A few years ago players in the Premier League seemed on the verge of introducing a series of helpful semiotics to combat the confusion caused by ever-mushrooming squad numbers. Chief in this revised numerology was the No23 shirt. The No23, garlanded by association with Michael Jordan, became the first real Statement Shirt. David Beckham wore the No23 at Real Madrid, was aped by a generation of junior twinkle-toes back home, and for a while it was easy shorthand. Fussily primped hair? No23 shirt? Yes, here comes Spiderman. Jamie Carragher, who has carved a brilliant career out of basically playing football with his hands, like an energetic junior supply teacher trying to break up a game of classroom head tennis, even adopted the ironical No23 shirt, a piece of rare football shirt-related numerological wit. But mainly the 23 shirt said: "I consider myself an outstanding talent. I wish to be noticed. Even if, in a moment of self-fulfilling circularity, I will probably as a result turn out to be something of a disappointment in this regard."
The number 23 was again prominent this week in a separate but not unrelated guise, providing instead a triangulating point in the careers of three of the most prominent English footballers of the year thus far. Daniel Sturridge and Theo Walcott are both 23 years old: Sturridge has now signed for Liverpool, the third "humongous" club in a career of fewer than 50 Premier League starts; Walcott has spent the week engaged in late-stage contractual shenanigans of his own, a will-he-won't‑he saga of trauma-inducing tedium. And separately there was a moment of Premier League zombie-resurrection for Shaun Wright‑Phillips, who in scoring Queens Park Rangers' winner against Chelsea performed his most significant act on a football field since becoming at the age of 23 the third most expensive player ever transferred between two English clubs, José Mourinho paying £21m to take him to scattergun-overspend-era Chelsea. Wright-Phillips, now 31, remains one of the most intriguingly marginalised figures in recent English football history.
I saw him make his full Chelsea debut in 2005. He wore the 24 shirt – 23 was already taken – in a 4-0 defeat of West Brom and remained a figure of great promise, a skill-munchkin of scuttling, pirouetting imagination, perhaps even a glimpse of some alternative future whereby English football's dominant size-obsession might be entirely inverted, replaced by a generation of footballing centaurs space-hoppering their way across a clumsily over-scale footballing universe. Except, this never happened and Wright-Phillips's career has instead been a process of gathering deceleration from that 23-year-old high. At Chelsea it took him 17 months to score his first goal. The past seven years have brought just 60 starts. So much so that, judged on £30m combined transfer fees versus actual football achievements, Wright-Phillips is perhaps pound-for-pound the most disappointing English footballer ever.
At first glance the oddest thing about this is that he presents no obvious cautionary tale for high-end 23-year-olds everywhere. There is no ballad of SWP, no catalogue of injuries and personal crises, just a sense of plateauing out, of stasis. At Chelsea his career congealed into a place where basically very little football happened, a state of elite Premier League alienation whereby it is reward enough simply to exist within the insulating dome of that airless calfskin-upholstered world, irreversibly celebrified.
Sturridge, at least, has a restlessness about him. This is a man on the move. But to where exactly? If Wright-Phillips at 23 had a substantial footballing presence, Sturridge has so far concocted a career that exists only in grand outline. Last summer across the Euro 2012 host cities he could be seen peering down in Stalinist-scale reproduction – Sturridge awnings, Sturridge friezes – as part of a car advertising campaign, even as the actual Sturridge was back home preparing to be a substitute at the Olympics. Perhaps the problem for Sturridge is that he has been about to be a really great footballer for far too long already – at 16 the star turn in Manchester City's 2006 FA Youth Cup finalists, but now seen most often with a terribly aggrieved look, the air of a man who feels crowded, insufficiently celebrated, as though there are just too many other people on the pitch, obstacles in his own private game of Sturridge-ball.
And yet, he too has real talent. At Old Trafford this summer he scored the goal of the Olympics, celebrating as ever not like man contributing to a finely poised team sport, but as though what has happened here is that Daniel Sturridge Has Scored A Goal. Plus he remains a brilliant mover with flicks and tricks and dinks at his disposal, but somehow a lack of actual substance between the running and the flicks, like a man who has the suit, the car, the contacts book the 12-step motivational DVD series, but no actual day job to speak of.
Walcott offers a different take on the lot of the state-of-the-art 23-year-old. For so long presented as a kind of rustic ingenue, a nose twitching in the tree-line, a single wildly galloping pair of legs, his most common criticism has been that he lacks "a footballer's brain", but this is apparently no longer the case. Either a footballer's brain was always there, or one has been incubated, as witnessed by last season's link‑ups with Robin van Persie and by the rampant improvement in his finishing. This apparently isn't an instinct after all but can be learned, even if Walcott's finishing retains a peculiar mechanical fluidity, a wonderfully convincing Thierry Henry impression that still leaves a sense of vague unease, like watching a robot dancing expertly to disco music.
If Walcott is that rare thing, an English footballer who actually seems to be getting better in his early 20s, there is encouragement too in Sturridge's move to Liverpool, a club that will surely warm to a player who, with the right start and the right attitude, could yet restyle himself as kind of high‑spec Dirk Kuyt-with-attitude. Perhaps there is even some hope that this most notable pair of 23-year-old English not‑yet-theres may escape the familiar drag of early footballing prime. Both have a wonderful chance to buck the trend for mid-career drift, the entropy of the early-entitled, a condition best characterised as SWP ennui, and above all to escape, this time, the tyranny of 23.