Eric Cantona shocked the world 20 years ago when he decided to hang up his boots at the age of 30.
The Manchester United captain had just lifted his fifth league title in six years having previously been at Leeds.
It was at Old Trafford where Cantona truly became a Premier League icon as he graced the number seven shirt so closely associated with United’s greatest stars.
In 2013, another United great, David Beckham called time on his career. The Englishman bid farewell to football as a Paris Saint-Germain player after spells at Real Madrid, LA Galaxy and AC Milan.
Here, we look at five of the best to ever wear the fabled number for the Red Devils.
United appearances: 470
United goals: 179
Joining United as a shy, retiring teenager from Northern Ireland, few could predict the impact Best would have on the football world – and beyond.
The first footballer to truly cross over into the world of celebrity Best was also a superb master of his craft – his weaving runs and marvellous goals were a staple at Old Trafford.
Best won two First Division titles and the European Cup and was on the score-sheet as United beat Benfica to lift the European Cup in 1968 – just a decade on from when manager Matt Busby’s team was decimated following the Munich air disaster.
The man dubbed ‘El Beatle’ would see his career head into decline after leaving United in 1973 and his long-standing battle with alcoholism ended when he died in 2005 aged 59.
Cantona himself paid tribute to Best, saying after his death: “I would love him to save me a place in his team – George Best that is, not God.”
United appearances: 461
United goals: 99
Signed by United in 1981 for a then-British record transfer fee, Robson would have to wait over a decade to claim the league title he had craved.
But United and England’s captain still played a key role in delivering trophies in the interim, winning a trio of FA Cups as well as a League Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
A mainstay in Ron Atkinson’s side before the arrival of Sir Alex Ferguson, Robson became a true United favourite.
It was fitting that he would lift the inaugural Premier League title in 1993 along with Steve Bruce before repeating the feat a year later as United’s period of dominance began with him only a bit-part player.
United appearances: 394
United goals: 85
Born in Leytonstone, Beckham was always a United fan and would come through the ranks with plenty of his friends to achieve great things at United and beyond.
The former England captain could hit a free-kick as good as anyone and was also a superb crosser of the ball.
In his 11-year senior United career, Beckham won six Premier League titles, two FA Cups and the Champions League in 1999 as part of an historic Treble.
His rising status as a celebrity, helped by his marriage to Spice Girl Victoria Adams, never sat well with Ferguson and the pair often clashed – leading in part to Beckham’s departure to Real Madrid in 2003.
United appearances: 185
United goals: 82
Arguably one of the most inspired signings in the history of the Premier League, Cantona had already helped deliver a title at Leeds before Ferguson made his move and took him across the Pennines.
He cost the Red Devils just £1.2 million and would establish himself as a player who would forever go down in the history of the club.
His arrival coincided with the first back-to-back Premier League title wins before he was banned from football for eight months as his fierce temper got the better of him and he kicked a Crystal Palace fan after being sent off.
He returned in time to nurture United’s blossoming youth talent, a father figure to the Class of ’92 such as Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and the Neville brothers, Gary and Phil, back to the title in 1996.
United would retain the crown again the next season with Cantona as captain but his star was on the wane and he shocked the sport by announcing his retirement at the age of 30.
United appearances: 292
United goals: 118
Now breaking goalscoring records at Real Madrid, Ronaldo came of age during a spell at United in which he truly shone.
Signed as a relatively unknown teenager, Ronaldo was initially only recognised for his skill as he adapted to a new league and continued to develop physically and mentally under Ferguson.
It was following Euro 2006, where Ronaldo was vilified in England for his apparent part in a red card for United team-mate Wayne Rooney, when the Portugal international began to flourish.
He had already starred in the FA Cup final of 2004 but he went on to be the talisman as United won a trio of league titles between 2007 and 2009, with Champions League success in 2008.
His goalscoring became a regular occurrence and in 2007/08 he surpassed Best’s previous record tally of goals in a season for a United winger.
Best himself had previously spoken about Ronaldo. “There have been a few players described as ‘the new George Best ‘ over the years, but this is the first time it’s been a compliment to me,” he said.
Provided by Press Association
With Pablo Zabaleta announcing he’s leaving City this summer, James Piercy and Alam Khan debate whether the veteran Ivorian midfielder should follow his fellow club stalwart out of the door or earn a new deal at the club.
With Pablo Zabaleta leaving Manchester City after nine years, it would be a mistake to lose another icon.
It’s true Toure may not be the midfielder he was, forging forward with finesse and fire, but he still has much to contribute, much to teach.
