This is a new series about a subject that you might not think has much mileage – club colleagues swapping numbers while playing for the same country – but of which there are more than a few examples.
There is one stand-out instance that everybody knows about, so much so that this tweet was designed entirely for the flurry of QI klaxons that followed…
…and we will of course cover those two players and their switching in due course. Today, though, we’re starting on a patriotic footing, with one player tying together two separate occurrences of the phenomenon.
The Republic of Ireland’s first appearance at a major finals came at the 1988 European Championship and Jack Charlton’s side were in the eight-team competition on merit – indeed, they could have been even stronger but for the absence of the suspended Liam Brady and the exiled David O’Leary. Even so, goalkeeper Packie Bonner and defenders Chris Morris and Mick McCarthy were fresh from winning the Scottish double with Celtic in the club’s centenary year (though Bonner missed the cup final), while Paul McGrath, Kevin Moran and Frank Stapleton had won the FA Cup with Manchester United in 1985. Chris Hughton and Tony Galvin had been part of a good Tottenham Hotspur team and then there were three members of the Liverpool team that had cantered to the 1987-88 league title.
Midfielder Ronnie Whelan had been a part of the Reds side for the greater part of a decade but right winger Ray Houghton and striker John Aldridge were newcomers, both signed from Oxford United as Kenny Dalglish prepared for a world without Ian Rush – who had joined Juventus in 1987 but would return to Anfield for 1988-89.
When Oxford beat Queens Park Rangers to win the 1986 Milk Cup final, Houghton wore 7 with Aldridge 8 – it was a number in which he had had success with Newport County and it was the only number he wore as a starter for the U’s. Though he wore 7 and 11 in the two games he played for Liverpool after joining late in 1986-87, after Rush’s departure he sought to wear 8 – in the public consciousness it was because he or Dalglish didn’t want him wearing 9 so as to avoid comparisons with Rush (as if that was possible) but it’s likely that he simply wanted to wear a number in which he felt comfortable.
With two other new signings – Aldridge’s striker partner Peter Beardsley and left winger John Barnes – wearing 7 and 10 respectively, it meant number 9 was in midfield for the Reds and it was what Houghton wore after he joined early in 1987-88.
The Liverpool team that lost 1-0 to Wimbledon in the FA Cup final was close to full-strength, apart from the absence of Whelan (usually number 5) in midfield. For more on Liverpool’s numbering in the 1980s and early 1990s, see Simon Treanor’s comprehensive series.
Ireland tended towards more conventional numbering, though – historically, 4 and 5 have been the centre-backs rather than the 5 and 6 with which English fans would be more familiar and the only deviation for most of Charlton’s tenure was the placing of 7 in central midfield with 8 on the right – Houghton in this case. With captain Frank Stapleton favouring 10, Aldridge was in the number 9 shirt – later, the emergence of Niall Quinn would see Aldo switch to 10.
At Euro 88, they lined out with the players numbered 1-11 for the opening game against England and the third match against the Netherlands, where they went so close to reaching the semi-finals.
For 1988-89, Liverpool effectively adopted squad numbers before they were a thing – Beardsley was always 7, Aldridge 8 when he played, Rush 9, Barnes 10 and Steve McMahon 11. Those five never started a game together, though, and so, across 53 matches, Houghton wore the number of whichever one of those was absent. After Aldridge’s departure early in 1989-90, Houghton settled on 8, matching his Ireland number but then, after being sold to Aston Villa in 1992, he wore number 7 there apart from three early matches where he donned 9.
Growing up in Ireland, Liverpool and Manchester United were obviously the most popular clubs to support but there was a cohort who supported Villa due to the strong Irish links – Houghton, another Anfield alumnus Steve Staunton and Paul McGrath were part of the side that ran Manchester United close to the inaugural Premier League title in 1992-93. Those three were given their customary numbers for the 1993-94 campaign, when squad numbering was introduced, while Ireland captain Andy Townsend, just signed from Chelsea, had number 14.
At the 1990 World Cup, McGrath had worn 7 in midfield alongside Townsend in 13 but he was now finally in defence for Ireland and it was Townsend wearing 7, partnered by number 6 Roy Keane. Staunton had been left-back, wearing 3, but the emergence of Terry Phelan saw him pushed forward and given number 11 by Charlton.
All four played important roles as Ireland beat Italy in the opening game of USA94, with Houghton scoring the only goal (it was the only game where Ireland wore green at that competition, but that was only after a late switch). Then, for 1994-95, Townsend had a new number for Villa – Tony Daley had joined Wolves and so his 11 was free. It meant that the Irish Villa quartet had five numbers between them for club and country but only McGrath had the same digit on his back for both.
Of course, you’ll note that there was no direct swap but from 1993-96, English teams in European competition still had to line out 1-11 while using squad numbers domestically. Having won the Coca-Cola Cup in 1994 – denying Manchester United a domestic treble – Villa were in the Uefa Cup for 1994-95.
First up was a tie with Internazionale, the first leg a 1-0 defeat in San Siro. While Staunton retained 3 as he played on the left of midfield, left-back Phil King wore 11 with Townsend wearing 7 as Houghton was a sub.
Houghton was back for the second leg, which Villa won on penalties, and he also played in both legs against Turkish side Trabzonspor, where the Villans (wearing a special one-off white third kit) lost out to a late away goal. In all of those games, Townsend wore number 8.
Villa captain Kevin Richardson left the club during 1994-95 but, while Townsend took over the armband, he kept number 11 with Richardson’s 6 going to a new signing, defender Carl Tiler, for 1995-96. However, for 1996-97, Townsend was given number 6 with Tiler moving to 18.
For Ireland, he remained number 7, but John Sheridan becoming an integral figure wearing 10 in midfield meant a knock-on effect as Aldridge got to wear his favoured 8 in the latter part of his international career. For the European Championship qualifier at home to Portugal in 1995, Houghton wore number 6 in the absence of Roy Keane.