Jumper lore

On the way to the footy last Saturday night, I stopped in to change my mobile phone plan. This involved a fair bit of lightning typing from an under 25, who drew breath only to ask me: ‘Do you want me to do a number sequence search on anything in particular?’ After looking blankly at her, she explained that she could put any two or three numbers into the computer and it would bring up a handful of available numbers which contained that preferred sequence. And if you didn’t like any of them, it would give you another 5 possibilities. And on and on until you found one you could relate to. ’19,’ I replied. She typed *19*.

19 is my favourite number. It is the day I was born. I like its almost but not quite nature. I like its graphic asymmetry, its oddness. I like the number of ways you can write both the 1 and the 9. But the full stop to my love of the number 19 is that my all time favourite player – Michael O’Loughlin – wore it on his back.

With my new 919 number in hand, I dropped the Cygnet and his Dad at gate C of the SCG. The Cygnet was playing at half time with the Under 8 Auskickers. Last time his team had played on the ground they had been forced into the Brisbane Lions colours. Despite admitting that the Lions’ kit was ‘actually pretty comfy,’ the Cygnet was bemused why they, the Newtown Swans, should have to wear the northern colours while the East Sydney Bulldogs got to wear the red and white. But this time, a year on, he leapt from the car, turned back and said – ‘I’ve just worked it out. Maybe they got to wear the red and white because we get to wear it all the time. Fair enough.’ And he slammed the door and waved.

Jumpers are a serious business; there seems to be an inestimable amount of lore that goes on around the assignment and presentation, the retirement and reanimation of the numbers on those synthetic vests. Sydney’s recent past is no exception: the hutzpah of Ben Matthews taking the number 4 once Lockett went into retirement and not offering it back when Lockett came out of retirement; the presentation of the hallowed #14 to Craig ‘he better be good’ Bird; Tadhg Kennelly’s ‘dying’ wish to have Tommy Walsh take over his #17, thereby anointing it an ‘Irish jumper’. And then, in the big recycling year of 2010 when Barry, Crouch and O’Loughlin’s jumpers were all reallocated after not even a year in the closet, the #19 was conveniently handed to Bradshaw as a ‘goal square jumper’. When the Bradshaw experiment didn’t work out, the #19 resumed its rightful mantle as an ‘Indigenous jumper’, worn now, with great appeal, by Tony Armstrong.

All whimsy aside, jumpers can be a genuinely serious business. Shortly after Liam Jurrah’s arrest in Alice Springs, the core of the long running clan dispute was exposed in the mainstream press. As Martin Flanagan explained it: ‘An older player of the Yuendumu Magpies, a stalwart of the side, retired and his guernsey was passed on to a newcomer. Great significance is attached to players’ guernseys. When the newcomer to the Yuendumu team fell ill with cancer and died, the belief grew that the player who had formerly worn his guernsey was responsible for his death.’ The jumper was thought to be cursed.


Having parked in a nook in Paddo, I walked back towards the ground. It is rare that I walk to the SCG alone. The hotdogs were cooking in the window of the pub on the corner, the broadcast wrapping up the pre-game on the box inside. People had begun to spill into the first chilly night, wrapped in their scarves. An overly coiffed man stepped out in front of me intent on his phone. He wore tailored pants, polished brogues and a striped shirt, somewhat incongruously vested by a Swans guernsey. I trailed him down Moore Park Road. And just before we turned towards the SCG, I noticed that he was wearing the #14. What? It didn’t feel like a good sign for the contested ball.

It is rare that I am seated in the O’Reilly in time for the warm up. It charms me that no matter what the particular garment – training tee, game day guernsey, player polo, warm up shirt – each player is consistently branded with their very own number. When play kicked off, Smith went to Porplyzia – 40 on 40. It’s an old game we play but it’s rare to get 40 on 40. McVeigh picked up Reilly, 3 on 3; O’Keefe went to Thompson, 5 on 5. We knew we were in for an even contest.

The game had just about everything – a strong midfield contest, classy displays at both ends of goal. It had crash and bash and runs in space, and a very dynamic score line. It’s rare that Adam Goodes is injured. But it didn’t go unnoticed that when our #37 limped off to the bench, their #37 Ian Callinan kicked the ‘turning point’ goal. As we began to catastrophise Goodes’ substitution into the end of his career, one of the O’Reilly boys suggested that when it does come to an end, they hang up the #37 for 304 and a half games.

It took 14 seasons of football, from the competition’s genesis in 1897 until the finals of 1911, for numbers on the backs of players to be introduced, in part to make players more identifiable to spectators and umpires. But numbered guernseys also coincided with the publication of the first Football Record. How serendipitous then that I was so ensconced in jumper lore the week the Record turned 100.


The Cygnet is no stranger to guernsey tales. He went to a superhero party when he still wore Size 2 Chesty Bonds. I sewed a white 21 on his back. Yes, it was early 2006! When his cousins gave him his first Swans jumper – size 4 – he had me masking tape a number 9 on the back. It made sense to me that he picked Malceski. The Cygnet was a watchful child, the kind of child that observes before he strikes. But there was something else I admired about his method. Despite the tape surviving many a warm cycle, it allowed the ebbing tides of favour to be accommodated by that little guernsey. When his playing days started he was handed the #16. You can imagine the retrospective relief that he was switched this year to Mattner’s #29 a couple of weeks before the #16 went down with a badly broken leg.

At half time the Newtown Swans Under 8s wore plain red. The Cygnet kicked 2 goals 3 and had a tonne of ball in the centre. He returned to our seats, happy and tired and read Winnie-the-Pooh til the final siren.

About Mathilde de Hauteclocque

Swans member since 2000, Mathilde likes to wile away her winters in the O'Reilly stand with 'the boys', flicking through the Record and waiting to see the half backs drive an explosive forward movement. She lives in Sydney and raises a thirteen year old Cygnet.


  1. Lord Bogan says

    Beautifully written Mathilde,
    I was also born on the 19th and can relate to the numeric significance. Everyone is a number before they become a name.

  2. A lovely piece.
    I too was born on the 19th.
    My father wore number nine in his playing days. When I started playing, I wanted his number too but our ruckman had that number (his name was Richard Marr, drafted as a teenager by Fitzroy but never went across), so I got the next number in line – 10. 10 & 9 = 19.

    A fabled number at our footy club is number 44 – a little fella by the name of John Platten made that one pretty famous.

  3. John Harms says

    MdeH, I like how The Cygnet thinks (re opportunity to wear the red and white).

  4. Tony Robb says

    Wonderful stuff Mathilde
    I’ve always been a five man. The Cygnet obviously goes well on and off the field. It made me smile how a kid can be running around on the same stage as the big boys then content himself with winni the poo for the rest of the game. Kind of puts things in perspective The AFL should take note

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