Ryan Giggs' long and successful playing career with Manchester United lasted 24 years. Many presumed that the ultimate way to celebrate and honour nearly a quarter of a century of immaculate service to the club would be to retire his number 11 jersey which he effectively made iconic.
However, United's new teenage prodigy Adnan Januzaj has been graced with the privilege of donning the Welshman's shirt. Not only is it a vote of confidence for the youngster, it's perhaps more fitting than having to retire the number altogether.
Of course, the gesture of retiring a certain number is often considered the ultimate show of gratitude and highest of honours. Napoli retired Diego Maradona's number 10 jersey, Ajax did the same with Johan Cruyff's number 14 and West Ham United with Bobby Moore's number 6. Meanwhile, AC Milan have retired numbers 6 and 3 in honour of legendary defenders Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini respectively.
Retiring shirts is a fine gesture
However, in doing so, clubs forego the opportunity to elevate the reputation of the shirt to even greater heights. The number perhaps isn’t allowed to absorb even more history, making it all the more iconic. It denies a budding talent the chance to wear that number, be inspired by the greats who occupied it before and swell with confidence at the fact that they get to add to its illustrious reputation.
Granted, a few may wither under the pressure and expectation but the ones destined for greatness take it in their stride and rise to the occasion. On the evidence available so far, Januzaj may well fall into the second category.
The teenage prodigy was one of the few bright lights in a tumultuous season last time around for United. He was regularly summoned to provide the spark the team lacked and often delivered. However, relying on an 18 year-old was not only unfair and demanding but proved impractical as well.
During his first season in the senior side, Giggs was afforded the luxury to make fleeting appearances, wow the crowd and then disappear down the tunnel. Januzaj was almost instantaneously burdened with the task of providing something to bail his side out of trouble.
This season, he won’t have that responsibility weighing him down. Despite their opening day defeat to Swansea City, few envisage this campaign to be as disappointing as the last.
Januzaj doesn't need to be burdened with United's number 7 jersey
At United, the number 7 jersey has legendary status and is held in such high regard that it borders on mythical significance. Entrusting Januzaj with it could well have panned out but given that the fans have already pinned their hopes on him during this dark spell, sparing him the unnecessary added expectation is probably a good call.
It’s great for a talented United player to inherit a number worn by the likes of George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo. However, Januzaj is already being likened to the Portuguese Ballon d’Or winner in particular and doesn’t need the comparison to be taken any further, especially since they share the same birthday as well.
The number 11 shirt instead spares him that level of scrutiny but still shows the faith the manager and those at the club have in him. It conveys their confidence in him and gives him the responsibility to live up to the jersey’s previous occupant without the hassle of having to be the next Ronaldo.
Needless to say, the number 7 is revered among the United faithful. After Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia’s rather underwhelming stints with the shirt, the fans want to see it being worn by a superstar worthy of it. Perhaps it’s being saved for such a proven performer.
At United, 7 is greater than 11 but after the journey Giggs took it on for the last couple of decades, the latter’s stock has certainly risen. If Januzaj can emulate the Welshman’s accomplishments at the club even to a small degree, the number 11 shirt will go a long way to being held as high in regard as the number 7 jersey.
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