The legend of the Manchester United number 7

George Best played 470 games for Manchester United.

Never did he have to carry the substitute’s number 12. Once, in March 1969, he donned the number 9 shirt. He wore number 10 on 39 occasions and had 8 on his back 43 times. In a total of 141 games, including the 1968 European Cup final win against Benfica, he was number 7 – the digit with which he is most associated.

Popular history tells us that it was Best who started the tradition of superstars wearing 7 at United,a lineage taking in Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and now Angel di Maria. And yet, in 246 of his games – more than half – Best wore number 11. In his final six seasons with the club, he appeared as number 7 only 32 times. We stand to be corrected, but we remember that, when Ryan Giggs emerged, one of the reasons he was called ‘the new Best’ was because he wore 11 too (but not always).

While, nowadays, much significance is attached to the shirt and its wearer, this is a relatively recent phenomenon and Best’s inclusion in the pantheon is something of retcon. He wore it sometimes, but the ’68 win, and his performance in that game, tends to elevate his association with it. In a feature on numbers in FourFourTwo two years ago, the editor of the fanzine United We Stand, Andy Mitten, gave his thoughts on the shirt:

“The 7 wasn’t a big thing at United until Cantona. After all, Ralph Milne wore 7. Cantona was when the press started to make a big deal about the significance. United were happy for them to do that because it added to the legend, it was something else to market.”

Generally, Best had worn 7 when deployed on the right wing. One of his successors there was Steve Coppell, who joined United in 1975 and won 42 England caps, but he generally isn’t included in the ‘star’ bracket. Coppell wore 7 until 1981, and wore it against Tottenham in the League Cup early in 1981-82, when Bryan Robson, newly signed from West Bromwich Albion, wore 11. Coppell missed the next match, against Manchester City in the league, and Robson first wore the shirt with which he would become linked. Not because of any notion that he was carrying on Best’s mantle, though. He wrote in his autobiography, Robbo:

At West Brom, especially during Johnny Giles’ management, I played in several positions and had a variety of numbers on my back. That didn’t particularly bother me because I just wanted to play as often as possible. Then it occurred to me that my better performances came when I wore the no. 7  shirt and I came to regard it as my lucky number.

So, when I joined United, I asked if anybody minded my having the number. Steve Coppell, who usually took that number, wasn’t in the starting line-up against City and said he didn’t have a problem with my wish, anyway. None of the lads objected either so the no. 7 shirt was mine.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, with Robson often unlucky with injury, the number was donned by a motley crew including Peter Davenport, Russell Beardsmore, Clayton Blackmore, Neil Webb and Andrei Kanchelskis. When fit, however, the captain would always wear it. The signing of Eric Cantona in November 1992 changed things, though. Cantona’s first match was in a friendly against Benfica, when he wore 10, and then his league debut was as a sub against Manchester City in early December.

When he made his first start, it was as a direct replacement for Robson, with number 9 Brian McClair dropping back into midfield. With Cantona playing a key role, United powered up the table, eventually winning the title. Robson’s only other start that season would be in the final game against Wimbledon, when Cantona wore 11. Squad number were introduced for the 1993-94 season, though, and it was Cantona who was assigned 7 with Robson now 12. In his book, Robson revealed that it wasn’t a problem, seemingly ignoring the ‘luck’ reasoning:

I didn’t even mind losing the no. 7 shirt to Eric. I knew I would be used a lot as a sub in the 1993-94 season and Eric had already shown his value to the club. We’d won the league in his first season with us and it was obvious he was going to be an important player for quite some time. He’d always liked to wear the no. 7 so, that summer, when the boss was working out his squad numbers for the new season, I told him I didn’t mind having a different number. I’d had a great World Cup in 1982 wearing 16, so it wasn’t a problem having 12, 14 or any other number. I was, after all, now a bit-part player for United.

Robson’s assertion that Cantona always liked to wear 7 is questionable. With Leeds in 1991-92, he only made six starts, wearing 9 once and (strangely) 3 once and 2 on three occasions. In the final game of the season, he wore 14 when playing from the start against Norwich City while Gordon Strachan was sub but still had 7.

