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The number 7: Iconic, Legendary, Cursed?

Added by Philip Meese on 27 Jan 2018 13:31

As Alexis Sánchez becomes the latest player to take up the legendary number 7 shirt, Ultimate United looks at the players who made it famous, and those who have struggled under its weight.

By Philip Meese, Chief Editor

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After 12 months of being vacant, the Manchester United number 7 shirt adorns the back of a new hero. Alexis Sánchez has taken the legendary shirt number, which has proven to be a burden for those who have worn it over most of the last decade.

Johnny Berry

Johnny Berry joined United in 1951 from Birmingham City, and won three league titles under Matt Busby. A fast, exciting right winger with an eye for goal, he scored 45 goals in 276 appearances s, and won four caps for England. In the months leading up to the 1958 Munich Air Disaster, Berry had lost his place in the starting line up to Welsh youngster Kenny Morgans. Up until this point, Berry had been a crucial member of the United squad, a key part of all that they had achieved.

What happened on that fateful day effectively killed the careers of both men. Neither player actually died in the crash, but Berry suffered injuries so severe that he never played football again, retiring at the age of 31. Morgans only suffered minor injuries, but, having been making a name for himself up until that point, he was unable to recapture his previous form, and made just four further appearances for the club, before being sold to Swansea Town (now known as Swansea City) and played out the rest of his days in his native Wales, also featuring for Newport County and Barry Town, before hanging up his boots aged 28.

Berry usually wore the number seven shirt on match days, and is referred to by those who remember him as a United legend fit to wear the number. He died in 1994, being the first surviving member of the Munich Air Disaster to do so, following a short illness.

George Best

Following Munich, nobody really made the number 7 shirt their own until a young lad from Belfast stepped onto the Old Trafford pitch in September 1963 against West Bromwich Albion. It’s fair to say there has probably never been a more talented player to emerge from the British Isles than George Best. He had it all – pace, skill, strength, balance and courage. He would waltz past players like they weren’t even there, wait for them to catch up to him and then beat them again, just for good measure.

Following his performance against Benfica at the Stadium of Light in 1966, in which he scored twice as United destroyed one of the best teams in Europe. Two years later, he tormented the Portuguese giants again, scoring a great goal against them at Wembley as United became the first English club to win the European Cup. Following the arrival of Willie Morgan from Burnley later that summer, Best often wore the number 11, but it is the legendary seven shirt that most people associate him with.

After their European triumph, United went into freefall, and although Best would still produce the goods on the pitch, his well-documented private life was giving him more front page headlines than back page ones. He left Manchester United in 1974, and United were relegated to Division 2 at the end of that season. He is still rated by many as the greatest footballer ever to grace the Old Trafford turf.

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Willie Morgan

When Scottish winger Willie Morgan moved to Old Trafford in 1968, he asked Matt Busby if he could wear the number 7 shirt, as he had throughout the majority of his career. Busby agreed, and Best was more than happy to accommodate him, often wearing either 8 or 11 on his back.

Morgan was a brilliant winger, who just happened to join United in one of the most dismal periods in their history. In that time, the Red Devils went from European Champions to relegation in just six seasons. Following the arrival of Steve Coppell in 1975, Morgan found first team football hard to come by. He returned to Burnley following their promotion back to Division One, and remains a United fan to this day.  

Steve Coppell

In March 1975, Manchester United manager Tommy Docherty took a £60,000 punt on Steve Coppell, an unknown winger from Tranmere Rovers. He slotted straight into the side as United marched on to win promotion.

United immediately began to set the old Division 1 alight, winning five of their first six league games, and finished third in their first season back in the top flight. Coppell was an old fashioned right winger, who would bomb down the flanks and take players on, but unusually, he also had a great work ethic, and would always help out his full back, never neglecting his defensive duties. Between 1977 and 1981, he played 207 consecutive games for the club – a record which, as of 2018, still hasn’t been broken.

Coppell’s only trophies for the club came in 1977, winning both the FA Cup and Charity Shield. In a 1982 World Cup Qualifier, Coppell was on the wrong end of a high challenge that shattered his knee. He had a quick-fix surgery, which allowed him to make England’s World Cup squad, but towards the end of the 1982 – 83 season, Coppell’s knee broke down again. This time there was to be no answer to the problem. He missed the 1983 FA Cup Final win over Brighton & Hove Albion.

