Number 7 shirt weighs heavy at United

Football is littered with iconic jerseys whose mention brings instant recognition with its great owners. The Brazil No. 10 shirt is all about Pele, just as Argentina's No. 10 immediately throws up mental images of Diego Maradona single-handedly carrying his country to World Cup glory in 1986.

 

Johan Cruyff was inseparable from Netherlands' No. 14 shirt; Lionel Messi will always be Barcelona's No. 10; Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool's No. 7 are iconic together. And Manchester United's No. 7? Well, it is the club's most glorious shirt, worn by Cantona, Beckham, Ronaldo, Bryan Robson and George Best.

But since Ronaldo left Old Trafford for a then-world-record move to Real Madrid in June 2009, United's No. 7 has taken a battering and Depay vacates it having arguably been the worst, and least deserving, occupant during a grim eight years for the shirt.

Some talk of "heavy shirts," weighed down by history, and the United No. 7 is one of the heaviest due to those who have gone before. But the likes of Cantona, Beckham and Ronaldo not only used its history as an inspiration, they were also motivated to take it to new heights, with each wearer striving to do better than the man who went before.

Post-Ronaldo, however, the trend has gone the other way.

Michael Owen, a free transfer from Newcastle in the summer of 2009, was handed the shirt by Sir Alex Ferguson due to the former United manager's belief that the one-time boy wonder of English football possessed the mental strength not to be weighed down by the number.

Owen had enjoyed global status as a teenager at Liverpool, winning the Ballon d'Or along the way, so he was never likely to be fazed by the United No. 7 shirt. But while injuries ultimately restricted Owen to just 52 appearances in three years for United, he at least handed the number on to Antonio Valencia having delivered a couple of memorable moments while wearing it -- the dramatic injury-time winner against Manchester City in September 2009, and a Champions League hat-trick against Wolfsburg three months later.

Valencia was given the shirt as a reward by Ferguson, who had been impressed by the Ecuadorean's performances since arriving from Wigan as Ronaldo's direct replacement three years earlier. But Valencia struggled with the burden of expectation and switched back to his previous No. 25 shirt at the start of the 2013-14 campaign. Perhaps just as well considering he is now playing at right-back.

"It had been something I had been thinking about for quite a long time," Valencia said at the time. "I'd been considering a change back and maybe it is psychological or maybe it is just all about a good-luck symbol. We get a lot of that in Ecuador, maybe superstition, and l hope it continues and the No. 25 brings me more good luck."

The No. 7 lay vacant during David Moyes's single season in charge -- plans bring in Ronaldo or Gareth Bale and hand it to them came to nothing -- but when Angel Di Maria arrived from Real Madrid in August 2014 as the British record signing under Louis van Gaal, the Argentine winger appeared the perfect man to revive the traditions of the shirt.

However, after a bright start, Di Maria faded spectacularly, scoring just four goals in 32 appearances before leaving just 12 months later in a move to Paris Saint-Germain.

Di Maria's exit opened the door for 2015 summer signing Depay to claim the shirt, with the Dutchman having told Van Gaal that he wanted the number and promising to evoke memories of Beckham and Ronaldo. Initially, Depay looked to be the solution, with the £25m arrival from PSV Eindhoven producing a match-winning display against Club Brugge in a Champions League qualifier, scoring two stunning goals, to raise expectation levels.

But the performance may have gone to Depay's head, making the winger believe he had cracked the code too easily, because it was only a fleeting glimpse of the magic of the No. 7.

Depay, at just 22, now finds himself having to rebuild his career and reputation with Lyon after scoring just seven goals in 53 games for United. He failed to live up to the hype or deal with the pressure, so he leaves the No. 7 behind.

Old Trafford awaits its next recipient. Given United's interest in Gareth Bale, might it be him? He'd certainly be worthy. Whenever the wearer of the coveted shirt turns upturns up, and whoever he is, he can at least take the No. 7 shirt on knowing that its most recent owners have lightened the weight of expectation for him.

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