Manchester United’s number seven jersey is one of the most iconic jerseys in world football.
Some of the club’s greatest and most famous players, such as George Best, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo, have worn the number.
However, since Ronaldo left Old Trafford in 2009, the jersey has lost some of its lustre.
Players such as Michael Owen, Angel di Maria, Memphis Depay and Alexis Sanchez have failed to hit the heights of former Man United number 7s.
The weight of the jersey was so heavy that Antonio Valencia only wore it for a single season before switching back to number 25
The jersey number holds a great symbolic value for players, something Alex Ferguson recognised during his time with the club.
According to Roy Keane, the former Manchester United manager asked him to take number 7 following Cantona’s retirement in 1997.
Cantona was the team’s talisman and captain, the key player when United won four Premier League titles, two doubles and two FA Cups between 1992 and 1997.
When the French centre-forward decided to walk away from the sport following the 1996/97 campaign, Ferguson made Keane club captain. If he had his way, the Irish midfielder would also have been the new Man United number 7.
According to Keane, Ferguson was dead-set against giving Beckham the famous jersey.
“The captaincy is important, but squad numbers can have an importance, too,” Keane says in his second autobiography, The Second Half, written with Roddy Doyle.
“At United, ‘7’ was the iconic number. When Eric Cantona left there was a debate about who was going to be the next captain. I was quite relaxed about it. But there was his number, too – ‘7’.
“Bryan Robson had had it before Cantona and, of course, it went back to Georgie Best.
“The manager pulled me into his office and said that he wanted me to wear the ‘7’.
“I said, ‘No, I’m not bothered.’
“And he said, ‘I know Becks will fuckin’ want it and I don’t want him to have it.’
“The little power battles.
“I’d had ‘16’ since I’d signed for the club. I was comfortable with ‘16’. I think it might have kept me on my toes, being outside the ‘1’ to ‘11’. I didn’t think I was a number ‘7’.
“I said, ‘Give it to Becks.’
“Becks got it, and it suited him – and Cantona. Ronaldo had it after Becks.”
Beckham had previously worn number 24 and number 10 for Man United. Teddy Sheringham joined Man United in 1997 and took number 10.
The former England captain got his wish and took the club’s most famous jersey, albeit seemingly against the wishes of Ferguson. Beckham wore the number 7 jersey with distinction for six years, helping Man United win four Premier League titles and the treble during that period.
Although Keane doesn’t explain why Ferguson did not want Beckham to get the number 7 jersey, it is possible that the Man United manager was wary of Beckham focusing on building his own personal brand – an issue that would ultimately accelerate Beckham’s departure from Old Trafford in 2003, when he joined Real Madrid.
Ferguson wrote in his second autobiography that Beckham was “the only player I managed who chose to be famous, who made it his mission to be known outside the game.”
The pair clashed in 2003 before Ferguson sanctioned the midfielder’s move to Real Madrid. According to Ferguson, it reached a point with Beckham where the United manager “felt uncomfortable with the celebrity aspect of his life.”
“David thought he was bigger than Alex Ferguson,” the former Man United said. “The focus of authority at Manchester United is the manager’s office. That was the death knell for him.”
Keane would, undoubtedly, have made a worthy number 7, but, equally, Beckham did the jersey justice, even if he wasn’t Ferguson’s first choice for the squad number.
As Keane said though, the jersey tussle was an example of the “little power battles” that happen behind the scenes at football clubs which fans aren’t privy to until many years later.
It also shows how Ferguson’s attention to detail was so great that he focused on seemingly small details to the extent that he considered which player would be right for a certain jersey number.