The Curios Curse of Manchester United’s Number 7 Shirt.

As Jadon Sancho’s transfer from Yellow to Red looks imminent, it seems inevitable that he will be the new number 7 at Old Trafford. We wanted to take a look at the legacy of this famed number and why no player has lived up to its hype in recent years.

Since 2009, 5 players have donned united’s famous number 7 jersey, scoring 15 goals accumulatively. For comparison, the previous 5 number 7’s had scored 349 goals between them.

The number 7 encapsulates more pressure than any other, its legacy has been sculpted and moulded over decades from the best players, the biggest personalities and the finest footballers. So who’s done it, and who’s contributed to todays curse?

George Best

First there was George Best, signing professionally for United in May 1963 as a skinny kid from Belfast, he made his debut and scored his first goal in September of that year. Best’s biggest contribution that season, a timely goal at Ellend Road ensured United beat Leeds to the league title, their first in almost a decade.

In 1968, he was instrumental in delivering the first European cup to British soil, his 28 goals that season made him PFA and European footballer of the year. In 1970, Best thumped 6 goals past Northampton Town in an 8-2 victory, giving him the record for the most goals in an English game, which still stands today. 

His meandering runs down the wing and sublime bolting shots from 40 yards never ceased to amaze the inspired United faithful. He really was Best by name, Best by nature. The only two who could seemingly get close to his ability at the time, Charlton and Law, could perhaps produce equally awe-inspiring displays, but Best could do it with a gut full of Guinness and, most probably, a bra still hanging over his bed frame. His personality boosted his ability; he could talk the talk off the pitch, but deliver seamless, breath-taking displays on it. Best amassed 136 goals in 361 league appearances, making him the 6th top scorer in history.

Season after season, Best delivered, right up until 1972 – when his personal demons (which would cast a shadow over much of his life until his untimely death in 2005), led to a steady decline. He ultimately left old Trafford in 1974, embarking upon a colourful 17-team globe-trotting journey, playing for teams in Africa, America, Hong Kong, Australia and, as some forget; Fulham and Bournemouth.

One of the first true rock ‘n’ roll footballers, Best was immortalised in United legacy by his own words: ‘I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars, the rest I just squandered’. His charisma, charm and whit could sparsely be embodied by any other statement. Best brought character, ability and true showmanship – the first great number 7, he laid the precedent for its legend, he catalysed the very meaning of it.

Bryan Robson

Following Best, the legacy of the 7 was not yet to be fully appreciated, nor pressurised. Its fame was still in its infant stage and to wear the jersey did not carry as much pressure as it does today. A series of mediocre and average players sported the famed jersey, without developing its legacy further: Clayton Blackmore, Neil Webb, Paul Ince, Gordan Strachan and even Lee Sharp all donned the top, but as typical ‘squad players’ did not enhance its legacy beyond Best. 

The acceptation of this era lies with Bryan Robson. If anyone could help incubate the legend of the seven, the country’s most expensive player was surely a good place to start. Robson quickly became club captain, he altered the playboy image of the seven into that of the workman. Where Best was a sybarite who indulged in many playboy-esc off-field antics, Robson contributed leadership, workmanship and stature. If Best was the style of the 7, Robson was the engine. He led united through their darker period, becoming a staple in the early Fergie years and before, he amassed over 350 appearances in red, winning over 11 trophies. 

It was testament to Robson’s character that in the year prior to his record arrival at Old Trafford, he endured 3 leg breaks and came out the other side virtually unscathed, securing a record transfer to the then ‘sleeping giants’ of English football. A 3-lunged leader, ‘captain marvel’ possessed a fantastic passing range, aggression in tackling and a decent set of wheels gave him some good pace on the break. Robson led united to a hattrick of FA-Cups in 1983, 1985 and 1990 and lifted the first ever premier league trophy with Steve Bruce in 1992 – ending a baron a spell of 26 years without a league trophy.

The legacy of the 7 was now well and truly on its way, two greats of the game; the worlds best and the teams best players had incubated a legend. Only one man could possibly live up to the expectation now weighing heavy on whoever should don the top..

Eric Cantona

By 1992, the erratic Frenchman brought no-end of showmanship to the legend of the 7. The leadership of Robson and the egotism of Best were embodied by the King. Eric Cantona may only have had a short tenure in red, but every appearance was sheer thespianism. With a collar stiffer than Fergie’s fists in the latter stages of the 2011 champions league final, he introduced a level of swagger and showmanship incomparable in his era. 

