João Cancelo wearing the number seven will take a bit of getting used to. When you look at his average position, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was a winger, but the Manchester City star is one of the best fullbacks in world football. Seeing City’s new number seven in action against Newcastle last weekend got me thinking of other players who have taken peculiar shirt numbers in their career. Wilfried Bony donning the number two shirt on his return to Swansea was strange to say the least. Ironically, it equalled the number of league goals he scored that campaign, as the Swans were relegated from the Premier League. At least there was some symmetry between his shirt number and his output.
Chelsea have had an absolute stinker when you look at the history of their number 9s, leading fans to believe it’s a curse. Gonzalo Higuain looked about two stone overweight for Premier League football and was never going to be a viable long-term option. I am convinced Alvaro Morata is part of a money laundering campaign – nothing I have seen from him suggests he should be worth anywhere near the money that clubs throw about. Before Morata it was Radamel Falcao, who failed to match his goalscoring record at Porto and Atletico Madrid.
Then there was Fernando Torres, who didn’t do as badly as some people make out, but certainly didn’t hit the heights that he did in a Liverpool shirt. The open goal miss against Manchester United springs to mind. Don’t even get me started on Khalid Boulahrouz and Steve Sidwell, absolutely pathetic. Maybe Chelsea should just retire the shirt to avoid further embarrassment.
None are quite as unforgivable as Edgar Davids wearing the number one shirt at Barnet. In fact, Davids’ Barnet story is completely bonkers from start to finish. How has a man with 74 Netherlands caps, a Champions League winners medal and a combined six league titles ended up playing lower league football in Hertfordshire? If this is a question you’ve ever asked yourself, then you’re in the right place
Edgar Davids’ spell at Barnet was not the first time he had come out of retirement. Having begun his career in the Ajax academy, where he was nicknamed the ‘Pitbull’ by Louis Van Gaal, the Dutchman went on to play for a whole host of top clubs across Europe. He returned to the Amsterdam Arena in the 2007 January transfer window, with many fans expecting him to retire at the club. After struggling with injuries throughout his second spell at the club, the Pitbull announced that he was going to retire at the end of the 2007/08 season, or so everyone thought.
Two years later, on the 24th of August, Championship side Crystal Palace announced that they had signed Davids on a pay-as-you-play contract. Okay yes, he was 37, his legs had almost completely gone, but the former Champions League-winning midfielder was considered a real coup for George Burley’s Palace side. That was of course until Burley decided to play him at left-back. One of the best midfielders of his generation getting torn apart by Portsmouth’s right winger in the second round of the League Cup because his legs had gone – what a fall from grace. Davids could only tolerate Burley for five games before announcing his departure from the club on the 8th of November 2010.
After a successful spell at Tottenham Hotspur between 2005 and 2007, the Pitbull and his wife owned a property in North London, where they continued to live following his Crystal Palace departure. Davids had been pictured playing street football in North London and was also seen coaching Sunday League amateur side Brixton United, technically his first foray into management.
Tony Kleanthous, the chairman of North London’s forgotten club Barnet, invited Davids to visit the Bees’ state-of-the-art training facilities. The invitation was sent almost tongue in cheek by Kleanthous, not expecting anything to actually come to fruition. It is the sort of move that I would make when managing a lower league side on Football Manager – free agent, lots of experience, and a single-digit stat for stamina and natural fitness.
Surprisingly, the Pitbull obliged, going to meet the ambitious chairman at the Hive. A week later and he was unveiled as Barnet’s new player-manager in a move that sent shockwaves across the world. A second rescinded retirement for Davids, who would now be plying his trade in League Two
Still to this day, I have no idea how Kleanthous pulled this off. It’s not even like he could sell the club to Davids using their league form, as Barnet made one of the worst starts in Football League history. The Bees had failed to win in any of their first 11 League Two games, losing eight of them, solidifying their place at the bottom of the league, several points adrift of safety. Sounds like the sort of job that Sam Allardyce would be drooling over. Maybe the orange kit made Davids feel like he was playing for the Netherlands again.