Incidentally, Robson did play in all four of United’s Champions League games in 1993-94. Teams lined out in 1-11 in Europe until the end of 1995-96 and in those games, two against Kispest Honved and two against Galatasaray, Cantona wore 9 to accommodate the captain, who left at the end of that season to take over as player-manager of Middlesbrough.

Cantona would retain 7 until his retirement after the 1996-97 season, in which David Beckham had worn 10. As we recall it, Teddy Sheringham arrived from Tottenham and sought to wear 10, which resulted in Beckham reluctantly taking 7, but this article takes the view that he always wanted it, while a passage in Roy Keane’s new book also promotes that view. If Beckham did love 7, he didn’t fight hard to wear it. For the 1992 FA Youth Cup final, he wore 6 and in the following year’s decider he had 8 on his back. In 1995-96, United wore 1-11 in games in both the Coca-Cola Cup and FA Cup and Beckham wore both 8 and 10.

Beckham’s 2003 autobiography My Side tells of how he learned he was to become number 7:

When I first got into United’s first team as a regular, my squad number was 24 [he had worn 28 before that, too]. The following season I was given the number 10 shirt. That meant a great deal to me: Denis Law and Mark Hughes had both worn it before me. Maybe the history that went with the number was why I scored so many goals wearing it. I remember, though, the summer we signed Teddy Sheringham, the boss actually took the trouble to phone me when I was away on holiday in Malta to tell me he was taking that squad number off me. No explanation, no alternative and no argument. I remember saying to Gary Neville at the time:

What’s he done that for? Why would he phone to tell me that? Did he just want to make sure he ruined my holiday?’

I was devastated, trying to work out what I’d done wrong. Then, a month later when we turned up for pre-season training, he had a new shirt ready: the number 7. The boss handed me Eric Cantona’s squad number. The surprise of that honour stopped me in my tracks.

Elsewhere in that book, Beckham tells of how Robson was his idol but clearly, despite having 10 taken off him and 7 being free with Cantona leaving, it never occurred to him to ask if he could inherit it.  From Beckham’s departure in 2003 until the present day, things are fairly straightforward. Cristiano Ronaldo wanted to wear the number 28 he had had at Sporting Lisbon but Alex Ferguson told him he had to wear 7 and ultimately, he continued the narrative. His successor, though, was Michael Owen, who definitely did not. After Owen left, Antonio Valencia switched from 25 to 7 but switched back just as quickly, meaning the shirt was unworn last season.

Angel di Maria would appear to be a worthy successor to the tradition, but perhaps it’s not as old a tradition as you might think. Is the Manchester United number 7 legendary, or is the story a legend?

The birth of squad numbers, part 2

Having already looked at the squad numbers used by Sheffield Wednesday in the 1993 Coca-Cola and FA Cup finals, now we will examine their opponents in both of those ties, Arsenal.

While Wednesday only used 12 different players in their starting sides across the three games, Arsenal had 14. All of the players numbered from 1-11 started for Wednesday – not all at the same time, though – but Arsenal’s number 4, Ian Selley, was only an unused sub in the Coca-Cola Cup and FA Cup final replay.

That Selley was even allocated a low number was strange as he only made nine appearances in 1992-93, wearing 4 on four occasions apart from the games where squad-numbering was in operation. One of those games was the home defeat against Aston Villa on Easter Monday, the last league match before the Coca-Cola final, but the line-up for that match wasn’t used as the basis for the final numbers.

Steve Morrow was 7 against Villa and 4 two days before against Ipswich Town but wore 15 for the game against Wednesday, despite starting. Kevin Campbell, 11 against Villa, was given 7 as Ray Parlour took 11 despite not wearing it in the league between January and May. John Jensen, who was 7 for much of the season, had to take 17 as a result and Paul Davis and David Hillier, the most common wearers of 4 in the league, were 14 and 18 respectively (Hillier wouldn’t see any Wembley action).

For the Coca-Cola Cup final, David O’Leary featured at right-back instead of the suspended Lee Dixon, his number 22 a suitable replacement. The other missing numbers were 4 and 9, worn by Alan Smith. Both he and Selley were the two subs.


