In the mythology of Arsenal, it is often stated that Herbert Chapman “invented” the notion of numbered shirts, in the same way that he got the name of Gillespie Road underground station changed to “Arsenal”, promoted floodlighting, and changed the club’s name from The Arsenal, to Arsenal.
In fact, most of these tales are wrong. “The Arsenal” became “Arsenal” in 1919, long before Mr Chapman came to power. However Gillespie Road station became “Arsenal Highbury Hill” on 5 November 1932, so Mr Chapman could have been involved in that one.
As for the floodlighting issue it is said in some places that he proposed it for the first time – but this is certainly not so. As early as 1910 there were experiments going on with gas-powered lighting at football matches with in lines of lights suspended from ropes strung over the pitch. What Mr Chapman may well have done is been a strong advocate for floodlighting but the first floodlit match at Highbury was not until 19 September 1951, long after Mr Chapman passed away.
But what about numbered shirts – for they were indeed tried during Mr Chapman’s time at Arsenal. Well…
Certainly, before the first match of the 1928/9 season, no league team in England had turned out in numbered shirts. But…
On the same day as Arsenal put on their numbered shirts so Chelsea played Swansea Town and they had their shirts numbered. The difference between the two games was that at Chelsea the goalkeeper did not wear a number – a tradition that continued in English football once the numbering of players became common.
So if Mr Chapman was the keen advocate of numbering as the stories say, he rather cleverly managed to persuade Chelsea to undertake the same experiment on the same day. Which is certainly possible, given that the FA have vetoed most other innovations in the year’s leading up to this point.
The Monday newspapers on 27 August picked up on the story and deemed the idea a success, and it is reported in some sources that for both these matches one team would wear numbers 1 to 11, and the other 12 to 22, but I can’t find any pictures to confirm this, and verification is sketchy.
But of course, the Football Association, still living in the 15th century, didn’t like the idea and ordered the experiment to be abandoned. I don’t know what justification they gave for this, and it would be good to find the relevant paperwork.
The next appearance of numbered shirts on an Arsenal team was on December 4, 1933 in a friendly against F.C Vienna, which Arsenal won 4-2.
In the 1934 AGM of the Football League Management Committee, numbering was however once again rejected but finally on July 5 1939 the Management Committee decided that players should wear numbered shirts, with both sides wearing 1 to 11 in the format described for the first games in 1928.
Arsenal’s first game at Highbury under this system was on August 30, 1939 – a 1-0 win over Blackburn Rovers. This was the second match of the 1939/40 season (the first game had been away to Wolverhampton W). I am unclear if Arsenal also wore numbered shirts on the third match against Sunderland on September 2.
However, there were no more league matches that season as war was declared and the League programme was abandoned. But the decision had been taken, and when League football returned on August 31 1946 numbered shirts were available for all teams, both in England and Scotland.
But there was a curiosity. Although some teams still played the same tactical formation as existed during the 1928 experiment the standard numbering of shirts followed the classic 2-3-5 formation, with numbers 2 and 3 assigned to the full backs, 4, 5, 6 to the half backs, and 7 to 11 the forwards. But by the 1940s, many more clubs had adopted the notion of the centre half (number 5) playing between the two fullbacks.
However, no one seemed to mind.
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