City have more pressing transfer priorities this summer, namely in defence, and with Ilkay Gundogan needing time to rec-over from his serious knee injury, Toure would provide trusted cover. He knows Pep Guardiola, his system and City.
I recall when Patrick Vieira joined in 2010 at the same time. At 34, in his final season, he was slower, but a calming influence when used by his old Inter boss Roberto Mancini. Vieira provided experience, expertise and a winning mentality that City needed at that time. That’s Toure now and why he should be equally respected and revered a la Vieira.
Ironically, the Frenchman’s farewell – six years ago yesterday – saw Toure score against Stoke to lift the FA Cup – ending a 35-year wait for a major trophy and sparking City’s rise.
Just like Vieira, Andrea Pirlo or Michael Carrick over at United, age doesn’t matter when brains can make up for tiring limbs in terms of doing the basics brilliantly, of knowing when to play the right pass or make the right tackle or take the right shot.
Toure can still control games, and that’s what Guardiola has seen since restoring him to the line-up in November.
It is difficult to find complaint with his attitude either. An effervescent character, through his enthusiastic displays and encouragement to the younger talent, Toure has become the ‘daddy’ of this team. Letting Gabriel Jesus take the penalty in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Leicester, when he was designated, was a sign of his maturity.
Having just turned 34, he doesn’t need cake to appease him, but recognition of his value.
And whatever agent, Dimitri Seluk, might say about better financial options elsewhere, this should not be about money for Toure, but his legacy at City.
For all the influence and experience Yaya Toure brings to the City dressing room, as a footballer, his lack of suitability to the style Pep Guardiola wants to implement will only become increasingly more apparent.
The Ivorian deserves credit for the way he has applied himself in the second half of the season, albeit without delivering too many grandstand displays, just keeping it nice and simple. But Guardiola needs his central midfielders to either be controlled in possession or dynamic and able to get up and down the field, pressing, harrying and recovering the ball.
Toure hasn’t been such a midfielder, in a defensive sense, for a long time and his legs and body simply can’t summon the energy required to fulfil such a task across a 45+ match season.
Ilkay Gundogan’s injury has afforded him more gametime than perhaps Guardiola envisaged at the start of the season but he is nowhere near the same level of distributor as the German. Similarly, Fernandinho’s disciplinary issues and need to fill in at full-back meant Yaya was only in direct competition with the Brazilian, who possesses a superior work rate, for a limited time.
Under Manuel Pellegrini, Yaya became a luxury player, rarely checking runners, barely pressing and offering occasional protection for his defence. He’s improved marginally, but still not at a level of consistency, with Guardiola not starting him against Monaco in the Champions League second leg, Arsenal and Liverpool telling.
All with the nagging feeling that he’s merely obliging to ensure a new contract and may return to old ways. He’s doing that because clearly not too many clubs out there are willing to pay a 34-year-old £220,000-a-week, and neither should City for a glorified squad player.
Yaya’s place in club history is assured; bar the ludicrous influence of Dimitri Seluk he’s helped shape the club in the Abu Dhabi era. But there are plenty of midfielders; younger, fitter and significantly cheaper who can take the club forward under Guardiola.
Vincent Kompany says Manchester City will need the departing Pablo Zabaleta’s commitment and courage if they are to achieve more success in the future.
After a substitute appearance in Saturday’s 2-1 Premier League win over Leicester City, Zabaleta is set for an emotional farewell in Tuesday’s final home game against West Brom after confirming he will leave when his contract ends next month.
Kompany, who joined City with the 32-year-old full-back nine years ago just before Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s landmark takeover, hailed him a legend, warrior and example for other players to follow.
“Even in the couple of minutes that he played [against Leicester], he epitomises what the fans have loved about City for so many years even before our era,” said the Belgian captain.
“He’s tough, he gets into challenges where usually he has no right to win them, but he gets out on the winning end.”
“More than anything it’s his passion and his commitment to the club. He’s an exceptional professional and someone who has been extremely reliable.”
“After that you can talk about his qualities because people maybe don’t appreciate what he’s been able to offer going forward over the years. His timings of his runs, the reading of the game and I think he’ll always be remembered for all his cuts and bruises.”
“We used to play with 10 men for about five minutes per game at some stage because he’d need to go off for treatment.”
