When David Beckham moved to Real Madrid and left the #7 shirt behind, a shirt he had been desperate to wear after Eric Cantona announced his retirement, Sir Alex Ferguson opted to give the legendary shirt to a spotty, skinny kid, who’d signed for £12m from Sporting Lisbon. He’d played just one season in the first team when in Portugal and had made no appearances for the national team.
Ronaldo was a special player though, we could see that instantly, with our first team players urging Ferguson to sign him after playing against him in a pre-season friendly. He made his début against Bolton and whilst it was clear he was not the finished product yet, he had fans on the edge of their seats as he charged down the wing, attempting clever tricks and having the balls to try and pull off outrageous bits of skill. He got out-muscled and he tried to take on one player too many, but you could just tell there was something about him. He had the confidence and enough raw ability to make you believe he really could be a player one day, even if we weren’t then expecting him to be scooping the Ballon d’Or five years after he made his début for us.
Ronaldo didn’t want the #7 shirt though, instead requesting to wear #28 like he had at Sporting, but Ferguson gave him no choice.
“After I joined, the manager asked me what number I’d like. I said 28,” he revealed later. “But Ferguson said ‘No, you’re going to have No. 7,’ and the famous shirt was an extra source of motivation. I was forced to live up to such an honour.”
In 2009, Ronaldo became the most expensive footballer in the history of the game, his £80m transfer to Real Madrid still a record fee in the sport. Then came the most anti-climatic of replacements, with former Kop hero Michael Owen being given the shirt. Three seasons later, with Owen having a derby day winner, Champions League hattrick and League Cup final goal to show for his underwhelming stay at the club, he left for Stoke and the #7 shirt was available again.
Last summer, the shirt was offered to new signing Shinji Kagawa after he joined us from Borussia Dortmund. However, he turned down the honour, claiming he wanted to earn it, rather than just being given it without doing anything.
“I’ve just joined the team and haven’t accomplished anything yet,” he said. “I want to make a name for myself [at United] on my own terms.”
A few weeks later, Antonio Valencia, who had been voted Player of the Season by both the fans and his team mates, was given #7.
“I take the shirt with pride, but also with humility,” said Valencia. “The number 7 is very special. When I received the call [to wear #7] I did not hesitate to say yes, I wanted the shirt. It’s a number I really respect because so many great players have worn the shirt and made history for Manchester United in it. Now I hope I can write my own.”
Valencia went on to have an abysmal season for United, looking like a shadow of his former self, and today it has been revealed he’s given up the #7 shirt. He’s returned to #25, the shirt he wore when he was deemed United’s best player.
So, if we can safely assume he’s not making way for Ronaldo’s return, rather succumbing to that weird football superstition, who should wear the #7 this season?
My vote is for Wilf Zaha, the 20-year-old who has had fans talking all pre-season, with his quick feet, great pace and top skill making him probably our best performer of the summer.
Some may be quick to dismiss this, rightly believing Zaha is nowhere near the level of the likes of Best, Robson, Beckham, Cantona or Ronaldo. However, this shirt is associated with special and exciting players, usually in midfield, and Zaha fits that bill perfectly.
An 18-year-old Ronaldo, dismissed by many as a one trick pony, grew in to becoming the best player in Europe and the world whilst wearing our #7 shirt, but he’d had plenty of criticism in the early days.
Ahead of the FA Cup final at the end of his first season, John O’Shea spoke out to defend his team mate, claiming that he would show what he was capable of at the Millennium Stadium.
“The people who say he is a one-trick pony don’t watch him properly,” he said. “That one trick they are talking about still fools defenders and believe me, he has ten others in his locker.”
Ronaldo went on to score in United’s 3-0 victory over Millwall, with the BBC reporting: “Ronaldo, often pilloried by critics for over-playing this season, was the game’s outstanding footballer. His trickery and incisive runs hurt Millwall time and again.”
Zaha will frustrate people, it’s the nature of flair players, who inevitably won’t be able to pull off all the audacious tricks they attempt, but he’s got something about him and appears to have the confidence not to be weighed down by the supposed pressure of the shirt, as Valencia unfortunately found.
David Moyes today confirmed that United were “closer” to bringing someone in, and if we do land a top signing, then it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see them given our legendary shirt. If that doesn’t happen, it would be great to see the manager put his faith in Zaha and give him the #7 next Friday, as we get to enjoy what is hopefully the beginning of the career of our next superstar.