For passionate football fans and particularly those of the English Premier League (EPL), a jersey is more than just a piece of clothing depicting a number and a name. It is their identity, their attire of choice as they engage their opponents in battle, the colors their beating hearts bleed and in most cases, a sum of all their hopes – at least as far as their team is concerned. What would happen though if a popular player suddenly switched numbers? Would fans carry on wearing the now inaccurate jersey? Would they shell out money for one with the new number? Would they be mad and stop loving that player quite as much? Recently when Christiano Ronaldo re-joined Manchester Utd -CR7 wasn’t going to play wearing any other number. So established centre forward Edinson Cavani not only had to give up his position in the team, but his number 7 jersey as well. Switching to number 21 for the 2021/22 season. But was this actually in keeping with the Premier League’s rules?
Can Premier League players change number? A Premier League player may change their jersey number provided the change is not made after the commencement of the season. Rule M4 states, “While he remains with the club, a player will retain his shirt number throughout the Season for which it was allocated.”
This is very clear that a Premier League football player cannot change their jersey or squad number during the season, unless they change teams. A recent development has however provided an exception to this general rule and has gifted EPL clubs and players with a precedent, which is likely to affect the extent to which the rule is applied moving forward. Read on to find out exactly what this is.
Early soccer kits and numbers
Unknown to most, soccer jerseys and indeed kits were not commonplace during the early days of the sport of football. Then, football was played between rival factions, often villages, who could each field an unrestricted number of players in an attempt to get the upper hand over their opponents.
English public schools made the first attempt to come up with uniform rules to govern competition between the different houses/fraternities the institutions were subdivided into. These rules differed from school to school and were seldom enforceable since the idea of organized sports was still a foreign concept to the individuals who participated in them.
This blatant disregard for the rules would continue even after the aforementioned individuals joined universities and escalated further necessitating the creation of the first uniform set of rules at Cambridge University in 1948.
The next decade would see the formation of the first football clubs namely Sheffield FC, Hallam and Notts County, which were created in 1857, 1860 and 1862 respectively. These clubs came up with local rules such as the Sheffield Rules and Nottingham Rules by the former and latter clubs respectively, which were subsequently adopted by newly-formed clubs in their regions.
The Turning Point
During this era, there were no uniform kits. Rather, teams sought to distinguish themselves from their opponents by wearing uniquely-colored scarves, sashes, cowls and caps over their standard sports attire. It wasn’t until 1857 that an attempt was made to officially designate specific colors to differentiate teams taking part in a football match.
This was done in the Sheffield Rules, which stated that each player must provide himself with a red and dark blue flannel cap, one color to be worn by each side. By the next decade, players had come to see the need for uniform rules to govern the sport at the national level. Their efforts to come up with these rules culminated in the formation of the Football Association in 1863, which borrowed heavily from the Cambridge and Sheffield Rules to come up with their first set of laws.
The Football Association (FA) would later introduce the first officially-recognized national competition, the English FA Cup, in 1871-72, which demanded that all contributing teams adhere to the FA Rules. The competition experienced both the successes and the growing pains associated with any new endeavor but often suffered from a common setback- spectators were unable to differentiate one team from another.
A popular publication at the time sparked this conversation and further fueled the fire by stating that there was the need for “each club to have a distinct uniform” in order to address the problem. Until then only a few clubs such as the Blackburn Rovers, Reading and the Wanderers had made an attempt to come up with their own unique kits.
A good number of clubs could however not afford these types of kits and continued playing in whatever was readily available to them, leading to confusion such as one witnessed in a match between the Wolves and Sunderland in 1891 where both teams showed up to play in similar kits.
When did numbers appear on the back of soccer jerseys
By the turn of the century, football had grown into a proper professional sport and clubs were charged with the responsibility of providing kits for their players. In 1928, perennial Premier League contenders Arsenal and Chelsea became two of the first clubs to begin displaying numbers of their jerseys.
The FA officially adopted the jersey numbering system in the 1933 FA Cup final between Manchester City and Everton. During the historic fixture Everton players wore numbers 1-11 while those of City wore numbers 12-22. By 1939, it had become mandatory for numbers to be displayed on the back of players’ jerseys – a tradition that has carried on until today.
The next decade or so would see clubs adopt a variety of colors which were previously not available. Innovative companies like Umbro also introduced kits made of synthetic fabric making it possible for teams to adopt an additional kit. Previously, only the home kits and away kits were in common use and kits were mostly made of only cotton.
The late 60s and early 70s saw further innovation and the introduction of shirts with features such as the V-insert. Companies like Admiral and Adidas also joined the party bringing further advancements to kit design. Admiral became the first company to copyright their designs subsequently making them unavailable to their competitors.
The league experienced even more growth in the 80s and with it a potential new source of revenue for clubs – shirt/jerseys sponsorships. Liverpool was among the first clubs to benefit from this development but faced stiff opposition from major broadcasters such as BBC and ITV, who refused to air matches featuring teams in sponsored shirts.
The two factions however arrived at an agreement in 1983 giving clubs the leeway to sign multi-year kit deals with companies such as Nike and Adidas. Today, club kits and particularly jerseys continue to provide revenue for clubs, some of who have further diversified their kits in support of charitable organizations and other social causes.
Rule M4 that bars players from changing their jersey numbers mid-season has been in effect since it was instituted. An exception however appears to have been made at the beginning of the 2021-22 Premier League season to accommodate forward Cristiano Ronaldo’s well-publicized return to Manchester United.
Previously, Ronaldo would have had to wear a different number on his jersey since his iconic number “7” was already in the possession of fellow marksman Edinson Cavani. This meant that Ronaldo would only be able to wear the number that has become synonymous with his name in other competitions such as the UEFA Champions League since there are no rules prohibiting players from wearing two different shirts in European and domestic competitions.
Earlier reports had suggested that the league was willing to allow clubs to apply for permission to reallocate a jersey number mid-season provided that those clubs were willing to reimburse any supporters who might have been inconvenienced by the change.
The league’s timely willingness to implement this change is what has allowed Ronaldo to retain the moniker “CR7” with Cavani switching to the number 21 jersey that became available after the Red Devils sold Dan James to Leeds United – the same number the Uruguayan wears for his country’s national team. Of course, most players are not global icon Christiano “CR7” Ronaldo. So whether this precedent will ever be called on again is unclear.