A bit like the Dutchman’s playing career, the joint-manager role had also been resurrected by his appointment. By the 2010s the sight of two managers in the same dugout was somewhat of a rarity, but for Barnet fans, it would become a weekly occurrence. Instead of taking the managerial reigns solo, the Pitbull shared managerial duties with Mark Robson. Having come from vastly contrasting career paths, the pair made chalk and cheese look like siblings.
Just one day after signing for the club, the dreadlocked Dutchman oversaw his first game in charge, a 4-1 home defeat at the hands of Plymouth Argyle. Like the modest man he is, he left himself out of the squad altogether, which isn’t really surprising considering he hadn’t kicked a ball competitively for around two years.
Not a great result to start off with, but his appointment conveniently coincided with an upturn in fortunes. In his second game, Barnet ended a barren spell of 13 games without a win, recording a 4-0 victory at home to Northampton. Davids gifted himself the captain’s armband and played the full 90 minutes, earning the man of the match award for his dominance in the midfield.
Things soon went south for Davids, who was brought back down to earth after a six-game winless streak. Despite this, the dreadlocked Dutchman had quickly become the face of football in Hertfordshire, making Robson a bit of a peripheral figure in the Barnet set-up. There’s a reason that the joint-manager role went out of fashion very quickly, as Robson quickly found out. The forgotten Englishman stepped down from his role as manager on the 28th of December 2012, leaving the Pitbull in sole charge of Barnet’s relegation scrap.
Whilst stories of his training ground antics would suggest he didn’t actually care, Davids was desperate to steer the club out of the relegation zone. Barnet’s early season form had created a huge handicap for the Dutchman but the light at the end of the tunnel was getting closer and closer. Although they started the campaign in third place due to alphabetical order, the 3-0 defeat to Port Vale on the opening day saw the bees cemented to the bottom two of the league, a place they had remained for the best part of seven months.
A 2-0 win against Southend United saw Barnet’s name no longer highlighted in red when viewing the league table, as they climbed outside of the relegation zone, in 21st place. As well as installing a slightly more attractive brand of football than the usual hoof ball found in the lower leagues of English football, Davids had instilled belief into his players and fans that survival was doable.
From zero to hero
The Pitbull was known in his career as an aggressive and combative midfielder, but he overstepped the mark in a vital game, getting sent off in the closing stages of the game in a costly 3-2 defeat to Accrington Stanley. Outraged by his stupidity in the final minutes, Barnet fans boarded the dreaded four-hour coach back home knowing that they were only out of the relegation zone on goal difference.
Unfortunately for the 36 fans that made the away trip to Accrington, their evening was about to get far worse. Not far into the four-hour journey home, their coach broke down in the middle of the motorway, leaving them completely stranded. Made aware of the situation, Davids ordered the team coach to turn around at the next junction and drop the abandoned supporters off at the closest service station. This immediately catapulted Davids into Barnet folklore, showing that he had really bought into the club and the lower league state of mind. The gesture had also ensured that his earlier dismissal was quickly forgotten about. It also seemingly brought a togetherness between the team and fans, which saw the bees pick up eight points in the following four games.
Final day drama
Barnet went into the 46th and final matchday of the League Two season just one point above the dropzone, meaning fate was in their own hands. They faced a Northampton side plotting their revenge for the 4-0 drubbing earlier in the season. Unfortunately for Davids, the cobblers got their revenge, and it turned out to be far sweeter than they could ever have imagined. A 2-0 defeat at Sixfields, combined with AFC Wimbledon’s 2-1 victory at Fleetwood saw Davids’s side relegated on the final day of the season due to goal difference.
He may have rocked up to training in designer gear and a flashy Bentley, but Davids can’t be to blame for Barnet’s relegation. He inherited a team winless in twelve games and completely shot of confidence, guiding them to within inches of one of the greatest escapes the Football League would have seen. All things considered, he had done a pretty stellar job. Who knows what would have happened if he was instated just a few months earlier?
