Amidst all of the furore surrounding which shirt number Ricky Van Wolfswinkel would be given in the Norwich City squad, I started to think a bit more about shirt numbering and how it has gone from simply denoting a players on-field position – and the ‘old fashioned’ numbering of 1-11 did exactly that, each number represented a specific and clear position – to a multi-million pound corporate business. We are, after all, talking about a shirt number often meaning as much about the person wearing it as it does their playing position or significance to the team.
In other words, the number on the back of the shirt becomes part of a player’s identity. His brand. David Beckham became synonymous with the number 23 at both Real Madrid and LA Galaxy – he even, as many players now choose to do, took to scribbling a little numeric ‘23’ as part of his autograph. When he moved to AC Milan on loan there was as much talk and fuss made about what shirt number he would wear there as there was about his place in the team. He eventually took the squad number 32 at the San Siro as number 23 was already in use, ‘owned’ if you like, by Massimo Ambrosini who was loathe to surrender it himself, such had it become his numerical trademark at the club.
Cynics, of course, will have long noted that 32 is merely 23 written backwards. A compromise, a case of Qualsiasi cosa per te, Goldenballs. And remember, this is nothing to do with salary, goals and related bonus money or any of the other more familiar terms that you might expect in a footballers contract. It’s to do with a shirt number. If only Bobby Moore had thought about it when he spent the best part of two decades at the very top of the game, an easily identifiable figure on any field of play, the number six shirt he wore throughout his career playing second fiddle to Moore the player. A subtle difference. If it was number 23, it had to be David Beckham. But if it was Bobby Moore, then it was number six. Player first, number second. Which is as it should be.
West Ham, of course, recognised the significance of Moore’s shirt number enough by officially ‘retiring’ it in 2008, fifty years after his first team debut for the Hammers. Their recognition of it being a trademark of both player and club was a nice touch – but I doubt it was one that Moore would have approved of.
Clubs have continued to anthropomorphise shirt numbers however. The act of ‘retiring’ one from active service for example, didn’t start and stop with Moore. SK Sturm Graz, one of the leading clubs in Austria have ‘retired’ numbers 3 and 7 from their squad list, doing so as the long term holders of said shirts, Günther Neukirchner and Mario Haas, left the club and retired from the game. Chelsea did the same with their number 25, once the property of Gianfranco Zola. None of those three examples were done as a posthumous tribute as was the case with Moore – although there are numerous other examples of that being done, including in the English game in recent years – but as a simple nod of acknowledgement to a service and career well served – as well as a potential commercial opportunity with Chelsea, for example, still selling Zola 25 shirts by the crateload to this day.
There are even strange caveats to the number retirement business. AC Milan marked the end of Paolo Maldini’s long and illustrious career by retiring the number 3 in 2009. Maldini, however, has given his specific consent that, should his son ever play for the club, that number can be brought out of retirement for him – and him alone. Another commercial opportunity? Surely not.
The retirement of, or similar deification of a shirt number has not yet reached the confines of Carrow Road – although I am sure that it will some day. Van Wolfswinkel has been, not surprisingly, been allocated shirt number 9. This number, thankfully, still has some meaning in the game and certainly for me. The story it tells is that the wearer is the main man, someone instantly recognisable as the centre forward. Because wearing the number 9 on the back of your shirt is not just a squad reference, it was, is, remains, a message, a warning. A statement of intent.
Ricky will therefore join a long and illustrious list of players who have graced Carrow Road wearing that number. From Jack Vinall in the seasons leading up to World War Two to, amongst others, Ralph Hunt, Terry Bly, Ron Davies, David Cross, Phil Boyer, John Deehan, Iwan Roberts and Grant Holt. Games, goals and glory a’ plenty in each and every one of them – and we haven’t seen fit to consign our number 9 shirt to the pages of history (unlike Spartak Trnava, Lech Poznan, Real Salt Lake and Universitario, for example) yet.
Van Wolfswinkel is, you suspect, going to have to break the mould like no previous Norwich City striker has ever done to gain that accolade for himself!
But even the number nine shirt is no longer automatically linked with the position of centre forward-and not even at Norwich. Even as far back as the 1998/99 season, and this is before the current practice of squad numbering was introduced, that precious number adorned the shirts of Shaun Carey, Ged Brannan and Neil Adams for at least one game, whilst, back in the 1996/97 season, eleven different players wore the number in our 46 league games – Mike Milligan, Ade Akinbiyi, Daryl Sutch, Keith Scott, Ian Crook, Keith O’Neill, Darren Eadie, David Rocastle, Ulf Ottosson, Shaun Carey and Drewe Broughton. Clearly, it would seem, and three years before fixed squad numbers became the norm, Mike Walker had little time for the meaning of shirt numbers anyway. No doubt he mixed and matched on this frequent basis in order to confuse the opposition, something which he did so often in terms of his team selection and tactics, it even affected his own players, with John Polston later admitting, “…soon after Mike took over, we played some formation that I don’t think anyone knew, or had ever heard of before.”