Morrow ended up scoring the winner in a 2-1 win but was injured in post-match horseplay (non-Arsenal fans can insert another horse-like animal) with Tony Adams. For the FA Cup final, his place was taken by Jensen while Dixon was back for O’Leary but otherwise the side was unchanged.


That game was drawn after extra time and Smith, who had remained the first-choice partner for Ian Wright in the league, was named in the side for the replay as Parlour missed out, not even being named as a sub.


The squad list in full for the finals:

  1. David Seaman
  2. Lee Dixon
  3. Nigel Winterburn
  4. Ian Selley
  5. Andy Linighan
  6. Tony Adams
  7. Kevin Campbell
  8. Ian Wright
  9. Alan Smith
  10. Paul Merson
  11. Ray Parlour
  12. Steve Bould
  13. Paul Davis
  14. Steve Morrow
  15. Alan Miller
  16. John Jensen
  17. David Hillier
  18. Jimmy Carter
  19. Anders Limpar
  20. Colin Pates
  21. David O’Leary
  22. Mark Flatts
  23. Pål Lydersen
  24. Neil Heaney

For the 1993-94 season, Davis was in his more familiar 4 (Martin Keown, who had been cup-tied, was now 14) while Selley’s 22 reflected his lack of game-time. Despite playing 27 games in 93-94 compared to 22 in 1992-93, Parlour was given 23. He would be switched to 15 for 94-95 and kept that until he left the club in 2004. New signing Eddie McGoldrick was handed 11.

As with most other back-up goalkeepers, Alan Miller was given 13, leaving 16 free. That was earmarked for Roy Keane but despite a £4m bid Arsenal were never in the running for him and John Hartson eventually filled it in the spring of 1995. The only other nugget of info is that Mark Flatts, 23 for the finals, was 24 for 93-94, 25 in 94-95 and then back in 24 for 95-96, his final season.

The History of Numbers: Eastern Europe

The memory is still fresh in our minds of seeing the Czech Republic squad for Euro 96. The first-choice centre-backs, Jan Suchoparek and Miroslav Kadlec, were numbers 3 and 5 respectively while Pavel Nedved, then considered a left-back, was 4. It was a head-scratcher for those familiar with the Western European convention of having 2 and 3 as the full-backs. For the origins, we have to go back to the great Hungary team of the 1950s, under the management of Gusztav Sebes.

When 2-3-5 became the W-M, the Hungarians decided to sort out the numbering too. Jonathan Wilson in Inverting The Pyramid quotes Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary from the famous England-Hungary game of 1953:

“You might be mystified by some of the Hungarian numbers. The reason is they number the players rather logically, with the centre-half as 3 and the backs 2 and 4.”

By ’53, though, Sebes had evolved the W-M to more a W-W, playing number 9 Nandor Hidegkuti as an attacking midfielder so that the opposition’s centre-half, used to picking up 9, would be drawn out of position. If the ‘logic’ used to re-number the defence had been followed, Hidegkuti would have been 8 with the strikers 10 and 11, but this didn’t happen so the Magical Magyars looked like this:


When 4-4-2 was adopted, generally the number 5 dropped back alongside 3 and, as Hungary had been such a power, a lot of the other countries in Eastern Europe took their cues from them.

James Wilson’s change

Today is a bank holiday in Ireland but ‘real’ work still has to be done, coupled with a hangover, so just something brief for now.

Eagle-eyed viewers of Manchester United against Chelsea yesterday may have noticed that when James Wilson came on for United he was wearing number 49, having been 47 last season. He explains the reason here, though we’re left wondering why Robin van Persie can avoid Louis van Gaal’s rule.

What number should a back-up goalkeeper wear?

Well, we say ‘back-up goalkeeper’ because we still cling to the vain, naive hope that every club gives number 1 to its number 1, but sadly that’s not the case. Assuming that that is still worn by a netminder though (and Edgar Davids and Derek Riordan have done their bit to erode its sanctity in recent times), what are people’s preferences for the others in the squad?

