For the first time since Michael Owen, Manchester United are starting a season without a player wearing the number 7 shirt. In the end it took a neat side-step from Antonio Valencia (which is funny, ‘cus he doesn’t do that anymore) to consign the shirt to Albert Morgan’s sewing box for the foreseeable future. There it lays in unexpected, sacrosanc hibernation, all set to rise forth from it’s tomb into Albert’s thimbled grasp, thence to be emblazoned with the name of a maverick superstar of mythical repute, when the transfer window next creaks ajar (which is funny, ‘cus that won’t happen) (none of these things in brackets are funny).
Fans of certain clubs, like certain numbers: Newcastle fans like 9s because of the finest player to wear the shirt, Andy Cole and some others – much less interesting – I’ve never heard of. Southampton fans like 3s because of Franny Benali. And Liverpool are just way too easy a target for these shirt lols. The list goes on and on, I’m sure – if you can be bothered to look. At United though, all of our shirt numbers have been worn by the best players that have ever played, so all are special: all could be retired in honour of any number of players. However, provided we conveniently forget the number 22, it’s the number 7 with which we are most enamoured.
In the days when players were more than just a number, it was George Best who originally made the number 7 a star. No longer would it represent a point in a numerically ordered list of names selected to take to the field for their club on a given match day, and simply denote the position traditionally referred to as outside right, and then latterly right winger, which eventually became more commonly regarded as the right midfielder – it now was George Best, a metaphor of sorts, or is it an anthropomorphism? (as long as there’s long words in here, the accuracy of the meaning is perfunctory – I’m a blogger, that’s what we do)
Via lots of other players that no-one mentions, and Steve Coppell and Bryan Robson, the number 7 completed its spiritual journey when it came to rest on Eric’s changing room peg. The timing of this celestial alignment – as sweatshop polyester entwined with dark, steely tendrils of gallic chest hair at just the same time as the Premier League first introduced the squad numbering system – meant Eric would become the first player to officially claim ownership of the number, and own it he did.
Once this line was drawn, the number 7 became a strong motif for a new generation of football fans and David Beckham was keen to deflect in this glory: he took the number 7 after having decided the ’10’ he swapped for his ’24’ wasn’t the right fit for his pretensions. What David Beckham understood though, as a fan of the club, was ‘what it was’ to wear the number 7, and that made it alright. Fergie also understood the thing about the ‘7’, and also understood that the CR7 branding would work less well in the future if Ronaldo would insist on wearing his preferred ’28’, and so shoved him into the shirt kicking and screaming (that’s funny ‘cus, etc…).
On the flipside, Fergie also oversaw Michael Owen’s sullying of the scared garm (perhaps pointing to an expectation that Fergie had in Owen that was never realised) and Valencia’s self-appropriated failure to live up to expectations – real or imagined.
There’s something, I think, that all the players who played in the number 7 shirt under Fergie have in common: Eric, a player with a disruptive reputation, joined off the back of a chance phone conversation; David Beckham was one of the collective youth that Fergie put his faith in; Ronaldo, a ‘light-weight show-pony’, was bought hurriedly after the United players wouldn’t shut up about him and other clubs had got wind; Michael Owen was a punt (I said punt) on an out-of-contract, out-of-form, ‘has-been’; Valencia was a relatively little known player from ‘lowly Wigan’, charged with replacing one of the best players in the word. In one way or another, they all represented something of a gamble (beyond the usual risk involved in the transfer of players). The successful outcomes though far outweighed the not so, and as Fergie himself recently noted (in the Harvard interview), his gambling instincts have played an integral part in his success at the club.
And so, when Moyes – coming a little out of leftfield – offered Nani a new long-term contract, I was excited. Not because of any lingering affection I have for Nani particularly (though I do have a bit), but because to me it represents a risk; taking a chance on a player whose bags were already in the taxi, backing a player who kicks all the right notes, just in the wrong order, a player – it would appear – Moyes has boldly chosen to believe in (at least for the immediate future). It’s a positive move, and at odds with some of the less inspiring (bordering on maddening) manoeuvres Moyes and the club have made during this, the gestation period of ‘the new era’. Moyes has certainly not been given the job off the back of his reputation to roll the dice, and it’s hardly cause to ‘strap ourselves in’, but I think it provides an indication, a shaft of light, that he’s not entirely risk averse – which I was beginning to wonder about.
For now then, the number 7 needs some bedrest, some time to erase the trauma of the last few years. Then, when Moyes has got a season under his belt and developed his card game sufficiently, he can continue the legacy of the number 7 in the proper manner … by handing it to Adnan (that’s Januzaj to you non-United lot. Get used to hearing that name. Yeah, that told yer).