Liverpool versus Manchester United is undoubtedly the biggest rivalry in England between the country’s two most successful clubs. They are divided by geography and by history. It is difficult to think of a meaning period in the last fifty years when one of the two clubs has not been a dominant force in English football. And yet they have one thing in common – the idolisation of the #7 shirt.
This may seem trivial in an age of squad numbers and meaningless association, but shirt numbers have traditionally been very specific, and it wasn’t until 1993 that they were directly associated with a player rather than simply a position in the team. Other numbers, such as the creative #10 or the goalscoring #9, have become iconic because of the position they traditionally represent. But with Liverpool and Manchester United, the #7 shirt has not been restrained by position or tradition. And yet conversely, position and tradition are exactly what Liverpool and United’s #7 shirt has come to represent.
The history of shirt numbers is actually a logical documentation of the development of football tactics. When shirt numbers were first used in 1928, the numbers 1-11 simply detailed the three tier formation of the widely used 235 formation, reading from right to left and back to front. Thus, #1 was the goalkeeper, #2 the right full back, #3 the left full back, #4 the right half back, #5 the centre half back, #6 the left half back, #7 the outside right, #8 the inside right, #9 the centre forward, #10 the inside left and #11 the outside left. As tactics evolved into the quintessential English 442, two of the half backs dropped deeper to become centre backs, the outside forwards became wide midfielders or wingers, and an inside forward formed a midfield pairing with the remaining half back. Today in England we generally see the #1 as the goalkeeper, #2 the right full back, #5 and #6 the centre backs, #3 the left full back, #4 the defensive central midfielder, #8 the attacking or creative central midfielder, #7 and #11 the wingers, #10 the support striker and #9 the centre forward.
(NB: This is a very brief overview of English football tactics and shirt numbers. For more detail and information about other nations, read Jonathan Wilson’s excellent book ‘Inverting the Pyramid’.)
It therefore stands to reason that both Liverpool and United would have traditionally used the #7 as little more than the right sided midfielder, so there is a real irony in the two great rivals adopting the same number to represent each club’s iconic past.
In 1971, Kevin Keegan became Liverpool’s first iconic #7 when, as a support striker in Liverpool’s 442/4411 system, he took over the shirt from traditional right winger Ian Callaghan. Keegan’s adoption of the #7 may have been unnatural for a forward, but he wasn’t the only Liverpool player breaking convention in the early 1970s. As a result of Keegan’s arrival, Callaghan played on the right side of midfield with the #11 shirt. Keegan’s new strike partner, John Toshack, wore #10, meaning Steve Heighway played on the left side of midfield with the #9 shirt. But these adjustments aside, Keegan gave the #7 shirt a home as a support striker (in a role referred to, ironically, as the #10 position).
Keegan was replaced in 1977 by Kenny Dalglish who assumed the #7 shirt and Keegan’s role behind the centre forward. While Dalglish was at the club, the rest of Liverpool’s shirt numbers largely fell back in line with convention, as #9 returned up front with firstly David Johnson and later Ian Rush. If Keegan had made the shirt iconic, Dalglish made it legendary, going down in history as Liverpool’s greatest ever player. By 1988 when Dalglish, as manager, replaced himself with Peter Beardsley, Liverpool’s #7 shirt was firmly attached to the second striker role.
During the 1990s, the Liverpool dynasty of the 1970s and 1980s fell away, and so too did their #7 shirt. Dean Saunders and Nigel Clough both wore the number but failed to live up to its reputation. Perhaps significantly, upon Clough’s arrival in 1993 a young Steve McManaman was given the #17 shirt in the new age of player/number association. As John Barnes faded and Clough failed to shine, McManaman became Liverpool’s new creative star, either from the right wing or as the most advanced of a midfield three, and it was fitting for him to assume the #7 shirt in 1996.