Obviously, this wasn’t really an issue before squad numbers came in at club level. For international tournaments, countries tended to assign 12 or 22 if carrying two and both of those if taking three, though in some instances it was 12 and 13 or 21 and 22. Another oft-used GK shirt was 16, presumably because this was a popular choice for ‘normal’ internationals, where five subs were allowed.

Premier League clubs were allowed a substitute goalkeeper in 1992-93, the season before squad numbers. Many used 16 along with the 12 and 14 which had been in use since a second sub was allowed in the late 1980s. However, at the start of 1993-94, the hitherto-unused 13 was the second goalkeeper shirt of choice, with no club assigning it to an outfielder (off the top of our heads, Brian McClair in 1996-97 was the first to break this trend). It’s still popular for goalkeepers, with 12 rarely used by them in England. Most other numbers up as far as 30 have been seen at one stage or another.

In a lot of Europe and the rest of the world, 12 remains the top choice, though in Spain, league rules mandate that 13 and 25 must be used, while in France it’s 16 and 30. Both of those countries, incidentally, have fairly strict rules on numbering, unlike Italy, where anything goes.

What are your preferences? If playing Football Manager with an English club, we’d tend to go with 1, 13 and 22. In Ireland, 16 is seen as the traditional number and so, in our current game with Cork City, which has reached the early 2040s, it’s 1, 16 and 25, with 30 and 35 reserved for goalkeepers if needed. In our view, something just doesn’t sit right unless exactly one of the numbers between 12 and 21 is used by a goalkeeper.

The birth of squad numbers, part 1

It was perhaps fitting that, having played each other in 1928 in one of the games where numbers were first used experimentally, Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday should meet in both of England’s domestic cup finals in 1993, when squad numbers were seen for the first time at club level.

Whether this would have been tried if the finalists in the Coca-Cola and FA Cup finals had been different, we’ll never know. That they were the same allows us to indulge a bit of geekery as we compare the two sides’ line-ups, beginning with Wednesday.

We’re not sure how far in advance of the final the managers had to submit their numbers, but clearly Trevor Francis had a good idea of who he’d play in the Coca-Cola Cup final. The only starting player with a number above 11 in this game – and indeed both the drawn and replayed cup final – was Wednesday’s goalscorer in their 2-1 defeat, John Harkes, whose 15 was close enough to the 5 which was missing.


By the time the FA Cup final came around in May, Wednesday’s number 5 was fully fit after injury, and able to start. Up front.

Star striker David Hirst had been injured for much of the season, prompting Francis to switch Paul Warhurst from defence to attack, with some exceptional results. He had been given 9 for the finals, with Hurst allocated 5, and played as a striker in the Coca-Cola decider, but was in defence alongside Viv Anderson this time, with number 4 Carlton Palmer moving to midfield as Danny Wilson (7) missed out. A 1-1 draw resulted in what would be the last-ever FA Cup final replay.


The only change to the side saw Wilson return instead of Anderson, with Palmer dropping back into defence.


The Wednesday squad list in full read:

  1. Chris Woods
  2. Roland Nilsson
  3. Nigel Worthington
  4. Carlton Palmer
  5. David Hirst
  6. Viv Anderson
  7. Danny Wilson
  8. Chris Waddle
  9. Paul Warhurst
  10. Mark Bright
  11. John Sheridan
  12. Peter Shirtliff
  13. Chris Bart-Williams
  14. John Harkes
  15. Phil King
  16. Graham Hyde
  17. Nigel Jemson
  18. Ryan Jones
  19. Kevin Pressman
  20. Nigel Pearson
  21. Simon Stewart
  22. Gordon Watson
  23. Julian Watts (he didn’t have a brainwave and look for number 40 until he joined Luton Town in 1999)

It’s interesting (for us, anyway) to then compare that list with that submitted to the Premier League when squad numbers became permanent at the start of 1993-94. Numbers 1-4 remained the same, as did Waddle, Bright and Sheridan in the first 11. Captain Nigel Pearson, injured for the latter part of 92-93, moved from 21 to 5 as Hirst was in his more familiar 9.

