When Arsenal handed Eddie Nketiah the No.14 shirt along with his bumper new contract, it wasn’t simply a case of a lower number for a man who had gradually made the move from 62 to 49 to last season’s 30.
Sure, a lower number hints at closer proximity to the first-team, at least in theory (though the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold at Liverpool have shown that’s not always necessary). However, as far as Arsenal are concerned, the number 14 shirt takes on a greater significance.
Plenty of players have made the number 14 their own around the world, from Johan Cruyff to Xabi Alonso and plenty in between. It has a storied history at Arsenal in particular, though, and here Mirror Football takes a closer look at every man to regularly wear the number since the Premier League replaced the old 1-11 format with regular squad numbers back in 1993.
Martin Keown (1993-99)
While Arsenal’s number 14 shirt has largely been associated with attacking players, that hasn’t always been the case. The likes of Anders Limpar and Eddie McGoldrick wore the shirt on occasion in the early years of the Premier League, but the 1993-94 season saw centre-back Keown do the honours.
The defender’s second spell with the London side lasted more than a decade, and involved Premier League titles in 1998, 2002 and 2004. The bulk of those games came with the former Aston Villa man wearing 14 on his back, too, including in the 1998 FA Cup final as Arsene Wenger’s team delivered a league and cup double.
Even Keown would probably admit he’s no Johan Cruyff, but that’s the beauty of the number – you can carve your own path with it and then it’s on the next occupant to change impressions of what it means to wear 14 for the Gunners. When Keown’s role as a starting centre-back allowed him to succeed Steve Bould in the number five shirt, the meaning of his old number would quickly change.
Shaun Botterill /Allsport)
Thierry Henry (1999-2007)
We’re not sure at what point the number 14 shirt became associated more closely with Henry than with Keown, but it’s probably somewhere between the Frenchman signing and him becoming the best player in the club’s Premier League history.
However, Henry wasn’t married to the number 14 shirt. Indeed, he has regularly worn 12 for France, but he was unable to do the same upon arriving in north London as a fresh-faced 21-year-old.
“I came back [on loan in 2012] with number 12, that’s my number actually,” Henry told former teammate Cesc Fabregas in 2020, as reported by Metro. “Fourteen is not my number. I took the number 14 at Arsenal because Christopher Wreh had number 12, so I didn’t want to take it off him.
“That’s the reason, I didn’t want to take it off him. That’s why when I came back, number 12 because of Marco van Basten at Euro 88.”
How different things might have been if Wreh had offered up his number. Or, indeed, if the Liberian international had left just a year earlier to free up the number when Henry arrived.
Theo Walcott (2008-18)
When Henry left for Barcelona in 2007, there was no obvious successor for that iconic shirt number. Indeed, for the entirety of the 2007-08 season, Arsenal left the shirt vacant, with no rush to put that extra pressure on any one member of their squad.
That season was a breakthrough campaign for Theo Walcott, though. The former Southampton youngster scored his first Premier League goals for the Gunners and also played his part in Europe – not least in the quarter-final against Liverpool, where a lung-busting run set up what looked like being a crucial equaliser, only for Rafa Benitez’s Reds to strike twice late on.
Walcott made his competitive England debut early in the 2008 season, and by then he was already wearing 14 for Arsenal. He would wear the number for almost a full decade before leaving Arsenal for Everton in January 2018.
“I’ve got Thierry’s shirt number now but he’s not getting it back, even if he comes back for a while,” Walcott said shortly before the Frenchman’s brief return in 2012. “I’ve already told him that.”
Sure, Walcott might not have hit Henry’s heights, but if that’s how we’re judging players then pretty much everyone will leave us disappointed. Important goals and close to 10 years of top-four finishes is hardly a bad return, anyway.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (2018-22)
While Aubameyang might have seemed to some as a natural number 14 when he joined Arsenal from Borussia Dortmund in 2018, it wasn’t his first choice. It wasn’t even his second.
“I like two numbers, nine and seven,” the Gabonese forward told Arsenal TV in 2020. “But (Alexandre Lacazette) has nine and Miki (Henrikh Mkhitaryan) had seven.
“I asked Miki before I came, ‘will you be taking the no.7?’ and he said yes so I said, ‘okay, I will try something else’.”
The manner of Aubameyang’s exit still hurts for many, but he did the number 14 shirt proud for much of his time at the Emirates Stadium. Indeed, Nketiah would surely be happy if he’s able to match his former teammate’s return of 92 goals at a rate of better than one every two games.