There was a time, and a none too distant one at that, when the ‘Number 7’ shirt of Manchester United was arguably the most revered in football.
The iconic Eric Cantona solidified its status in football folklore after assigned squad numbers became compulsory in the 1993/94 Premier League season, elevating its prestige that had gradually evoked in the preceding 30 years.
The beloved George Best wore the shirt close to 150 times, most memorably in the 1968 European Cup victory against Benfica at Wembley, when Sir Matt Busby’s side became the first English side to achieve the feat. Willie Morgan - bought in the proceeding summer following that trophy - actively chose to adopt it more prevalently in the early 70s, the Scottish forward dragging Tommy Doherty’s Red Devils back up to the top tier after their post-Busby slump.
Bryan Robson became synonymous with the shirt when the intrinsic nature of player and jersey was relatively uncommon, a strong case being that ‘Captain Marvel’ is the club’s most important, or even greatest, player in their luminous history, defining himself in a period when Manchester United didn’t have the behemothic league dominance they later became known for under Sir Alex Ferguson. Mr 100% every. single. game, Robson became the first Man Utd player to lift the FA Cup on three occasions and remains a totem of the club not just as the skipper with the longest tenure, unapologetically adored by the long-term United faithful, even as much as Cantona.
After Cantona’s retirement in 1997, when the Frenchman had helped restore the league title at Old Trafford on four occasions after a quarter-century hiatus, the mantle was past onto David Beckham who was perhaps the first player to recognise the Number 7’s supremacy above all other numbers, no doubt instigated from Becks being a fan of the club since childhood. After the midfielder’s departure to Real Madrid, Ferguson decided on gifting it to a 18-year-old Portuguese signing from Sporting CP. Cristiano Ronaldo would become the most talented player to ever grace the Premier League.
If in the 60s it belonged to Best, the ‘70s to Morgan, 80s defined by Captain Marvel, 90s with Cantona, and the ‘00s Ronaldo, with Beckham interlocking the latter two, the ‘tweens’ have been noticeably devoid of any such presence.
Michael Owen (2009 - 2012)
It could have been a whole lot different had Michael Carrick accepted Ferguson’s offer of the Number seven shirt after Ronaldo was sold, like Beckham, to Real Madrid in 2009.
Across his 12-year United career, Carras showed the same unwavering commitment to the cause, and though many initially scoffed at the £18m fee it cost United to purchase him from Tottenham Hotspur in 2006, the midfielder finished his playing career as one of the most decorated in the club’s history.
Instead those flocking to the United Store at the end of the ‘00s most likely had to pair the seven with the name of former Liverpool forward Michael Owen on the back, after he arrived as a free agent from Newcastle United. A last-minute derby-winner aside, Owen’s stint is not fondly remembered.
Antonio Valencia (2013 - 2014)
The Ecuadorian eventually became a long-standing servant of the club, leaving after a decade and as the last outfield title-winner. After one season of wearing the 7, the winger (soon to be right-back) was outspoken in feeling intimidated about representing that number, and abdicated after one season. Valencia left the club in the top 50 highest appearance makers for United.
Angel Di Maria (2014 - 2015)
Ceremoniously booed on his return to Old Trafford in 2019 with Paris Saint-Germain, it’s hard to think that the Argentine playmaker knew which city he was in let alone the history he carried with the shirt. A solid beginning in the Louis van Gaal era following a record-breaking £59.7m move from Real Madrid, turned into a tepid slow death. One house robbery later and Di Maria was on his way to the French capital.
Memphis Depay (2015 - 2017)
Bought from Eredivisie champions PSV Eindhoven as the league’s top goalscorer, the Dutchman lasted just two seasons, the second with just four appearances for United under his belt. Has reclaimed a great deal of credibility at Olympique Lyonnais, and has shown his affection for his old club upon a return to Manchester to defeat rivals City, though persistent questions regarding his attitude remains.
Alexis Sanchez (2018 - )
And this is where it has led. One of the most dangerous forwards of the last decade with Arsenal has now become a byword for failure, his unmatched astronomic wages opening up Manchester United to further mockery. If anything has summed up Sanchez’ move to Old Trafford adequately, it’s that Nathaniel Mendez-Laing scored more at Old Trafford than the Chilean in the 18/19 season, with his brace for Cardiff on the final game of the season.
It’s sad reading that the total tally amounts to over £100million - not even taking into account wages - being spent on finding an adequate replacement worthy of the Number 7.
Less commonplace in association football, and usually reserved for more unfortunate circumstances, in the NBA in North America for example, franchises share the commitment to leave the legacy of heralded greats intact by retiring the particular shirt number of the player with exceptional service. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Bulls, Wilt ‘The Stilt’ Chamberlain #13, at the Warriors, the Lakers, and the 76ers.
For United however adopting practice looks increasingly unlikely; they’re now continually facing a paradox; that unrelenting belief in the Number 7s’ mysticism and sacredness prevailing, even though the past decade has proven that that legacy can be tarnished with each unfulfilled passing year; those icons who formerly donned the hallowed shirt have been replaced with iconoclasts.