Editor’s note: This article has been adapted from Michael Cox’s Iconic Shirt Numbers series: No 7
There are few shirts in football as celebrated as the Manchester United No 7, a grand tradition that is generally considered to go all the way back to George Best. The reality, though, is a little more complex.
It has been vacant at Old Trafford since November when Cristiano Ronaldo left by mutual consent. But at Manchester United, the No 7 clearly means something to supporters and the club itself.
In August 2017, United registered “No 7 at Old Trafford” as an official trademark with the UK’s intellectual property office, allowing it to be used in the context of everything from wine-tasting to arranging conferences.
From Best to Ronaldo, this is the story of United’s No 7 shirt…
George Best played in the days before permanent squad numbers, when it wasn’t uncommon for footballers to wear multiple numbers in the same season, particularly when they were versatile enough to play in different roles. Best certainly did wear the No 7 on occasion, most famously during the 1968 European Cup final victory over Benfica, but he didn’t actually wear it particularly often — only in 30 per cent of his Manchester United games.
For 52 per cent of the time, he wore the other winger’s shirt, No 11, and in the other 18 per cent of matches, he was No 8, No 9 or No 10. The idea that Best started United’s grand history of the No 7 shirt isn’t entirely unfair, but Best himself evidently didn’t actually care. Even in his latter days at the club, when he probably could have demanded anything he wanted, he generally wore No 11.
Another United legend, Bryan Robson, did care — he’d grown accustomed to the No 7 shirt at West Bromwich Albion and took it from Steve Coppell at Manchester United, despite being a central midfielder rather than a winger, the traditional wearer of No 7. Robson was succeeded in that shirt by forward Eric Cantona, who played in a variety of numbers during his days in France but became associated with No 7 at Manchester United because he effectively replaced Robson in the starting XI, with No 9 Brian McClair dropping from up front to play in midfield.
It was Cantona, rather than Best or Robson, who really made the No 7 iconic at Manchester United. It was rare to see that number being worn by a forward, instead of a midfielder, but that somehow fitted into the aura of Cantona: a player who interpreted his role in an unusual way.
When Cantona left, Alex Ferguson elected to honour David Beckham with the No 7, which conveniently enabled Teddy Sheringham — Cantona’s true replacement — to take his favoured number, Beckham’s old No 10.
As a right-sided midfielder, Beckham fitted the No 7 perfectly. He combined with Gary Neville, the No 2, down the right flank while Ryan Giggs and Denis Irwin, No 11 and No 3 respectively, worked together on the other flank, in keeping with the traditional British numbering format.
Beckham wore No 7 for England, too, and became so associated with that number that he incorporated it into his brand — his children’s fashion label in association with Marks & Spencer was branded as DB07. He enjoyed six years with the No 7 shirt until his move to Real Madrid.
Upon Beckham’s departure in 2003, United signed the perfect replacement as No 7. No, not David Bellion — although his initials would have worked nicely for the fashion range — but Ronaldo.
Ronaldo initially played on the right of midfield, so the shirt number made sense, although he had initially requested No 28, which had been his number at Sporting Lisbon. Ferguson insisted on him taking No 7, however, making a point to both Ronaldo and the club’s supporters that he was expected to become the side’s star, like Cantona and Beckham before him.
It proved a fine decision. Not only did Ronaldo live up to the hype, but he also replicated Beckham by incorporating the number into a fashion range: CR7. Upon his move to Real Madrid, he was unable to take the No 7 shirt from Raul, so had to wait for a season until the legendary forward departed. In the meantime, he became the second Ronaldo of the 2000s to wear No 9 for Real Madrid.
After Ronaldo, it became clear that United, a club increasingly obsessed with branding, wanted to further the legacy and history of the No 7. Striker Michael Owen made for a slightly awkward incumbent, although neither Cantona nor Robson had been right-wingers, and Owen was another Ballon d’Or winner, like Best and Ronaldo before him.
After Owen’s departure, Antonio Valencia was handed the No 7 after a fine 2011-12, when he was named the club’s player of the season, although he then endured a 2012-13 that was so unproductive he decided to revert to No 25. This was an unusual move but came as something of a relief considering his subsequent move to right-back, which would have stretched the boundaries of where the No 7 should play.
Next came Angel Di Maria, who was forced to take the number against his will. “When I arrived, I saw that the No 11 was available,” he later explained. “It’s a shirt number I wore a lot when I was younger and I was keen to get once again. At Real Madrid, No 11 was already taken, so I took 22. At Manchester United, they gave me No 7. I didn’t get a choice. I would have liked 11 but there we are. Here (then at Paris Saint-Germain), I had a choice, so I chose 11!”
Di Maria proved underwhelming and the next No 7, Memphis Depay, was also a huge disappointment. So was Alexis Sanchez — who at least genuinely wanted the number, having worn it whenever possible throughout his career, for Colo-Colo, Udinese, Arsenal and Chile.
Then there was a period where no one seemed to want it — not Juan Mata, not Bruno Fernandes — before United signed Edinson Cavani, and he happily took the number he had worn during his successful spell with Napoli, although he wore No 9 at PSG.
A year later, Ronaldo returned and inevitably wanted No 7. That proved an issue, because Cavani had already worn that shirt this season, and players aren’t generally allowed to change numbers midway through a campaign.
But there was a precedent. In 2012, Rafael van der Vaart was sold by Tottenham at roughly the same time they bought Hugo Lloris, with the season already underway. This meant Emmanuel Adebayor was allowed to move from 25 to the No 10 shirt previously worn by Van der Vaart, with newcomer Lloris taking 25.
It required special dispensation from the Premier League, but they seem sympathetic in this specific situation. So, sure enough, Manchester United managed to sell Dan James, who conveniently was wearing the No 21 shirt Cavani always wore on international duty for Uruguay. That left No 7 free for Ronaldo.
“I wasn’t sure if it would be possible to have the No 7 shirt again. So I would like to say a huge thank you to Edi for this incredible gesture,” Ronaldo said. He lasted 18 months in the shirt before departing midway through this season, again leaving the No 7 shirt vacant.
Cavani and Ronaldo both scored regularly during their full season in the No 7 shirt, slightly reversing a previous pattern of underachievement.
Whoever comes next must be a confident player who is happy to invite that added scrutiny.
(Top photo: Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)