Numbered shirts were introduced by Chapman; or were they?

By Tony Attwood

On 25 August 1928 or put it another way, 84 years ago to the day, Arsenal lost 2-3 to Sheffield Wednesday in a match that is still regularly quoted in football history – for Arsenal came out wearing numbered shirts for the first time.

In the mythology of Arsenal, it is often stated that Herbert Chapman, the manager at the time, “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.

As already shown on this site, “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.  What Mr Chapman may well have done is been a strong advocate for flooodlighting but the first floodlit match at Highbury was not until 19 September 1951.

But what about numbered shirts – for they certainly were tried during Mr Chapman’s time at Arsenal.

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 Chelsea played Swansea Town and they had their shirts numbered.   The difference between the two games was that at Chelsea the goal keeper did not wear a number – a tradition that continued in English football once 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.

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.

Either way the Football Association 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 numbers 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 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.

As most 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.   Thus Arsenal in their first numbered game in 1928 lined up as

Lewis (1)

Parker (2) Cope (3)

Baker (4) Bulter (5) John (6)

Hulme (7) Blyth (8) Brain (9) Thompson (10) Jones (11)

(although I am not sure if Lewis did have a number 1 on his back) and that same standard system was used in the UK from 1946 onwards.

But as the number 5 typically dropped back to play between the two defenders the numbering was illogical from the start.

In 1993 the Premier League moved further by having squad numbers instead of positional numbers.  In 1994 players started to wear their names on their shirts as well.   Squad numbers became mandatory in the Football League in 1999 but as recently as 2002 the Football League have refused to allow specific numbers to be worn.

As you’ll appreciate from this piece, there are huge gaps in my knowledge – if you have any sources that will help clarify the situation, please do let me know.

Our Woolwich Arsenal history nominated for an award


14 Replies to “Numbered shirts were introduced by Chapman; or were they?”

  1. I am beginning to think I should throw away my ‘Official History of Arsenal, 1886 – 1996’. A book that I won in a BBC World Service Sports Round Up competition.
    Perhaps I should keep it by retitle it ‘The Ofiicial Myths Of Arsenal 1886 – 1996’. What do you think I should do?

  2. The first floodlit game Arsenal (as Woolwich Arsenal) played was against Thames Ironworks on 16 March 1896 in Canning Town. We won 5-3.

    Thames Ironworks, the precursor to West Ham, were the originators of floodlit football. They used electricity and whitewashed the ball.

  3. @Andy
    Can you explain how Arsenal in the year 1928 [3 years after Chapman’s arrival] were playing 2-3-5 formation…… did’nt they play “WM” formation

  4. Yes Arsenal were playing the WM as I understand it, but the records show that the numbering system followed the classic English approach rather than the reality.

    Indeed I have football programmes from the 1950s that show the players set out in the classic 2-3-5 so I guess that was the tradition – even though the player was different.

  5. I should also add that I have written the article from secondary sources – I don’t have any original documentation.

  6. @Tony Attwood
    25 August 2012 at 7:00 pm ‘My official history of Arsenal myths’ does note the fact that despite the line up of the team on the pitch, programmes up into the late 60s showed the old line up.

  7. Back on the Arsenal fact or myth subject. Herbert Chapman may not have been the first with a new idea but if he used it then he popularised it. Example of this would be the white sleeves. I have read of 3 accounts as to how HC got the idea. I believe the idea was a good one and I am glad that HC went for it. I can imagine the newsreels in the cinemas with the commentator saying. ‘Arsenal are the team with the white sleeves’.
    In mono red and blue are not easy to tell apart so the white sleeve on the Arsenal shirt enabled the commentator to identify Arsenal to the audience. It was a publicist dream which I am sure HC would have loved.
    My ‘myth’ book mentions Arsenal players who played top level cricket and comments that HC loved this because the commentators would mention the fact and once again Arsenal’s name was given a free plug – (to use a modern term).

    Back on the ‘white sleeves’ I was hoping we would play Braga as they copied Arsenal’s shirt and in Portuagl they are known as ‘The Arsenalists’

  8. Colario,

    You say you have read 3 versions of how he got the idea for white sleeves. What are they?

  9. The players in the Everton v Man City FA Cup final in 1933 wore numbers for the first time in the FA Cup. Everton worse 1-11 and Man City 12-22. Everton won 3-0.

  10. If Thames Ironworks were the originators of floodlit football, then they would have to have been experimenting before 1896. A “Wells” lighting system was used at Grimsby for two games in April 1889, with eight pylons sited around the pitch. There were several other “Floodlight pioneers” around the same time, so I am not claiming that Grimsby were the first, simply “among the first.”

  11. if herbert had nt ave died his easter 34 signing would ave been the walsall stopper . his last f a cup game as arsenal manager is the walsall game but he lived to second round of 33 34 and was at second round replay clapton orient v walsall . 3nrd north defenders could only go for £800 max the day walsall beat arsenal and grandad s transfer for a defender was £3000 they changed the rule easter 34 . no jack was £10000 and james £9000 so percent wise same as liverpools defender and nayma in france and grandad was 3rd north . herbert asked alex james and he told him straight . seldom ever ave i been mastered on a football pitch . chapman must ave been ill dec 33 . the only reason he could ave gone to the game was for george leslie . arsenal never made the 11 22 33 final which smacks of freemasonary numbers and arsenal the choosen for the masons double of only 1933 . final then always sat nearest to king james bible publication . so 322 of may 2nd 1611 . walsall unbeaten since grandad arrived from paris he beat newcastle for em weeks after arsenal lost 32 final . chapman made the blobber he made few but telling press his side worth £40000 and oppoants whole squad £69 and my squads boots cost £87 . its got to be englands most violent game by far .

  12. The Evening Standard claims that Tottenham Hotspur wore numbered shirts on 3 January 1939 for their cup tie against Watford at White Hart Lane, though I don’t believe that this is correct. Numbered shirts – it is my belief – came into use on the first Saturday on the new 1939-40 season, the one which was abandoned due to WW2.

    I hope the link works. You may have to scroll through the pictures till you get to No.23

  13. Re: The link to the Tottenham Hotspur numbered shirts (my post above this one).

    Once you’ve clicked on the link, scroll down a bit and click on the 1930’s picture of the cockerel, then click forward till you get to picture No.23

    They messed up the captions in at least two of the other photographs (Nos. 18 & 17), describing Worcester Avenue as Paxton Road, which caused me confusion

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