an allocation for the number 11 shirt, a sure-fire sign something was going down, which turned out to be Sam Winnall.

But numerology around squad numbers is more art than science; there’s likely to be both more and less in the meaning behind squad number selection than we’d like to believe. Players may insist on a number because they perceive it to be lucky, others will take whatever is given to them.  

There’s no doubt that numbers become storied; laughably Birmingham City retired Jude Bellingham’s number 22 shirt last season after he signed for Borussia Dortmund, a mark of his indelible impact on the club in, um, less than a season. The Newcastle number 9 and Manchester United number 7 both carry a certain weight. Recently, Alan Shearer was on the radio talking about how Callum Wilson had phoned him about playing for Newcastle and the possibility of taking the number 9 shirt in the process. In the end he’s chosen not to, partly, perhaps, because that number at Newcastle puts you into a rich bloodline.

It’s easy to disappear down an internet wormhole when there’s nothing on TV, some people seek out hideous and monstrous things, me not so much. So, when I stumbled across the Football Squads website, I found myself poring over the history of Oxford United’s squad numbers. 

Allocated numbers have only been around since 1999 in the Football League. Before that teams would play in numbers 1 to 11, typically conforming to a designated position on the pitch. Squad numbers were reserved for international tournaments; presumably because of the practicalities of players retaining the same shirt during their weeks away. There was something very exotic about players in a number 16 or 18 shirt, now it’s barely worth a second mention. 

At the turn of the millennium that changed with players being given unique numbers for domestic campaigns. It was a nod to American sports, where numbers have become icons – not least the number 23 of Michael Jordan. The new system also offers a marketing opportunity, where you could sell the same shirt to the same person over and over, assuming they wanted more than one players’ name on their back. In the celebrity age, it became possible to sell the shirt of a player, even if you don’t care for the club. David Beckham’s value was often measured in the number of shirts he could sell for any club he signed for. This, incidentally, is a myth; players never justify their fees economically in shirt sales.

In reality, it’s not that unusual for numbers to be shared throughout a season. There are numerous occasions at Oxford where three players have turned out in the same number. In 2011/12 four players wore the number 31 – Lewis Guy, Andy Haworth, Conor Ripley and Emiliano Martinez. It surely goes without saying that none made a significant impact on the club.

Some players clearly have preferred numbers – for some reason Eddie Cavanagh was allocated the number 53 in 2014/15, by far the biggest number ever registered, ahead of Will Hoskins who chose to take the number 44, the nearest player to Hoskins that year was John Campbell at 37. Cavanagh’s number is even way ahead of the next biggest number – 47 worn by Kyran Lofthouse in 2018.

Sam Long’s squad number journey has curiosities hidden within – he spent two seasons in the number 30 shirt before spending four at 22. In 2018/19 he switched to 23 for a season before taking up the number 12 shirt. There’s clearly kudos in having one of the shirts from 1-11, but it’s hard to know why he hopped around so much. Perhaps, after a history of injury problems he felt like he could do with a change, though equally, it might be that he’s just happy to take whatever was available.

Holding onto the shirt is no mean feat; two players have been registered to their number for six consecutive seasons – James Constable took the number 9 shirt between 2008-2014 while Jake Wright made the number six his own between 2010-2016. Of the current squad, Simon Eastwood is currently on the longest run, this season will be his fifth in the number 1 shirt while James Henry has made the number 17 his own for four seasons. With his contract extension he should make the exclusive six season club.

For perhaps obvious reasons, the number 13 shirt wasn’t worn for ten years between 2003-2013. Three times it was taken up by foreign goalkeepers – Pal Lundin, Hubert Busby and Benji Buchel (for two seasons), presumably their cultural backgrounds meant they didn’t have the sense of foreboding about the number. Maybe there’s an interesting signal that the ancient hex of the number 13 is on the wane; Jack Stevens and Scott Shearer have been comfortable with the number 13 in recent seasons.

Unsurprisingly, the number one shirt is the most stable of them all, that’s never been swapped mid-season and only worn by eight players since 1999. The number two shirt is similar, but beware, in the last seven seasons only Christian Ribierio has managed to wear it for a whole campaign. Cameron Norman, Chris Cadden and George Baldock have had the shirt, but failed to make it to the end of the season. Sean Clare had better watch his back, or perhaps we should watch his back.

Some of the swaps feel highly symbolic – Mark Creighton was registered to the number 5 shirt in 2010/11, the season after promotion back from the Conference, in his place came Djoumin Sangare, which suggests a major misstep from Chris Wilder. In 2014/15 Joe Skarz took over the number three from Tom Newey; a true changing of the guard into the Appleton era.

Is there a cursed shirt? You’d do well to avoid number 24; in 21 seasons it’s been worn by thirty-one players including Alan Judge in 2003 who played as an emergency stand-in aged 44 and fabled one-game wonder Doudou in 2005. 

Does Oxford have a famous shirt? James Constable’s number nine is shared with Steve Anthrobus, Rob Duffy and Sam Smith, as well as Steve Basham and Matty Taylor. The number 6 of Jake Wright was worn by Matt Elliot and Mark Creighton but also Dave Woozley and Ian McGuckin. Was Joey Beauchamp’s number 11 enhanced by Mark Rawle and Lewis Haldane? What about the number 4 – a shirt worn by Kemar Roofe, Rob Dickie and John Lundstram, but also Peter Fear and Richard Brindley. Maybe the classic Oxford number is eight? John Aldridge, Liam Sercombe, Ryan Ledson and currently Cameron Brannagan have all carried that number.

None are as storied as the Manchester United number 7 or Newcastle number 9, but there’s a tale to tell in every one. In the coming months I’ll tell the story of different numbers and how they passed from legends to no-hopers and back again as the club’s fortunes ebbed and flowed.