Saturday 24 March 2018

Cantona, Beckham, Ronaldo - Whatever happened to Man United's magnificent number seven

Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates with
Wayne Rooney during his Manchester United days
Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates with Wayne Rooney during his Manchester United days

Whatever happened to the magnificent seven? It is a question that Louis van Gaal will be pondering as he attempts to secure the game-changing ‘galactico’ who, according to the Manchester United manager, can be the difference between his team competing and winning over the remaining two years of his Old Trafford contract.

Think Thierry Henry, David Silva, Dennis Bergkamp, even Paul Scholes. Every great team in recent seasons has had its magician who can unlock doors when it truly matters.

Yet speaking in California at the weekend, Van Gaal made the rather blunt, but fair, observation that ‘Ashley Young is not Neymar’ when explaining the need for a stellar addition to his squad.

Van Gaal also bemoaned United’s lack of an Eden Hazard or a Sergio Aguero, not to mention the absence of a Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez or, much to the frustration of many in the upper echelons at the club, a Cristiano Ronaldo.

David Beckham wore number seven for United
David Beckham wore number seven for United

United, of course, had Ronaldo. They spotted him as a seventeen-year-old at Sporting Lisbon, tempted him to Manchester, nurtured him and put him on the road to superstardom before allowing Real Madrid to take him away for the princely sum of £80 million in the summer of 2009.

Six years on and United have still not come closing to replacing Ronaldo, despite the lofty ambitions of Van Gaal and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to pull off a deal that will rock the football world.

Throughout Old Trafford, there is a sense that ‘something big’ is being planned and United’s determination, perhaps even desperation, to park their tanks on the lawns of their rivals and blow them away has seen even Messi’s name whispered around the club.

United have money, bank vaults full of it, and their cash flow will become a tidal surge on Saturday when the £750m, 10-year kit deal with Adidas officially begins.

But United had serious money last summer and, despite investing a British record £59.7m in Angel di Maria, now find themselves having to negotiate a fire-damage rate with Paris Saint-Germain for the 27-year-old to be taking away from a place that has become a torture chamber rather than a Theatre of Dreams for the Argentine.

Di Maria was supposed to fill the Ronaldo void. He arrived from Real with star-status and a big reputation – big enough for him to be given the iconic number seven shirt which Ronaldo wore with distinction during his six years at United.

"I wanted to wear this shirt and do as much for the club as Ronaldo and the others could do,” Di Maria said on his arrival at United. "The club also wanted me to wear it, so I want to live up to it.”

In the brutal language of social media, however, Di Maria and the number seven shirt has been an epic fail.

Michael Owen, the free transfer who immediately followed Ronaldo in the shirt, also did little to add to its legend, while Antonio Valencia became so paranoid about the number seven bringing bad luck and poor form that he asked David Moyes to restore him to the number 25 shirt he had worn in his early seasons at the club.

United’s number seven has now become a burden, with the lineage of Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Ronaldo being disrupted by its most recent incumbents.

There is a view shared by many within the game that the United shirt is a ‘heavy’ one, with every number from one to eleven – and beyond in the era of squad numbers – being distinguished by one great or another down the years.

Cantona, Beckham and Ronaldo were energised and inspired by the number seven, but Di Maria allowed it weigh him down.

But there is no escape from a club’s history, which is why Van Gaal must get it right with whichever superstar he eventually chooses to illuminate his team and become United’s next magnificent seven.

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