The Pitbull off the leash
Following their relegation to the Conference Premier, many suspected that the ageing midfielders’ days in black and amber were over. With the rumours circulating, Davids announced his intentions to stick it out and return the club back to the Football League. A massive coup for chairman Kleanthous, who not only secured the services of a manager who got the best out of an average squad, but also ensured that all eyes would remain on the club for their Conference Premier. He even stated that Davids had started “a football revolution”.
Fast forward a few months and Kleanthous’ comments looked rather stupid. To put it politely, Davids’s second season at the bees was a circus act. The jokes began before a ball had even been kicked, when he assigned himself the number one shirt in a bid to start a trend. Only the most egotistical of footballers would request the number one shirt, but hey he’s Edgar Davids and he quite clearly did what he wanted. Fair to say this trend didn’t catch on.
Then it was announced that Davids simply wouldn’t bother with any away trips that required an overnight stay, a decision which I am sure would have infuriated even his biggest fans. How can you be the manager of a football club when you aren’t actually present for half the matches? That being said, his Barnet side made an impressive start to the season. Davids may have only actually been there for three of the games, but his side won four of their first six games in the Conference.
Barnet followed this up with a four-game winless run, which prompted the 40-year-old midfielder to clear the cobwebs off his boots and get back on the pitch in a bit to change Barnet’s fortunes. At this point, I bet Kleanthous wish he hadn’t bothered persuading the Dutchman to stay.
Davids may have been making a few enemies off the pitch with his shenanigans, but his biggest enemy was often the man in the middle. He’s always been a referee’s nightmare, with his tenacious ways testing the limits of some of Europe’s finest. His track record for bookings in England prior to his Barnet spell didn’t make for great reading, although to put it politely, the standard of refereeing in England is, and was, a complete shambles. Even with the use of VAR in the modern game, referees are still getting decisions wrong. Three minutes to award an offside using lines that look like they’ve been drawn by a diabetic with low blood sugar. Many believe the technology has killed some of the joy involved with watching a Premier League football match, me being one of them.
If the referees are bad in the Premier League, you can make a reasonable assumption that the refereeing level is far worse in the lower tiers of English football. For those of you that have never attended a non-league game, imagine a slightly balding middle-aged man with a dad bod and limited eyesight trying to keep up with the ball. That’s the standard we are talking about.
Predictably, the non-league refs took a bit of a disliking to Davids, who may as well have had his name pre-printed in the referee’s notepad. Whether it was his carefree ill-discipline, or non-league refs looking to get their five minutes of fame, Davids went on an incredible run of three red cards in just five appearances. Rumour has it Granit Xhaka has posters of the dreadlocked Dutchman hanging in his bedroom.
Following his third sending-off in nearly as many games, Davids claimed that it was a conspiracy against Barnet, vowing never to play on pitch anymore. It’s a shame for the bees, as the Pitbull proved both his class and quality on the pitch during their League Two campaign, but time had seemingly caught up with him. He was pretty much playing for himself at this stage, sometimes lining up at centre back, other games as a number 10. It really depended on whether he could be bothered to run or not.
End of an era
Following a 2-1 away defeat to Chester, Barnet announced that Davids had left the club by ‘mutual consent’. Yes, the Dutchman definitely tarnished some of his reputation at the club with the mockery he made of their Conference Premier campaign, but most Barnet fans still look back on the Davids era with fondness. There was always an air of unpredictability throughout his reign which added to the supporter’s excitement. Some days he’d rock up and put in a 10/10 performance, winning man of the match. In other games he would show a complete disregard to the laws of the game, hacking away at the opposition’s shins and getting himself sent off. You never knew what version of the Pitbull you were going to get, but many Bees fans were just grateful that they got to witness the distinctive Dutch icon in the flesh at all.