Manchester United: George Best, Eric Cantona and Seven Great No. 7's

Ken LawrenceCorrespondent IAugust 4, 2011

Manchester United: George Best, Eric Cantona and Seven Great No. 7's

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    There are lies, damn lies and statistics. Then there is the No. 7 of Manchester United and the near-mystical aura that is created.

    Michael Owen currently has the honour of wearing the most famous shirt number in the history of the club; a number that connects him with a lineage of genius.

    Check out the seven players who gave that squad number its legendary status…

Jimmy Delaney

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    The Scotsman began the legend of Manchester United’s most famous shirt number of all and long before a certain Frenchman did so—this tricky winger who was Sir Matt Busby’s first signing in 1946 played with his collar up.

    Delaney had a remarkable career. He had already been a Celtic player for 13 years before he arrived at Old Trafford for the then princely sum of £4,000, going on to help United to 1948 FA cup triumph.

    He went back north of the border aged 36, yet three years later, he was signed by Derry City for a then record fee for the Irish Football League of £1,500.

    He is unique in having won the Scottish Cup with Celtic (1937), FA Cup with United (’48) and the Irish Cup with Derry (1954).

    His career spanned a remarkable 24 years.

George Best

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    The Stretford End would chant : “Maradona good, Pele better, George Best!.”

    The Belfast Boy was a killer on the pitch and the original lady killer off it. He was the first true poster boy of the game, the “fifth Beatle,” his appeal spanning generations—the girls as crazy about his looks as the boys were about the way he dazzled defences. Best was unbelievably gifted.

    When he was discovered by Northern Ireland scout Bob Bishop, he sent this telegram to Sir Matt Busby : “I think I’ve found a genius,” and the then 15-year-old went on to make 470 appearances for United, scoring 179 goals. Superstardom killed him.

    He became an alcoholic, a problem boy, a heartache for Busby, his family and millions of fans. He was only 27 when he played his last game for United, versus QPR on January 1, 1974, the days of scoring six against Northampton already history.

    His legend, however, will never die.

Steve Coppell

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    He was fast, tricky, determined, and to this day, the right winger signed by Tommy Docherty from Tranmere Rovers for £60,000 in 1975 holds the record of most competitive appearances for United. Between 1977 and ’81, he played 207 times in a row.

    In his first season, he helped Docherty’s exciting young side storm back into the top flight after a year in the Second Division. Coppell even earned an economics degree at Liverpool University during his time at Old Trafford. Coppell was forced to retire in October 1983 due to the injury he suffered playing for England against Hungary in a World Cup qualifier 18 months before.

    He said that the high challenge in that game felt like “someone had put a firework in my knee, and it had gone off," ultimately ending his career at only 28. But for that injury, he would have been able to count on adding at least another 200 appearances to his record of 373 in United’s No. 7 shirt.

Bryan Robson

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    The first non-winger to wear United’s No. 7 on his back after being signed by Ron Atkinson from West Brom in 1981 for a then record £1.5 million and went on to become the longest-serving captain in the club’s history. One of the ultimate box-to-box players, and perhaps the greatest of the lot, the man England manager Bobby Robson called his Captain Fantastic.

    It is almost laughable that a man so talented, one so driven, such a great and popular leader of men, should only win two title medals having played 461 games and scoring 99 goals, but too often, until Alex Ferguson replaced Atkinson, those around him were not able to consistently match his all-round ability.

    He showed in 1983 that he was the ultimate team player. He could have become the first in 30 years to score a hat-trick in an FA Cup final, but on the night of the 1983 replay against Brighton and with two goals to his name, he stepped aside to allow Arnold Muhren to complete a 4-0 victory from the spot.

    That was Robson, through and through.

Eric Cantona

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    Maybe he did copy Jimmy Delany with that shirt collar of his, but if he did, it would have been the only thing he did copy for the forward United fans still call “Dieu”or King Eric was an original in everything else.

    Very much a shock signing by Alex Ferguson in 1992, for what can now be declared a ridiculously low £1million from Leeds United, Cantona was the rogue genius of European football before his arrival at Old Trafford.

    He was untamed and unmanageable; what followed under Ferguson was all but incredible. He inspired younger players like Ryan Giggs and David Beckham to express themselves; he became the icon of Ferguson’s first title triumph.

    His arrogance and exhibitionism was at times awe-inspiring, and it was fitting that, when Steve Bruce left in 1996 after United became the first team to win the league and FA cup double twice, he should take the captain’s arm band.

    Many will always remember him more for his Kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan, but that moment clouds what he achieved as a United player.

    Cantona was still aged only 30 when he retired from the game having scored 80 goals in his five years at the Theatre of Dreams—the place, as a football man, he had finally come to recognise as the home he had always sought.

Cristiano Ronaldo

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    The six years that Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aviera, to give him his full name, spent at Old Trafford are the stuff of legend.

    He became, amongst other things, the first United player to win the Ballon d’Or in 40 years. Great Johan Cruyff, who lifted that award three times, saying of him : “He was better than George Best or Denis Law.”

    He perfected a cannon-like free kick, striking the ball at a specific point to make it swerve in a crazy fashion.

    Ronaldo arrived from Sporting for £12.24 million in 2003. By the time he left, he was a Champions League winner, had a clutch of Premier League medals and a collection of personal awards. Little wonder, that in 2009, he became the world’s most expensive player. Yet, Real Madrid were quite happy to pay the £80M-they already have it all back in shirt sales and various sponsorship and corporate deals.

    There may have been no greater phenomenon in Old Trafford history than Ronaldo, far less in the history of the global game. In season 2007-08, he scored an amazing 42 goals in 49 appearances, and it should be noted that in May of this year, he outperformed the Ferenc Puskas, becoming the highest scorer in a season for Real, scoring 51 times and beating the legendary striker’s record tally by two goals.

    Yet, another United No. 7 to have a vast, adoring, female fanbase; he is still aged only 26.

    It is mind-boggling to consider that by the time he left Old Trafford, he was still nowhere near the normal peak of a top player, yet will be considered by many Stretford Enders as perhaps the best ever to wear that iconic shirt.

David Beckham

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    If George Best was the first poster boy of soccer, Beckham took it to a whole new level, becoming a marketing man’s dream, and by the time he was playing for Real Madrid in 2004, becoming the world’s highest-paid footballer—on his actual salary because only a small part of the money he made in sponsorship deals.

    Unlike Best, he made himself a heartthrob but avoided the dark side of stardom. His dead-ball accuracy was astounding; little wonder that they made a film called Bend It Like Beckham.

    Signed as a 17-year-old in 1992, the quiet, good-looking boy from Leytonstone in London would make himself a right-wing sensation, becoming like another United No. 7 before him in Bryan Robson, captain of England.

    Alex Ferguson, however, grew tired of how Beckham embraced the pop culture side of his life after marrying Victoria, Posh Spice and sold him to Real in 2003. Beckham made more money, but for a time, his heart was broken.

    Only recently, before playing against Manchester City in a friendly for LA Galaxy where he is about to complete five seasons worth $35 million in total, he talked about his undying love for United.

    His impact at the club was as brilliant as it was consistent, highlighted by Champions League triumph in 2009—for United since Busby’s 1968 breakthrough—and also in 2001 as he helped his side to a third Premier League triumph.

    This was only the fourth time such a feat had been achieved in the top tier of English football.