Cantona was the ultimate talisman, if Sir Bobby Charlton believed in the Theatre of Dreams; Cantona was born to be the leading protagonist. His sublime goal against Sunderland in 1996 epitomised his style. An effortless, pinpoint floating chip rounded off by his beautifully-arrogant celebration; with his chest puffed and his shoulders lifted, the macho Frenchman assessed his arena, of which he knew – he was the king. This goal in itself seemed to instantly cement itself in premier league history, almost destined to be replayed on Sky ads and Match of the Day intros from the moment it left his boot.

A year earlier, Cantona had Kung-fu-kicked a Crystal Palace fan in unbelievable fashion. He served a 9-month ban and over 100 hours of community service for the assault, but the incident was not condemned, it was celebrated. United fans consider this the epitomy of Cantona, he was unpredictable, zany and endlessly entertaining. The juxtaposition between his volatile aggression and sheer brilliance and charisma only cemented his legend, he was erratic, talented and excellent. 

Cantona excelled as a centre forward, a galvanising force in his 4 and a half years in red, he inspired the rise of Fergies first great squad, an experienced bargain (at £1.5m) amongst Sir Alex’s famed class of 92’. He amassed 82 goals in 182 appearance. Every time he pulled on the number 7 jersey; it was magical. As Ferguson would note on retirement: ‘in my 26 years, only 4 players were world class: Giggs, Ronaldo, Cantona and Scholes.’

Alas, Cantona rather prematurely retired at the young age of 31, he would later, in true eric fashion, cite boredom as the reason for quitting, claiming he literally gets ‘bored to quickly’ and lost his heart for the game. He ignored the plea of Ferguson and retired as one of the most entertaining and talented footballers to grace Old Trafford.

The amalgamation of George Best, Bryan Robson and Eric Cantona had made the number seven the most hotly contested shirt in Manchester, a true great had to earn it. Gone were the days of squad players and bit-part wearers, the three legends forced the seven into folklore; it was the shirt at old Trafford. Up step, the biggest name in football…

David Beckham

David Beckham is today more of a celebrity than a footballer. The father of metro-sexuality, Beckham was notorious for his haircuts and dapper image. An unblemished icon who still today symbolises the idea of: ‘men want to be him; women want to be with him’. But before his iconic appearance propelled him into international stardom, he was a half decent footballer. 

Beckham shot to attention in 1996, scoring that audacious half-way line goal against Wimbledon on the opening day of the season. The game was already won, it wasn’t a final, nor anything significant, but as Beckham later confessed: ‘when my foot struck that ball, it kicked open the door to the rest of my life.’ Perhaps prophetically, the commentary of that goal hears Clive Tilsdley shout “you might expect Eric Cantona to do that” – a year later, Becks was the new number 7 in Salford.

With a delivery that could put Hermes out of business, his free kicks and crosses were second-to-none. Kids today can even appreciate the video doing the rounds on social media of him effortlessly and precisely kicking a ball into bins on the beach, some 80 yards away, completely bare foot. On his day, he had the best right foot in world football, and set the benchmark for freekicks and corners. He made United’s right-hand side his own for over a decade during the most successful spell in history of the club. With 394 appearances and 85 goals, 

His legend was cemented in 1999; two pinpoint corners in stoppage time delivered in his trademark style to secure an unprecedent treble. That year, he was runner up to Barca’s Rivaldo in the ballon d’or, the highest of any English player since Gary Lineker in 1986.

Beckham’s notoriety wasn’t just for his look or his ability, his off-field antics pushed him onto the front pages, as well as the back. In an era when footballers were considered over-payed, spoiled brats, Beckham capitalised. He married the biggest pop star, he got the most extravagant haircut, he partied at the coolest hangouts, wore the biggest brands, and above all, he played for the biggest club. Beckham encapsulated the united saying: ‘Hated, adored, never ignored’. 