Pablo Zabaleta's Man City career by numbers:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 14, 2017
2 Premier League titles
2 League cups
1 FA Cup
Club legend. 🔵🏆🔵 https://t.co/2tOEtvx21P
“I remember him going off against Everton to get his stitches done or whatever and he went all the way back to the dressing room and in the meantime we conceded a goal. So when he got back out, I said next time we need to time this better.”
“Zaba will always be remembered for his tackles and I think that’s what he wants. I’d add one more thing. His presence in big games, even when you’re losing, there’s always a few players you know are going to put in a good performance even when you don’t always get on the right end of it – and he was always one of them.”
“If you need to go to war in the big games, you know you’ve got Zaba with you. I’ve mentioned [this season] that we have dominated a lot of games, we have a lot of possession and our performances were good, but I reckon for the future we need to take some of that hardness, some of that passion, into whatever this team will be in the future – and it will be well past my time – so that has to remain at City.”
“That is what the fans will always want to see at City. So take a little bit of Zabaleta and add him to the talent we have and we will have a really, really good team.”
News of Zabaleta’s departure coincided with the fifth anniversary of City’s landmark first Premier League title in 2012 when he actually scored the opener in a 3-2 win mostly remembered for Sergio Aguero’s dramatic injury-time winner.
It’s an unforgettable memory for Kompany too as he added: “It was massive for us. But whether he’s scoring at the end or at the beginning, he contributed in an equal way to us winning our games.”
“You need a guy like Kun [Aguero] to score the goals, but sometimes a last-ditch challenge, things that often get forgotten quite easily but team-mates and players like us we remember those, and it’s a feeling that you have. And with him you have that feeling he could save the game.”
“And Pablo, you know, did his last start v United and was playing against a young lad with a lot of speed [Anthony Martial], but he’s got so much experience that he knew it get in a challenge straight away and not make it obvious that he is lacking for pace against some players. It doesn’t matter when you have so much experience.”
A todos nuestros seguidores: primero el martes los necesitamos porque hay que ganar como sea y segundo es la gran oportunidad para todos para despedir y desear lo mejor a este pedazo de jugador y gran persona. To all our followers: first on Tuesday we need you because we have to win as it is and second is the great opportunity for everyone to say goodbye and wish the best to this f***** amazing player and great person. #iamblue #zabaisblue #allthebestzaba
“There’s no way I can predict what his future will be, I can only speak about the years we’ve shared together and he’s everything a City legend needs to represent.”
The pair, and City, have come a long way since 2008, with the backing from Abu Dhabi pivotal to their rise as one of Europe’s leading clubs and five major trophies.
Big names, heroes, have come and gone. Even this season, keeper Joe Hart – the only other survivor from the 2008 campaign – has been sent on loan to Torino and set to be sold in the summer, along with Samir Nasri and Eliaquim Mangala.
Of the current squad, Bacary Sagna is also set to leave for free and the futures of other out-of-contract players, Yaya Toure, Jesus Navas, Gael Clichy and Willy Caballero, are still to be decided by boss Pep Guardiola.
As Kompany recalls: “We came here when there were completely different targets.”
“We were happy to win a big game every now and again and we were literally ‘old school’, go with the lads, have a drink and that was it.”
“I can’t remember the last time that happened because the team has changed, the pressure has changed, the amount of games has changed but we’re still part of this generation that … we played with Dunny [Richard Dunne] so that says everything!”
“There’s always been talent at City even when it was a mid-table club.I reckon what we brought in – because we were young then – was a lot of hunger to go that extra step. And only players like this would survive at this club anyway because of the competition there’s been for so many years now at the club. Even to just be here after so many years and with so many players coming in, it is not an easy job.”
With Zabaleta and Hart on the way out, Kompany will become the club’s longest-serving player.
Gutted can't be there Tues,I don't think,I know that @pablo_zabaleta will get THE best send off from the best fans in the land & the world 💙— Paul Dickov (@OfficialPDickov) May 13, 2017
After all his injury problems, a sixth successive start and solid display in the win over Leicester offered renewed hope about his future, trophy ambitions, and that he may see out his career at the club rather than heading for the exit door like others.
But he joked: “I’ve had to think way too many times about the end of my career recently, unfortunately.”
“You know what, I’m really taking it game by game. I’m enjoying it and my thing is simple: when the young lads start running past me in training I will know it is time. And that is not happening at the moment so I’m still aiming for the highest achievable things.”
“It is a World Cup season next season so I’m planning to be ambitious. And there is plenty to feel good about when I play. So if I go back to being a normal [injury-free] centre half which I’ve not been for a long time, then 31 is a pretty good age. I want to approach it that way.”