How New Zealand pioneered the use of numbers on football shirts

Of all the contributions New Zealand has made to the game of football, one has remained largely unrecognised until recently — and that’s how the use of numbers on shirts was pioneered in this country.

Shirt numbers were used by New Zealand clubs and at inter-provincial level in the early 20th century, and they were used for the first time in an international match when New Zealand played Australia for the first time in 1922.

A hundred years on, the story about the shirt numbers has been unearthed by the authors of two books celebrating a century of international football by Australian and New Zealand.

In June 1922, New Zealand faced Australia in Dunedin in the first-ever football international for both countries.

A newspaper advertisement for the first-ever international played by a New Zealand national team.

That 3-1 New Zealand win at Carisbrook set up an intense trans-Tasman rivalry that will be resumed when the All Whites and Socceroos play a two-match series in September 2022.

Though NZ Football CEO Andrew Pragnell mentioned the centenary when announcing the two-match series, the occasion has gone largely unmarked in New Zealand.

In Australia, two books have been published:

  • Socceroos: 100 Years of Camaraderie and Courage celebrates those who have played for the national side.
  • Burning Ambition: The Centenary of Australia-New Zealand Football Ashes tells the story of Australia’s 1922 tour of New Zealand, and the reverse series the following year.

Co-authored by Nick Guoth and Trevor Thompson, the brilliantly-researched Burning Ambition book explores the early history of the game on both sides of the Tasman, explains how the tours came about, and details the players and administrators involved.

Guoth was born in Wellington, but grew up in Australia, where he’s written extensively about Australian football history as a journalist and as an academic.

Now living in London, he was back in Australia recently for the launch of Burning Ambition.

The cover of Burning Ambition.

While there, he spoke to New Zealand journalist Gavin Bertram about the book. Here’s the transcript of their interview:

How did the idea for Burning Ambition develop?

Guoth: I put together the early history of football in A.C.T. up to the early 30s. I think it was because of the work I did there that I stumbled upon these tours, and I thought they seemed like something interesting.

So I travelled to New Zealand in 2006, and went to all of the venues. I met up with some of the people from the various newspapers. I got a whole lot of information, and some pictures, which we’ve been able to use in the book. Quite a few from the Hocken, Christchurch City Library, Wellington City Library, Auckland City Library. Making sure I had the rights to use them, and paid for the copyright.

Then I got involved in other things like doing a Masters on the next tour after the two New Zealand ones, which was the 1923 Chinese football tour of Australia. But Trevor Thompson contacted me a couple of years back and said ‘why don’t we write a book of the history leading up to the 1922 and 1923 tours?’ We met with the publisher in Sydney, and that’s how it got started.

Was it always planned to be published for the centenary?

Guoth: Yes. Our book is more the development of football in both Australia and New Zealand, and the relationship between the two. Those who were involved between the two countries, especially the New Zealand ones and how they pushed for Australia to become more and more involved.

The ‘burning ambition’ was to get the English to come out. We talk about the development of men’s football, we mention a large number of people who were playing in both Australia and New Zealand leading up to that time, and those who came from here and went to England to play. There are quite a few people who have a connection between the home countries and Australia and New Zealand, and we talk about them.

And there’s a whole chapter on the women’s football, both the game being played mainly in Christchurch and a few other places, and also in Brisbane. But only until about 1921-22, until the FA in London said ‘no, you can’t play any more’. That caused a lot of problems here. In fact, Alf Morgan, who was the manager of the Australian team, was on the committee of the Queensland FA and he resigned because the women had been told not to play. Which is quite an interesting connection.

We go through all the players; we obtained enough information about each and every player from both New Zealand and Australia and who they played for. I have in London a number of the early books, which provide information on individual players and how many games they played and goals they scored. And of course we used PapersPast to get as much as we can, and had a lot of fun trying to make out who was who.

Was the 1922 tour viewed at the time as a major step in the development of football on both sides of the Tasman?

Guoth: The general feeling is this desperate need for England to turn up, and the lack of any belief that England would actually make it. It was too far away. It took a long time for ships to arrive, and so the players who came out, if they were professionals, would have missed a fair chunk of two different seasons. So there was this belief that if they can’t get the English out, they may as well play a game anyway.

