The number seven is perhaps the holiest of holy numbers in Manchester United’s illustrious history.
Some of the best players to ever don our beautiful red shirt have worn the number on their back like a crucifix alerting the rest of the world to who our saviour would be during any given year. Legends like Eric Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham, George Best, Bryan Robson wore the number seven with pride and helped give rise to the somewhat supernatural status of the number seven jersey.
Following the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer of 2009, Sir Alex Ferguson decided to bestow the number seven on Michael Owen, a player whose career has certainly demonstrated that when healthy and in his prime Owen was capable of producing similar bits of magic that the other aforementioned United greats were capable of. But the decision puzzled me at the time and still does today. I have always thought of Michael Owen as more of a number ten than a number seven. Ferguson made the right decision in the end to give Owen the number as not many other players could have handled the immense pressure of being the first player to wear the shirt after the departure of Ronaldo.
But now the time has come for a changing of the guard. Owen, while having made clear his desire to sign a new deal to remain at United after his contract expires at the end of this season, will more than likely be on his way out or play an even more minimal role in the United set-up than he has this season. More importantly, Sir Alex has a true number seven waiting in the wings: Luis Nani.
A player that has at times polarised the support during his first few years at the club, Nani has finally produced consistently excellent match-winning displays. He has all of the qualities necessary to wear the number seven shirt: the pace, trickery, composure, the ability to create a goal on his own and the ability to set teammates up for goals. Nani leads the Premier League in assists this season with 18 assists and has scored nine goals, rendering him one of United’s standout performers during the 2010/2011 campaign.
I think it is about time we all gave it up for Nani. While he still will from time to time frustrate the support by taking long range shots that end up in row j of the Stretford End, he is also capable of creating magical moments few players in world football could duplicate. Some supporters will always expect him to be the next ‘Ronaldo’ but in many ways the two players are different. Ronaldo has a physical presence in the air that Nani lacks and is built more in the mold of a centre forward than in an out-and-out winger.
It is clear to me that this season Nani has let go of the anxiety of living up to Ronaldo’s legacy and has instead decided to create one of his own. I think it is time that Sir Alex recognised Nani’s efforts by handing him the number seven kit for next season. Wearing that number will be further motivation for Nani, who has been snubbed by the players for the PFA Player Of The Year Award and responded by tallying two assists against Fulham yesterday afternoon. This season Nani has undergone a rite of passage, from being a player of great potential who showcased it in flashes to being one of Sir Alex’s key players. It is time he got his proper reward.