As an English man who had it all, anyone who didn’t support united hated Becks. He was the first scapegoat if England weren’t doing well, and with that, media attention on him exploded. He became not only a football star, but a tabloid star. Famed fall outs with the gaffer, cheating accusations and poorly timed red cards for the national team all fuelled the fire against him. At times, Beckham’s life played out like an overpaid, over-groomed soap opera. Despite this, time and time again Beckham was able to deliver, to show mental tenacity to succeed against the odds. He made the 7 his own, he contributed the wow factor – the celebrity factor.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Following becks would never be easy, an English sporting icon with the lifestyle of the rich and the famous and the ability of the very best, but if one person in modern football could eclipse his legacy and live up to the hype now well and truly implemented on the number 7; Cristiano Ronaldo was a pretty safe bet..

Arriving as a scrawny 18-year-old in 2003, Ronaldo was virtually unheard of. A blistering 30-minute cameo against Bolton Wanders later, the United faithful knew what they had their hands on; a rare talent who would become one of the very best. In his first season, the teenage Cristiano would be named player of the year with 39 appearances and 8 goals. 

Ronaldo’s time in red proved iconic, from those free-kicks against Portsmouth and Arsenal to that bullet-header against Roma, His ability to entertain was unparalleled in the premier league; dazzling defenders with his treasure chest of step overs and flashy tricks, he could leave the world’s best defenders looking like local Sunday League footballers. Never shy of controversy, Ronaldo’s sheer tenacity to succeed was encapsulated when he managed to get then club-team-mate Wayne Rooney sent off in the 2006 quarter final of the world cup. That wink propelled Ronaldo to stardom – like Beckham, this stunt pushed Ronaldo to the front pages of tabloids, the man everyone liked to hate; he fulfilled the incredible legacy of the 7.   

Ronaldo had, and still has, this incredible impression that if he wasn’t a footballer, he would be an Olympian. His look was everything a 7 should be, his attitude the same and his ability, undeniably so.

His last two seasons in red cemented his position as the very best. 42 goals and a league and European cup double in 2008, followed by another league title and the Ballon D’or in 2009. But Ronaldo’s sheer drive, ambition and determination to be the best is what makes his legacy the toughest to follow. Where Cantona, Robson and Beckham were the best in the team, Ronaldo has gone on to become the very best in the world. A 5-time Ballon d’or winner, 5-time champions league winner and for a long time the most expensive player ever, he still performs at the very top and breaks records every week. Ronaldo’s continued success offers a looming shadow over the legend of the seven. By the time he left in 2009, he was the worlds best player. The number seven had become synonymous with romanticism, showmanship and undeniable ability, it is no surprise then, that those who have followed, have thus, far, never lived up to the almighty expectation.

11 Years of flops…

Owen, Valencia, Depay, Di Maria, Sanchez. 5 players well known in footballing spheres. Owen, a former Liverpool golden boy and Ballon d’or winner, joined at the twilight of his career. For a player who struggled so vividly with injury, he was never going to be able to assert his own stamp on the famed number at the back end of his career. His goal against Man City in stoppage time in 2010 offers the best moment for a number 7 since Ronaldo. But that is shining light in an otherwise dismal set of events. 

Valencia followed and duly vacated the number within a season, unable to live up to the pressure. 

Angel Di Maria followed with all the potential to make the number his own, a ready-made superstar in Spain, a united-record signing and a flair which could match the best. But a string of burglary’s in his Cheshire home quickly left him pining for pastures new, he left the following season and never lived up to expectation. 

Memphis Depay duly adopted the number, a new kid on the block, relatively unknown but signed with a glowing review from then manager Louis Van Gaal, he too struggled to adapt, not shy of the spotlight but with sub-par performances and limited game time, he left within 18 months. 

The latest to be given the honour: Alexis Sanchez was signed as one of the best players in the league, with a pedigree of success in England and Spain, surely, he could fulfil the legend of the seven. No, the signing of Sanchez appeared more to stop the noisy neighbours snapping him up than to fulfil any particular role. A string of injuries resulted in a quick-fire loan move to Inter, all but ending his dismal spell in Manchester. 

So, the legend of the seven has been crafted by superstars with personalities to match. It has been hindered by them too. Maybe Uniteds legend cannot be continued until Ronaldo retires, and the pressure eases on the wearer. But with his exemplary athleticism, it doesn’t seem likely any time soon. 

Or perhaps, like in the 80s, we are enduring a darker period, when only squad players will don the top, maybe, like with Cantona, we’re on the verge of a great one.

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