When there were just eleven shirt numbers to play with, for reasons that are probably lost to history, the number 6 was more often than not given to the left half which in modern parlance was left side midfield. A left half was usually but not always a defensive midfield player, back in the days when the favoured formation was a 2-3-5. Left sided players more often not got to wear the six shirt until such times as 4-4-2 and 4-4-3 formations became the vogue since when, at Arsenal anyway, the number has been more often been associated with central defenders.
Once upon a time football shirts didn't have numbers. So the first Arsenal player to wear the number 6 way back in the 1930's should have been Wilf Copping. Because despite being told not to by the Football League Arsenal's most famous manager Herbert Chapman had shirt numbering done as a trial anyway. Who actually first wore the 6 shirt I have no idea, I'd just like to think that it was the legendary Wilf, who is alleged by many to be the hardest player ever to pull on any sort of Arsenal shirt numbered or otherwise.
So let's consider which players have actually worn the number 6 shirt prior to Tony Adams. The Football League introduced compulsory numbering of shirts for the 1939/40 season, but the season only lasted 3 games before the outbreak of war. This would point to Ernie Collett, who was with the Club for forty-six years as player, coach and scout or maybe Welsh International Leslie Jones being amongst the first to wear the 6 shirt. The first full peacetime football that was played with numbered shirts was in the 1946/7 season. Which gives us a list of players which starts something like this: George Curtis who played just 11 matches, Henry Waller who managed just 8 first team appearances, the prolific Jimmy Logie, a Scottish International, who more usually and more properly wore the 8 shirt and Welsh International Bryn Jones who was more often seen wearing the 10.
Next up was the legendary Joe Mercer, an English International whom many would argue was our greatest ever captain and one of the most influential players we've ever had. Joe was a definite case for retiring the shirt in his own right. He was followed by Irish International ‘Paddy' Sloan, next came Scotland's Alex Forbes who won two League and one Cup winners medal with Arsenal and Welsh International Dave Bowen. Bill Dickson a Northern Ireland International was next, he was succeeded by Peter Goring who won League and Cup medals with Arsenal and then Don Oakes who played more often in our reserves had a turn. As did Cliff Holton who wore it for quite but also wore the 9 shirt as a rampaging centre forward, he too won League and Cup honours. Johnny Petts an England Youth International was followed by Scottish International Tommy Docherty who had more Clubs than shirt numbers but who hung around Arsenal long enough to play 90 competitive matches. Vic Groves an England Amateur, Youth and under 23's International was Perry Groves' uncle and also a much better player. He was followed by Irish International Terry Neill who was not only our youngest ever captain but also our youngest manager. Then came Eddie Clamp who played in the 1958 World Cup whilst with Wolves, John Sneddon a Scottish schoolboy International, Gerry Ward who won English Amateur and Youth caps and Laurie Brown who we quite rightly fobbed off to the Scum.
Double winner Peter Simpson first wore it in 1964 but made it his own a few seasons later, Peter was the best uncapped English defender ever and regarded by some Gooners as a better player than Bobby Moore. He too was worthy of retiring the 6 shirt and not just because he played a massive 886 matches competitive matches at all levels for Arsenal. Billy McCullough the Irish International fullback wore it but was far more commonly seen in the number 3. David Court who played in every position bar goal-keeper had a turn. Frank McLintock who quickly changed to number 4 and made that particular number his own. Scottish International Ian Ure who arrived with a world record price tag for a centre half which he never lived up to. Ure was sent off four times and played a big role for Swindon in the best-forgotten League Cup Final. Welsh International Tom Walley, a certain George Graham who settled into the 10 shirt, Jon Sammels although it was not his usual number either and John Roberts another Welsh International and very much an unsung hero of our first Double season in 1971.
The cult hero and ever popular Charlie George wore the 6 shirt but far more often wore 8, 9, 10, 11 or even 12 when substitutes arrived and added a previously unseen shirt number into the mix. Jeff Blockley an English International who didn't deserve to wear any Arsenal shirt and still causes considerable pain to anyone able to recall the Sunderland semi-final of 1973. Brendon Batson who wore it once, as did English International, Double winner and much feared hatchet man Peter Storey who looked far more at home in the 2 or 4. Eddie Kelly another Scottish International and Double winning hero who scored in the 1971 Cup Final, the bald Terry Mancini a rather moderate player but cult hero who more usually wore 5. The great Liam Brady who also wore 8,11,10 and 12 before settling down with his famous number 7 shirt. David O'Leary had a short spell in the 6 shirt before going on to settle in his more accustomed number 5. Scottish International and cult hero Willie Young, anyone remember the 'We've got the biggest Willie' chant? Richie Powling a potentially great player dogged by injuries was followed by Pat Howard. Steve Walford a substitute in the 1979 Cup Final, the popular Chris ‘Huggy' White an under 21 International and Stewart Robson another great player whose career was shortened by injury, Stewart made his debut as a 17 year old and was voted our player of the year in 1985. Next came a Welsh International head case called Peter Nicholas, Colin Hill who found success elsewhere and Tommy Caton who died tragically young. Then came Tony Adams who first wore it before there was such a thing as squad numbers. Martin Keown also wore it in his first spell with us as did Michael Thomas, but only because Adams didn't play in that game. From here on in it was more often than not worn by Tony up until the event of squad numbering in the mid-nineties. Since when it has been Tony Adam's number and his alone.
I am totally against retiring any Arsenal shirt number. They are all far too steeped in history as I hope I've illustrated with this brief history of the number 6. Most of the above named players wore the shirt with pride, so how inspirational would it be for players as yet unborn to be added to the list? The 6 shirt has recently endured a respectful break from active duty but I reckon the time has come to give it to Kolo Toure. Not necessarily because I think he's the new Tony Adams but more so because it would set him a target to aspire to and I have a hunch he's up to it. Some might suggest that Kolo would suffer by comparison, to which I say so what? Many who have followed Joe Mercer or Peter Simpson were not totally but that's just the way it goes. The 7 shirt was magic when Liam Brady wore it, is it any less magic now that Pires wears it? The 4 shirt was very special when Frank McLintock wore it but no one would say that Vieira is unworthy of the number. Someone in the future will make the 6 shirt his own very special number once more and who's to say that it shouldn't or wouldn't be Kolo?
If you see anyone wearing any sort of Arsenal shirt that says Legend 6 we all know who that refers, right? If you see anyone else at Arsenal wearing the six shirt it will have their name on it, no confusion there surely? For my money giving any player one of the numbers between 1 and 11 is an accolade. It says to that player here it is, we have faith in you, you've earned the number now go out and prove you are worthy of the shirt. The perfect case in my opinion then for giving the 6 shirt to Kolo Toure next season.