The surgery which allowed him to continue playing had probably done more harm than good, as it had done no more than mask the problem. A second surgery failed to correct the problem, and he announced his retirement from playing in October 1983, aged just 28.

Now known to fans of the Premier League for his managerial stints at Crystal Palace and Reading, it’s easy to forget that, at one time, he was one of Manchester United’s most dangerous players.

Bryan Robson

The man who basically carried Manchester United in the 1980’s. When Coppell retired, “Robbo” took up his shirt number. Signed from West Bromwich Albion in 1981, Robson took over the captain’s armband from Ray Wilkins when his midfield partner picked up an injury. It’s safe to say that both United and England would probably have achieved a lot more than they did if it hadn’t been for a succession of injuries. Essentially, he WAS Manchester United in that decade.

Fearless, tireless and with the heart of a lion, Robson was universally respected throughout world football. In 1984, he almost signed for Juventus following his exploits in the Cup Winners Cup (which the Italians went on to win, ironically eliminating United in the Semi Finals). In 1991, United would go on to win the trophy, beating Barcelona in Rotterdam in a match that Robson completely dominated, which was no mean feat at the age of 34.

During his final two seasons, he finally got his hands on the league title that had eluded him throughout his career, and added a second the following season, but injuries and his advancing years meant that his number seven shirt was often bequeathed to the likes of Lee Sharpe and Andrei Kanchelskis. By the time the Premier League squad numbers were introduced, the number 7 shirt had been allocated to a man who would go on to become an even bigger Old Trafford legend than Bryan Robson.

Eric Cantona

Another man who needs no introduction, the mercurial Frenchman made such an impact after joining United in 1992 that his name is still sung by the Stretford End more than two decades after his retirement.

With his influence in the side, United ended their 26 year wait for the league title, and retained it the following season. Without Eric Cantona, this almost certainly wouldn’t have happened. Constantly wound up by opposing players and fans alike, who loved to taunt him, especially after the kick on that Crystal Palace fan in 1995, it’s gotten to the point where even football fans who hate United now appreciate Cantona, and actually remember him fondly.

The arrogance, the charisma and overall talent of the man ensures that he will never be forgotten by the Old Trafford faithful. He is just one of those players you would be happy to pay to go and watch. In fact, the man who took over his number 7 shirt, following his retirement in 1997, said he would pay just to watch him train. Considering that David Beckham actually got paid to train with him, that is some compliment.

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David Beckham

Without a doubt, the most famous footballer ever to lace up a pair of boots. Beckham broke into the United side on a regular basis in 1995, following the sale of Andrei Kanchelskis to Everton, there was a slot on the right side of midfield. Beckham had usually played in central midfield for the reserves, but certain attributes to his game made him perfect for the position he adopted.

He wasn’t a traditional winger, not blessed with explosive pace or trickery, but a strong determination to succeed, as well as devastating accuracy when striking a ball. Whether it be a cross or shot, open play or dead ball, he soon became one of those players that, if his name was missing from the team sheet, the fans would be asking, “where’s Beckham?”

When he struck THAT goal against Wimbledon from the halfway line in 1996, he found himself catapulted to fame that even Ryan Giggs didn’t receive when he first broke into the United team. When Cantona retired, Beckham immediately requested the number 7 shirt, and wore it for the next six years. When he married Victoria, his profile throughout the world escalated much further than that of players with superior ability to his.

The reason Beckham made himself the worldwide icon that he is today is hard work, and an intelligence that nobody ever credits him with. He made the most of the talents he was given. He perfected his striking of a ball, he always retained the same work ethic and no matter how far his star rose, the attention rarely affected his performances on the pitch – he always gave 100% for the club. He harnessed all of this, together with his model good looks, to become the most marketable name in football, despite not being the best player.

It’s no secret that he didn’t want to leave United in 2003, but he moved to a club with the same kind of profile in Real Madrid, and by this time he was England captain. The reception he received at Old Trafford when he played against United for AC Milan in 2010 brought a tear to his eye. He remains a United fan to this day.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Possibly the best player to ever grace the Premier League, but it is safe to say that, had he not had the lifelong dream of playing for Real Madrid, we would probably now be talking about Manchester United’s greatest ever player. It’s unlikely have scored the amount of times that he has in La Liga, defences tend to be a lot tighter in the Premier League, but he would probably be a more devastating player than he already. Unlike Lionel Messi, however, he has already proved himself in this country.

