By Ernie Fox
It’s such a big issue in the modern game, the squad number of a player is vital to any young fan not just because that is the player they want written across their back for the coming season, but because that is the one they aspire to have when they finally graduate to the starting eleven at Anfield.
This season new signings Firmino, James Milner and Danny Ings have already selected their numbers with 11, 7 and 28 being nominated respectively. But what about the famed number 8 shirt? Gerrard’s number? Who will carrying the burden of taking the responsibility of following Liverpool’s captain fantastic? Possibly nobody this season, but make no mistake that won’t be forever.
Over the years Liverpool have had some fantastic players, each synonymous with specific shirt numbers. Ian Rush famously wore number 9 as did Robbie Fowler, Fernando Torres, Ian St john and dating back to Albert Stubbins who scored 83 goals from 178 appearances in the 1940s. King Kenny will always be remembered for wearing number 7 along with Kevin Keegan, Peter Beardsley, Steve McManaman, Dean Saunders and Luis Suarez. I remember as a youth footballer I was given the number 4 shirt which at the time was worn by Steve Nicol, not necessarily the most sexy of positions, but one of the most versatile players to ever play for Liverpool; whilst most kids in my team fought over the number 10 shirt I was happy with my selection because it was mine and when the opportunity came when a change was available, I stuck with what I had because I had made that number my own regardless of other peoples’ perceptions.
The fact is that shirt numbers are vitally important to kids and adults alike, I watched my eight year old nephew playing for his under eight youth side donning the number 10 shirt much like my all time Liverpool favourite John Barnes and I felt an enormous bout of pride, it almost brought a tear to my eye. It may only be a shirt number but to those fans who appreciate the importance of recognising the club’s history and traditions it means so much more.
It brings us to the question that if shirt numbers are so important are people right to call for Gerrard’s number 8 to be retired as a mark of respect?
No. It would do the complete opposite. To retire Gerrard’s shirt would first of all ignore all those players who wore the shirt before him; John Aldridge scored a number of vital goals during his time in the eighties a the front man of one of the club’s most ruthless forward lines. There was also Ray Houghton, Emile Heskey, Stan Collymore, Craig Johnston, Sammy Lee and Jimmy Case; sure enough these may not have had the same impact at the club as Gerrard, but they all played their part in our history.
The point is that there will be more to come in the future, the Liverpool youth academy has a whole host of youngsters dreaming of becoming the next Steven Gerrard, why would we take that dream away from them by withdrawing the possibility and making it an impossibility? This club celebrates the achievements of its past, but not at the expense of its future. Who was to know that when Steven Gerrard first stepped onto the pitch with number 17 on his back, he would become such an iconic figure at the club?
There have been numerous players throughout the years who have shown promise in their early years but owing to various reason (injury often playing a big part) they never quite fulfilled their potential. Jamie Redknapp, Mike Marsh, Steve Staunton, Nigel Clough are all players I recall from my younger years who I believed would have a great career at the club, but for one reason or another didn’t quite reach the levels I had imagined. The point is that it is only with hindsight that we can make any kind of assertion as to how successful a player’s career was. What about Mario Balotelli when he signed last season? I personally had my doubts, but enough other fans bought the number 45 shirt number to suggest they had every faith that he would be a success.
When Robbie Fowler first swapped his number 23 shirt for the number 9 of legendary goal scorer Ian Rush none of us were worrying about whether he deserved that right, but rather we were excited about the prospect of a new, young, centre forward taking over and establishing his own legend at the club. Since then he has achieved cult status at the club, despite leaving for Leeds Utd, he became a Liverpool great, another one synonymous with the number 9 shirt.
We owe it to the younger players of the club; Emre Can, Jordan Rossiter, even Jordan Henderson. Which one of those could become the next Steven Gerrard? At this point who’s to tell? The point is, let’s not take away that opportunity for them along with every other young, aspiring midfielder of emulating the achievements of a club hero. And as for the fans, we can’t just dwell in the past, we have to look to the future, and enjoy those moments when a younger player looks to follow in the footsteps of our heroes. Sure, they won’t always achieve those heights, in fact most won’t which is why players like Steven Gerrard receive such high regard because they are few and far between but that is not to say we stop looking altogether.
What’s in a number? Everything. It is the history of the club, the legends and traditions, its achievements and successes. Think of a squad number (1-11 for those of us old enough to remember the days before they were allocated all season) and we will all think of a specific player, usually one from our youth who became intrinsically linked with their displays on the pitch whilst wearing that number. For those fans too young to have seen Gerrard in his prime there’ll be someone else to take his place, someone in turn for them to look up to.
I’m going to make a prediction that over the next five years the numbers 10 and 11 will be those that the young Kopites will want most, two of the most technically gifted players to wear the shirt. Am I right? Only time will tell, but half the fun is in the journey.
Written by Ernie Fox