All-Time Best XI Series: Left Wing / Midfield

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When we are faced with writing a “best of” list, we always tend to mention things that are fresher in our memory, which is why having to write about United’s best 10 left midfielders ever has proved a lot trickier than I had initially thought. This is largely due to the fact that, in 24 years, I’ve only seen one (arguably two) player dominating that area of the pitch. United are a club built on attacking flair and wonderful wingers have put opponents to the sword over the years but the number 7 shirt has always had a different aura compared to number 11. Or so, I thought…

 

1. George Wall (1906-1915) (319 Appearances, 100 goals). A century before Ryan Giggs made the left wing his own, that was Wall’s territory. Geordie-born Wall was an outstanding outside left, as left wingers were known then, that combined pace and tricks with an ability to deliver sumptuous crosses. Signed from Barnsley in 1906, he helped United gain top flight status in his first season at the club, finishing club’s top scorer with 11 goals and, most notably, without missing a single game. The following season saw Wall netting 19 times as he helped United to lift the First Division title for the first time. He went on to win the FA Cup in 1909, as United beat Bristol City in the final, and the league in 1911, before his career at United was cut short by the First World War.

 

2. Charlie Mitten (1946-1950) (162 Appearances, 61 goals). Despite the controversy surrounding his departure, it’s impossible to forget how important Mitten was for Sir Matt Busby’s side just after the war. Blessed with pace and great ball control, “Cheeky Charlie”, as he was know to the Old Trafford faithful, loved nothing more than running at defenders. A winger with an eye for the goal, he helped the club to win the FA Cup in 1948 thanks to a 4-2 win over Blackpool. In 1950, after being approached by a rich Colombian businessman who offered him the chance to play for Independiente Santa Fe in Bogota, Charlie left England for South America, earning himself the nickname “The Bogota Bandit”. After funds dried up a year later, he declined Real Madrid’s wealthy offer, as he had set his eyes upon a return to England. United still owned his rights and Busby suspended him for six months, before eventually selling him off to Fulham. A character, on and off the pitch.

 

3. Johnny Berry (1951-1958) (276 Appearances, 45 goals). In Manchester United’s long tradition of dazzling wingers that have raced down the flanks tearing oppositions apart, Johnny Berry is up there with the very best in the club’s history. Equally gifted with both feet, Berry was signed by Sir Matt Busby after he had cut United to ribbons while playing for Birmingham – a path followed, many years later, by a young Portuguese lad – and he was deemed to be the perfect man to replace Jimmy Delaney. After an 18-months wait, Busby finally got his man and immediately reaped the dividends as Berry scored six goals in his first season at the club, helping United to secure the title. Dennis Viollet and Tommy Taylor thrived on his deliveries, and United were basically unstoppable as they collected League winners’ medals in 1955/1956 and 1956/1957. Berry miraculously survived the Munich crash, despite suffering a broken jaw, fractured skull and a broken pelvis. He woke up in hospital, totally unaware of the crash, with his injuries having caused a light sort of amnesia. A month after he regained consciousness he found out about the crash after reading a newspaper. After the crash his career was over and he was unfortunate to be capped only 7 times for England, due to being overshadowed by Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney.

 

4. David Pegg (1952-1958) (150 Appearances, 28 goals). Pegg signed for United after leaving school in 1950 and made his league debut against Middlesbrough two years later, aged only 17. Tipped by many to be the next Tom Finney, the youngster born in a village next to Doncaster combined great balance with a wonderful technique that made him one of the finest strikers of the ball at the time. He quickly became an integral figure in Sir Matt’s team, winning the league in 1956 and 1957, before losing his live in Munich. At the age of 22, he was one of the youngest players to die in the tragedy.

 

5. Billy Whelan (1953-1958) (98 Appearances, 52 goals). Dublin-born Whelan (who was also known as Liam Whelan) was a promising winger that had joined United in 1953 from Irish side Home Farm. A member of the Busby Babes, he was quick and skillful and seemed destined for a bright future before his life was cut short in Munich. He was capped four times for Ireland and won the League in 1956 and 1957.His numbers are quite incredible for a winger, with a ratio of more than a goal every two games. He wasn’t a confident flyer and, in a tragic twist of fate, was heard saying, just before the plane took off: “Well, if this is the time, then I’m ready.” He was only 22.

