Some numbers in soccer are iconic at certain clubs. Gradually, and often over the course of several decades, these numbers have grown in significance. Admittedly, there may be a few lacunae or outright failures disturbing the otherwise smooth rise to prominence, but they are never enough to question the iconicity of the specific number in case. On the contrary, it is as if the failures only contribute to heighten the importance of the number, making it all the more important to get it right with the next player wearing the famous jersey.
In the history of Manchester United, the most iconic number is without a doubt number 7. Yes, Duncan Edwards wore the number 6 jersey, and Ryan Giggs has played his part in making number 11 a coveted number. Back in 1960s, Denis Law often wore number 10 when he excited the fans at Old Trafford and became European Player of the Year in 1964.
But a long list of formidable legends has made sure that number 7 is the most prestigious number to wear if you are a Red Devil. In the beginning of the 20th century, soccer’s first super star Billy Meredith made the number into something special when he performed his Welsh wizardry on the right flank for Ernest Mangnall’s first Manchester United championship winning team. The next true legend to wear it was George Best, and then came Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham, and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Players such as Johnny Berry and Steve Coppell are other prominent names to have worn the jersey at Old Trafford, but they don’t quite fit the bill of true legend.
Sir Alex Ferguson signaled very clearly what he thought of the young Cristiano Ronaldo when he chose to give him number 7 after Beckham. Remember, this was a time when “Ronaldo” was almost synonymous with the Brazilian striker of that name, and remember too that the Old Trafford faithful expected Ronaldinho to become Beckham’s replacement.
When Ronaldo left Manchester United for Real Madrid, the number 7 jersey was vacant for a while. Ferguson hoped he had done some shrewd business when he snapped up the former Liverpool striker Michael Owen on a free transfer. With Owen’s track record of goals, Ferguson not only thought he had secured Manchester United a lot of goals, he also thought Owen could shoulder the burden of wearing the number 7 jersey after Cantona, Beckham, and Ronaldo. Neither really went as Ferguson had hoped.