With Danny Wilson having joined Barnsley to join Viv Anderson (see below), Warhurst was shunted to 7 but joined Blackburn Rovers soon after the start of the season. Australian Adem Poric took over 7 when he joined in October but didn’t make much of an impact in five years in Sheffield. Some of the lower-order numbers differed slightly, with the most notable move being reserve goalkeeper Kevin Pressman, who switched from 20 to 13, which most clubs designated for the back-up keeper.

The strangest occurrence of all, however, was the number 6 being given to Brian Linighan after Viv Anderson became player-manager at Barnsley. Linighan, the younger brother of Andy – who scored Arsenal’s winner in the FA Cup final replay – and David, who captained Ipswich Town, was only 19 at the start of the season but he would make just one league appearance for Wednesday, in January 1994. He remained at the club until 1998 but by that stage had been demoted to number 24. He then made three appearances for Bury before playing for a succession of non-league sides.

Chelsea’s false 9s

The number 9 is the goalscorer. If he can find the net every two games or better, then you can’t have too many complaints, really. Of course, nowadays ‘9’ generally refers to the player in the centre-forward position with the actual number on his back a fairly movable feast. Since the start of 2001-02, only once has the Premier League Golden Boot award been won by a number 9 (answer at the bottom).

It’s fitting that the last 9 to win it before that was Chelsea’s Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink in 2000-01, for this article looks at the curse of that shirt since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003-04. The Chelsea 9s just don’t get enough goals.


Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (2003-04)

Abramovich’s first season would prove to be Hasselbanink’s last in blue before joining Middlesbrough. While not complete duff, he wasn’t the force that he once was and a haul of 17 goals in 44 matches in all competitions was a poor return, especially considering that Chelsea came second in the league and reached the Champions League semi-finals. Ratio: 0.39 goals per game


Mateja Kezman (2004-05)

The Serbian arrived at Stamford Bridge having scored 105 goals in 122 games for PSV Eindhoven and the inheritance of Hasselbaink’s shirt seemed a perfect fit. Seven goals in 41 appearances for Chelsea suggested otherwise. Moved to Atletico Madrid, where he got eight in 30. Ratio: 0.17


Hernan Crespo (2005-06)

Crespo spent 2004-05 on loan at Milan, almost winning a Champions League medal, but he was back at Bridge for 05-06 and his swapping of number 21 for 9 seemed to be a statement of intent. While he got the winner away to Wigan on the opening day of the league season, he didn’t effect a turnaround in his Chelsea career and finished the campaign with 13 goals in 42 games before joining Inter. Ratio: 0.31


Khalid Boulahrouz (2006-07)

Chelsea’s new number 9 was really a number 2, number 3 or number 5. Khalid Boulahrouz, signed from Hamburg, was a dirty bastard of a defender and, not surprisingly, didn’t score in his 20 games with the club before joining Seville. Still, not much worse than Kezman. Ratio: 0


Steve Sidwell (2007-08)

Another non-striker in the shirt and again, worn for just one season. Sidwell arrived on a free from Reading and then joined Aston Villa, scoring once in 25 games. Ratio: 0.04


Franco di Santo (2008-09)

A striker, but never a first-choice player. Still a teenager when he signed, he had scored 13 in 55 for Chilean side Audax Italiano. Originally given 36 in the 2008 pre-season, he was subsequently assigned 9. Mainly used as a sub in his 16 Chelsea appearances, failing to find the net. Joined Blackburn on loan for 2009-10 and then inked a permanent move to Wigan. Ratio: 0


Fernando Torres (2011-14)

Chelsea didn’t allocate a number 9 at the start of the 2009-10 or 2010-11 seasons, allowing Torres to take it when he joined for £50m in January 2011. While he brought Gary Neville much joy in the Camp Nou, he couldn’t rediscover the form which made him such a hot property at Wigan. Having joined Milan on loan for the next two seasons, he’s unlikely to add to his Chelsea tally of 45 goals in 172 matches. Ratio: 0.26

So, in the 11 years since Abramovich bought the club, Chelsea number 9’s have scored 83 goals in 352 matches, an average of 0.24 goals a game. They’ve still won a few trophies in that time, mind.


  • Dimitar Berbatov is the last 9 to win the Golden Boot, doing so in 2010-11.