For the past quarter-century, the Manchester United number 5 shirt has been the preserve of defenders – Ronny Johnsen, Laurent Blanc, Rio Ferdinand, Marcos Rojo and now Harry Maguire.
It wasn’t always that way, though, and readers of a certain age will have grown up with the idea that, at Old Trafford (and Anfield), the number belonged to midfielders.
It stemmed from the fact that Steve Bruce had an aversion to the traditional centre-back’s number dating back to his time at Norwich City – so did his centre-back partner at Carrow Road, Dave Watson – and so favoured 4. Meanwhile, Gary Pallister wore 4 on his Middlesbrough debut in August 1985 but wore number 6 in every single senior game he played after that.
Mike Phelan wore number 5 a lot for United in the late 1980s while Neil Webb also donned the shirt when Bryan Robson was playing – Webb often wore Robson’s 7 when it was free.
By the 1992-93 season, after Eric Cantona arrived and made 7 his own with Brian McClair dropping into midfield but keeping 9, the number 5 fell into the possession of Lee Sharpe, playing on the wing. He had worn 5 once before that season, against Wrexham in the 1990-91 European Cup Winners’ Cup, but had more usually been seen in 7 (occasionally) or 11.
United’s first-choice team during the second half of 1992-93, as they ended a 26-year wait for the league title, still holds the record for the 11 that have appeared together most often in the Premier League (19 times) and it made some sense that they would retain those digits when squad numbers were introduced for the 1993-94 season. Andrei Kanchelskis (14) and Roy Keane (16) usurped Sharpe and McClair respectively, though the ‘first 11’ did start together at Newcastle United in December 1993.
Appearing on the Quickly Kevin, Will He Score? podcast, Sharpe was asked about the unusual nature of having to wear 5 on the wing. Like Ronnie Whelan, his memory is slightly hazy in that he conflates the beginning of the Premier League with the commencement of squad numbers, but the answer is no less interesting.
“I wasn’t best pleased, to be fair,” he said.
“When the squad numbers came out, there were certain players that always wore certain numbers.
“Some of them for superstition – like, Pally never wore 5 because he thought it was a big, meathead centre-half so he liked to wear 6. Brucie always wore 4, Robson – then it went on to Cantona – always had 7, McClair and Hughes had 9 and 10, Giggsy ended up collaring 11.
“Then he gave me number 5 and I was like, ‘Number 5?! I don’t want number 5, that’s like a big knucklehead centre-half, it’s not for a winger!’”
“He said, ‘Well, you’re number 5 now,’ and I was like, ‘Alright.’
“So I played number 5 for the first season and at the end of the season, I asked, ‘Is there any chance I can change my number?’ and he said, ‘No, you’re number 5 and you’re sticking with it.’
“That’s as far as the conversation went, that’s as far as I got with it.”
Sadly, Sharpe didn’t elaborate on which number he’d like to have worn instead. In 1995, both 8 and 10 came free as Paul Ince and Mark Hughes departed but Sharpe retained 5 for what would prove to be his final season at Old Trafford. He joined Leeds United in the summer of 1996 and was given the number 7 – central midfielder Lee Bowyer, who joined at the same time, took the 11 that Sharpe had so often donned in his early years for United.