He originally wanted the number 28 shirt he had worn at Sporting Lisbon when he signed in 2003, but Sir Alex Ferguson saw the character of the lad, or he wouldn’t have placed United’s most iconic number on a teenager. United made a £68 million profit on the Portuguese winger when they sold him in 2009, and it is safe to say that nobody has made a success of wearing the number following his departure.

Michael Owen

Some United fans have expressed some resentment at the fact that Michael Owen was handed the number 7 shirt, following his transfer from Newcastle in 2009. It’s a fair point, as Owen was 29 and not the same player who had burst onto the scene a decade earlier, having lost more than a yard of pace. There is also the fact that, until he joined United, he was classed as a Liverpool legend.

Despite these concerns, he seemed the perfect person to wear the shirt. The one thing he hadn’t lost, as he showed whenever he was fit enough to start, was his eye for goal. Another thing he never lost throughout his career was confidence, which you need if the cross on your back is the United number 7 shirt. Added to the fact that he was a free transfer, rather than a big money buy coming into replace the recently departed world’s best player, it actually made sense.

Unfortunately, despite some magic moments such as THAT derby winner, and a hat-trick against Wolfsburg, Owen spent most of his three seasons at Old Trafford struggling with the injuries that would force his retirement at the age of 33. He even injured himself scoring United’s equaliser against Aston Villa in the 2010 League Cup Final.

If nothing else, at least he managed to get his hands on a Premier League winners’ medal. Several of his former team mates didn’t.

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Antonio Valencia

On the face of it, this seemed like a perfect move. The Ecuador international had finished the 2011-12 season as United’s player of the year, following some scintillating performances. When Michael Owen departed that summer, switching Antonio Valencia’s squad number from 25 to 7 seemed like a no brainer. It just didn’t work out.

United reclaimed the League title from Manchester City, but Valencia seemed to go backwards, and turned into a player devoid of all confidence. Gone were the explosive runs down the wing, past his defender and sending over a quality cross, he seemed to retreat into his shell to the point where he became a hard working member of the side, rather than the player who Real Madrid had been sniffing around the previous season.

Following Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, Valencia handed back his number 7 shirt after just one season and returned to donning the number 25. Under Louis van Gaal, and now José Mourinho, he has reinvented himself as one of the best right-backs in the country.

Ángel Di María

The shirt remained vacant during the 2013-14 season, as United went from Champions to (ironically) 7th. During the summer transfer window, Manchester United spent a British record £59.7 million on a player who had had an unbelievable year. He was man of the match for Real Madrid in the previous season’s Champions League Final, and one of the players of the tournament at 2014 World Cup in Brazil, despite missing the Final through injury.

United fans had been crying out for a marquee signing for years, the type of player who got bums off seats and Ángel Di María certainly fitted that description. Initially he started off very well, with three goals in his first five games, but as the season wore on his effectiveness declined at an alarming rate. Van Gaal tried him in a number of positions, including up front, and although he was criticised for this, it did look as though Di María couldn’t be bothered putting the effort in when the going got tough.

He was subbed off the pitch in United’s final game of the season against Hull City with a very dubious looking injury. During the summer, United cut their losses and took a £15 million hit on the Argentine winger, selling him to Paris Saint Germain for £44 million. He showed decent form in the early days, but has struggled this season, leading him to be linked with a move to Barcelona.

Memphis Depay

A £25 million transfer from PSV Eindhoven in 2015, Memphis showed glimpses of his talent at first, mainly in the Champions League, where his two goals against Club Brugges gave United a nice cushion to qualify for the group stages.

Unfortunately questions were raised about his attitude, despite his undoubted talent. The Premier League was a big step up from the Eredivisie, and his performances soon deteriorated to the point that he didn’t even travel to London for the 2016 F.A. Cup Final. He started just one game under Mourinho last season, before being offloaded to Lyon in January 2017.


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Up until Cristiano Ronaldo left Manchester United in 2009, every player who had made the number seven shirt their own can be quite rightly classed as a Manchester United legend. Serving the club tirelessly, and becoming a hero on the Stretford End in the meantime.

Alexis Sánchez is the latest player to take on the burden, following his transfer from Arsenal earlier this week, and made a promising debut against Yeovil in the F.A. Cup. He has the profile, and the pedigree, to do the number 7 shirt justice.


Since Ronaldo left, it has almost become cursed. 

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