A new season provides a fresh start in football – a welcome chance to hit the reset button.
For Darwin Nunez, the 2023/24 season will be one in which his performances are heavily scrutinised – is the Uruguayan productive enough to be described as an elite level player?
At least Nunez himself isn’t shirking the challenge – in fact, the 24-year-old is positively owning it after requesting the number nine shirt for the forthcoming season.
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) July 13, 2023
Some of the most legendary players in Liverpool’s history have been adorned with that magic number, so will Nunez swell those ranks or will be cast aside as another pretender to the crown.
And, most pertinently of all, who is the greatest number nine in Liverpool’s history?
Traditionally, the primary function of a number nine has been to score goals – and lots of them.
If finding the net is the best measure of a number nine, then nobody can lay a glove on Ian Rush – Liverpool’s all-time leading goalscorer.
The moustachioed marksman plundered 346 goals for the Reds – a tally that is pretty much double anyone else’s barring the great Roger Hunt. While Mo Salah is still active, he’s some 160 or so goals away from Rush’s miraculous achievement.
His ability to find the net is such that few individuals have done more to contribute to Liverpool’s trophy cabinet at Anfield – Rush won five First Division titles, three FA Cups and a European Cup during a reign of dominance for the Reds that transcended English and continental football.
He is, and perhaps always will be, Liverpool’s greatest striker and their best-ever number nine.
As one door closes, another opens.
As Rush was bringing the curtain down on his career, in his place would come a confident young striker born on the doorstep of Anfield in Toxteth.
Robbie Fowler didn’t start his Liverpool career as the number nine – he wore 14, 23, 12 and 11 at various points, but he certainly ended his tenure at Anfield as a contender for the club’s best ever number nine.
He couldn’t boast the goals (183) or the trophies (one UEFA Cup and an FA Cup the pick of the bunch) of Rush, but he became an ultra-popular figure on the terraces nonetheless – only the absolute greats get called ‘God’ by their fanbase.
As well as his brilliance on the pitch, Fowler became a media figure of fun thanks to his place in Liverpool’s ‘Spice Boys’ generation, as well as a folk hero for standing up for the industrial action of the city’s dockers in 1997 with his infamous ‘DoCKer’ t-shirt which was revealed during a goal celebration.
Although not an archetypal number nine in his style of play, Roberto Firmino deserves to be in the discussion thanks to his all-round contributions on the pitch.
It’s doubtful that any Liverpool number nine has created as many assists in the red shirt as Firmino, and while a goal-to-game ratio of one-in-three is perhaps below-par, he was beloved by Jurgen Klopp for his efforts that went beyond simply putting the ball in the back of the net.
Firmino won the Premier League title, a Champions League and an FA Cup while leading the Liverpool line, which led to a glowing tribute from Klopp when the Brazilian left the club in 2023.
“He is so integral for everything what happened here in my time. I will be grateful forever for everything he did for us, for me, and he will go down as one of the Liverpool greats,” the manager said.
Ian St John
Younger fans might give Fernando Torres a nod in the debate, but there was another Liverpool number nine who scored more goals for the club and who won more trophies into the bargain.
Ian St John notched 118 goals for Liverpool and won two First Division titles, but it was the all-round part he played alongside Hunt in helping the Reds – who were at this time relegated to the Second Division – become the most dominant force in English football that deserves the most credit.
An FA Cup win in 1965 saw Liverpool qualify for the European Cup Winners’ Cup, in which they finished runners-up, so St John can lay claim to firing Liverpool to success both domestically and on the continent too.
He would later become known as one half of jocular football presenting duo ‘Saint and Greavsie’ alongside Jimmy Greaves, but don’t let that fool you: St John was no laughing matter on the pitch at Anfield.