After the resurrection of the Commonwealth Football Association here in Australia in 1921, in which (NZ administrator) Bert Salmon was involved, there was this idea of also resurrecting the earlier tours. There was a tour in 1904, where New South Wales travelled to New Zealand, and then New Zealand travelled back in 1905. There were meetings between the two nations, and eventually they agreed to play in 1922, and Australia would travel over there.

But as a watershed moment for Australia, it was the beginning of a decade of playing the most number of games of any country in the world. No other country played the number of matches that Australia played thereafter. Tours by the Chinese in 1923, by Canada in 1924, the English Amateurs in 1925, by a Czech team in 1927, another Chinese team in 1927, the Dutch East Indies, Malaysia, Singapore and others in 1928, and then Dutch East Indies sides in 1931.

There was this continuous playing of matches, and unfortunately, New Zealand got left out. With the Chinese, they had to wait until 1924, and with the Canadians, they had to wait much later because the Australians sort of hijacked the Canadian tour and the only match was one played in Auckland when the Canadians were on their way back. And then against the English, New Zealand had to wait until 1937 when an English Amateur team came out.

So the first time an actual A international where both Australia and New Zealand were involved wasn’t until 1947 when the South Africans came across. A fair time between drinks.

How the first international was recorded by the Otago Witness newspaper.

Finding the photos from the tours and other information must have been rewarding?

Guoth: There were quite a few photos that I found from the 1922 series. Some I even found in South Australia at the Adelaide newspaper archive — they had some photos that had been reprinted in Australia. And finding stuff in Dunedin, Christchurch, there were some lovely photos.

But as we were going through, we stumbled upon the thing that this first test had that no countries had done before, and that was shirt numbers. It was the first international match between two countries where shirt numbers were used. Some New Zealand teams at local and inter-provincial level were already using shirt numbers, and the Kiwis before the 1904/05 tours, and I think the Australians after that were.

But in England they didn’t start until the late-1920s in an experimental mode, and the 1933 FA Cup was the first time they actually used numbers. It’s something that you take for granted in a way, shirt numbers on the back.

How much interest was there in Australia around New Zealand’s 1923 tour there?

Guoth: Obviously the newspapers tried to beef it up. But there was one little fascinating thing; towards the end of the book we talk about the Australian assistant manager Sid Storey. He was also the secretary of the Australian Soccer Football Association (or Commonwealth Football Association) and he wrote a report on the 1922 tour.

The report was reasonable, but just prior to the departure of the New Zealanders to come to Australia he wrote a letter to the NZFA saying that they were really concerned that the series wouldn’t make any money and they wanted the New Zealanders to play well. They were worried if they didn’t do well in the first two matches it wouldn’t attract enough spectators to cover the finances. The NZFA kept the letter from the players and the media until after the players had left. And then it appeared in the newspapers and there was quite a bit of hoohah against this letter. There was this sort of acrimony that was developed through this letter and the articles.

Storey didn’t like the New Zealand captain George Campbell because he was a character. And the Kiwis played a different style of football at that time, where barging was allowed. And it was allowed in England too, it was part of the FA rules – I had a copy of the rules for that season, and what the New Zealanders were using was quite legal. But the Australians didn’t like that, so they wanted to avoid it. Storey kept on making comments about it, and Campbell kept on sort of teasing him at certain farewell dinners and things of that nature. It was quite funny.

What happened to the Anzac Ashes mentioned in the title in the intervening years?

Guoth: The story goes that the captains smoked cigars after the Brisbane test in 1923 — the first in Australia — and each put the ashes of the cigars together, and those ashes were then put into a razor case. We were able to trace it up until the 1950s before it just disappeared. We found one article that said the Ashes were taken across or played for.

The government in Australia has actually provided a grant to a Victorian historian to try to find the Ashes, which is quite fascinating. It’ll be interesting if he can.

A gulf in footballing quality between the two countries developed pretty quickly after 1923. What would you attribute that to?

Guoth: I could say greed. But basically when it came to sharing tours the Australians wanted so much more than they should have. A percentage of the profits, plus New Zealand to cover the costs for this, that, and the other, and New Zealand just baulked at that sort of stuff.

So they wanted to organise things themselves and of course, coming to New Zealand is one step further than coming to Australia so a lot of teams just didn’t. And New Zealand didn’t organise foreign tours until much later. So I think it was more finances and distance.

Burning Ambition: The Centenary of Australia-New Zealand Football Ashes is available in book stores in New Zealand.

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