Followingly McManaman’s departure to Real Madrid in 1999 left Liverpool without a playmaker and a worthy recipient of the #7, and the club failed to fill the role for over a decade. Several players were signed to plug the gap and wear the shirt, including Vladimir Smicer and Harry Kewell, but with the club playing either two genuine centre forwards (Michael Owen and Emile Heskey) or a lone striker (Fernando Torres), the second striker position, and the #7 shirt, became obsolete. By 2009 the #7 shirt was not even allocated. Luis Suarez’s arrival in 2011 gave Liverpool not only their first genuine #10 since McManaman, but also their next #7. It may have taken the club two decades but Liverpool seem to have found the second striker #7 they have been sorely lacking.
While Liverpool’s affiliation with the #7 shirt began in the 1970s, Manchester United’s began much later, but its roots will always retrospectively be traced back to George Best. Best became the star of the great Manchester United side of the 1960s. While Denis Law scored goals and Bobby Charlton ran games, George Best entertained. The Irishman’s quality could not be confined to a specific position, and so he was largely given the freedom to drift across the pitch. With his outrageous ability and celebrity lifestyle, Best became arguably the first football superstar, something Manchester United, and their #7 shirt, have associated themselves with since. But although Best was the first iconic #7, he didn’t inspire the shirt’s status. If Best had played the #7 shirt in a more advanced position than convention dictated, Willie Morgan and Steve Coppell quickly returned it to its home on the right side of midfield.
This began a period of remarkable conformism from United, who generally lined up in a 442 formation with the shirt numbers as expected, until Bryan Robson’s arrival in 1981. Robson took the #7 shirt from Coppell, who adopted #11, and became the driving force of the side in the centre of midfield, building the foundations for Sir Alex Ferguson’s period of Premier League dominance. Robson may have lacked Best’s personality and charisma but in footballing terms he was every bit the superstar, and his coincidental adoption of Best’s shirt simply added to the #7’s history.
Unlike Liverpool, whose #7 became associated with a position, for United’s shirt to gain legendary status it had to wait until 1993, when shirt numbers became assigned to individuals . By then, Eric Cantona had arrived at the club and already inspired Manchester United to the first Premier League title. The Frenchman wore the #7 shirt at Leeds and so coincidence again played a part in his inheriting a shirt already associated with greatness. Cantona’s influence is well known, and his style and demeanour made him a United legend, but in the new Premier League age of mass media coverage, he also cemented the #7 shirt as a club icon.
Sir Alex Ferguson has repeatedly talked up the love of iconic players at the club, and under his stewardship United have had their fair share. But the three biggest superstars of the Ferguson era, combining football ability with celebrity appeal, have all worn the #7 shirt, reinforcing its place in United folklore. David Beckham took the shirt over from Cantona and went on to become the most famous athlete on the planet, while his successor, Cristiano Ronaldo, became the most expensive. Despite both players largely playing on the right flank, the #7 shirt had become far more than simply a position.
Since Ronaldo, the shirt has drifted somewhat. Michael Owen briefly gave the #7 a place on the bench, and occasionally up front, before Antonio Valencia took it over for the present season. But it only takes a glance at the players that have turned down the shirt – most recently, Nani and Shinji Kagawa – to see that the number continues to carry a weight of expectation.
It is remarkable how the #7 shirt has become so iconic for both clubs and how its ownership has given an indication of each club’s health. Liverpool’s #7 become symbolic of the support striker, a provider and scorer of goals. Indeed, their lack of a quality playmaker from McManaman to Suarez is startling, and only the multi-skilled Steven Gerrard was able to mask this deficiency, if only briefly. United’s #7 has grown to represent less a position than an icon, a symbol of the club. It is perhaps an indication of the slightly tense relationship that appears to exist between the player and the club that Wayne Rooney has seemingly never been offered the shirt since Ronaldo’s departure, and it may also demonstrate their present lack of star quality that the shirt currently resides with the unassuming Valencia. While people continue to question the strength of Ferguson’s midfield, what United really lack is a superstar, a #7.
It takes a long time for a legend to develop, but it takes even longer for one to disappear. It is likely these two clubs will be bound by their devotion to the #7 shirt for a little while yet.