Mike Walker, a managerial Martin Peters – ten years ahead of his time?
There is, fortunately for those traditionalists that are left, some things in football that remain relatively* unchanged. And, as far as shirt numbering and positions on the field goes, that relates to the pivotal one of goalkeeper. For he has been, is, and will always, it would seem, the man in possession of the number 1 shirt, squad numbers and all. The goalkeeper.
Which begs a question. Since Norwich won promotion to the top flight of English football for the very first time in 1972, how many different players do you think have kept goal, for at least one appearance, in either a senior league fixture else FA or League Cup game for the club?
The answer may surprise you. It’s 26.
I thought it would be fewer than that as well. Especially when you consider that, for the first 13 seasons of the 41 that have followed – some good, some indifferent, some bloody terrible – we managed to get by on only four different goalkeepers, one of whom, Joe Corrigan, was only here on loan for three matches. Such was the dominance, at that time, of Kevin Keelan that, out of a possible total of 342 League plus FA and League Cup games played by the Canaries from the 1972/73 season through to the end of the 1978/79 campaign, his last full season at the club, he played in 296 of them. A remarkable achievement and real sign of both quality and consistency, especially when you consider he was already over 30 when Norwich were promoted and was an ever-present, playing in 50 out of 50 League and Cup games throughout the 1975/76 season, during which he reached his 35th birthday. Pity, therefore, the many understudies who came, saw, and eventually departed during Keelan’s time at the club, a total of seventeen seasons and 673 career appearances in total.
To put a modern day perspective on this would mean John Ruddy commencing the 2026/27 season as Norwich’s first choice goalkeeper, having played in not far short of 90% of all of our games from the beginning of next season to then. Which, quite simply, is not going to happen – not by him and, in all likelihood, any Norwich City player ever again. You could bet your house on that – and rest easy.
So if we to ever ‘retire’ a shirt number at Carrow Road it is with Keelan in mind that I suggest that the number one shirt would be as good as any to choose. It won’t happen of course – and, with respect to the great man, I don’t think it ever should – that or any number. But it does make you think of the qualities that a player may have in order to be remembered as a great and for the tribute of having your shirt number retired in appreciation of your efforts.
For Keelan those qualities included a dedication to the game that bordered on the obsessive, focusing on training and fitness in voluntary sessions at the club long after all the other players had departed, a commitment to excellence that not only helped him stand out as perhaps the greatest goalkeeper that Norwich City have ever had, but one that led him to becoming a truly exceptional exponent of his art. Because he was a very, very good goalkeeper indeed, one who was, perhaps like John Ruddy today, one of the top three in the country when he was in his pomp.
It was unfortunate that he was playing at the same time as Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence, two peers whose own excellence prevented Keelan from the chance with England that he deserved and, whilst you can perhaps appreciate their longevity in that role, was Keelan really inferior to some of the other goalkeepers who played for England at that time – Joe Corrigan, Phil Parkes, Alex Stepney and Gordon West?
A rhetorical question – of course he wasn’t. And seven seasons playing in the top flight of English football as well as two Wembley appearances and being an ever present member of a team good enough to finish in 10th place in the First Division in 1976 – above Everton, Newcastle, Aston Villa and Arsenal amongst others – added to that obvious and very clear ability, both as a player and a professional does suggest, to me at least, that he was worth a chance and should have been given it.
So when The Cat made his final farewell at Carrow Road for a new beginning playing and coaching in the USA – where he still coaches to this day – those 25 keepers who accompanied and ultimately, succeeded him carried on with the tradition of wearing that number one shirt. The introduction of that squad numbering system has meant, of course, that there are exceptions to the rule – Jed Steer, for example, wore the number 31 when he played for us against Leicester City last year – but, to all extents and purposes, they wear that number one shirt, regardless of whether they did so just the once, as in the case of Jon Sheffield, or on 477 separate occasions, Bryan Gunn.
It is, and remains, the most familiar and easily identifiable shirt number in football, forever that of the goalkeeper. We weren’t, after all, singing “England’s number twenty-one” at Fraser Forster whilst he was performing heroics with us during his time at the club – it was England’s number one – and to hell with the vagaries of squad numbers.
And, as far as Norwich’s most famous exponent of the art in Keelan is concerned, despite all of his achievements and prime place in the clubs history, it would be wrong to retire the shirt number. What matters is the player that wears it and it should be him that is remembered rather than the number sewn onto the back of his yellow and green shirt. To paraphrase that famous quote from The Prisoner, I am not a number, I am a professional footballer. And Kevin Keelan was one who just happened to wear the number rather than be defined by it.
Take note all you budding David Beckham’s out there. Onfield deeds not digits.
*Rushden & Diamonds and Pachuca have both retired their number 1 shirts after players who wore that shirt, Dale Roberts and Miguel Calero died; in the tragic case of Roberts, by committing suicide whilst he was still first team keeper at the club. This posthumous tribute, like that afforded to Moore by West Ham, has been performed on over seventy occasions in senior world football in recent years.