 

6. Albert Scanlon (1954-1960) (127 Appearances, 35 goals). One of the Busby Babes to survive the Munich tragedy in 1958, Scanlon’s was one the first names on the team sheet, during his six years tenure at the club. Being Charlie Mitten’s nephew meant that United and talent ran in the veins of young Albert from an early age. After joining as ground staff in 1950, he signed as a professional in 1952. Scanlon went through United’s academy, winning the FA Youth Cup in 1953 and 1954, as the Busby Babes began to emerge and show their immense talent. He went on to win the league in 1956 and 1957, by then having established himself as first team player. He started the game against Red Star Belgrade the day before the Munich crash and was one of the few players that were fortunate enough to escape the tragedy. He suffered kidney damage, a fractured skull and a broken leg but he was back in action the following season, going on to appear in every game and contributing with 16 goals. In 2007 Scanlon, alongside former teammate Bill Foulkes, presented the Premier League trophy to Fergie’s boys after they had brought the title back to M16.

 

7. Gordon Hill (1975-1978) (101 Appearances, 39 goals). Not many players can claim to be considered fans’ favourites despite a short spell at the club, yet Hill can, as his spell at United was short but memorable. Signed by Tommy Docherty for a mere £70.000 in November 1975, Hill blossomed into an excellent winger, forming an outstanding partnership on the wings with Steve Coppell. Under “The Doc” United regained top-flight status, playing an attractive brand of football and Hill was one of the main figures responsible for the attacking swagger that United had adopted. Quick and strong on the ball, he was gifted with a great shot. Two long-range efforts in the semifinal against Derby helped United secure a spot in the 1976 FA Cup final that ended in disappointment with a defeat against Arsenal. A year later United were back at Wembley facing the (then) mighty Liverpool, that were seemingly poised to achieve an unprecedented treble, and won 2-1 in what was to be Hill’s solitary honour with the club.

 

8. Jesper Olsen (1984-1988) (176 Appearances, 24 goals). Signed by Ron Atkinson from Ajax in 1984, Danish international Olsen was known as “The Flea” long before Lionel Messi made his mark onto the world stage. A pacy left winger, Olsen was renowned for his ability to avoid tackles as well as for his posture. He spent five years at Old Trafford, securing an FA Cup winner’s medal in 1985 when United beat Everton 1-0 in the final at Wembley. Olsen was an instrumental figure in the side that started the 1985-1986 season winning their first ten league games and remained top of the table for a long time before floundering and finishing fourth in the table. One of many the many fine products of the Danish academy, he was part of the Laudrup generation, represented his country at the 1984 European Championships and the 1986 World Cup.

 

9. Lee Sharpe (1988-1997) (263 Appearances, 37 goals). Despite a career plagued by injuries, Lee Sharpe was definitely one the most gifted players to play for the club in the final decade of the last millennium. After signing from Torquay, Sharpe got a first taste of first team football when Jesper Olsen left the club in 1988 and new signing Ralph Milne failed to live up expectations. The following season Sharpe failed to make the team for the victorious FA Cup final against Crystal Palace, as Fergie had chosen Danny Wallace as left winger. The 1990/1991 season was the turning point in Sharpe’s career as he established himself as a pivotal figure for Manchester United. After scoring three times at Highbury in a 6-2 demolition of Arsenal in the League Cup, he played a key part in United’s successful Cup Winner’s Cup campaign, scoring an absolute cracker in the semifinal against Legia Warsaw. Having finally claimed a first team spot ahead of Danny Wallace, Sharpe had to face a new rival emerging through the ranks, a 17-year-old named Ryan Giggs. Giggs’ form coupled with Sharpe’s injuries meant that he had to spend the 1992 season playing out of position at left back or competing for a spot on the right wing with Andrei Kanchelskis. Still capable of producing moments of pure brilliance, he scored with a back-heel against Barcelona in the 1994-1995 Champions League during an injury-plagued season for United. Sharpe himself was one of the victims but, due to longer injuries to Giggs and Parker, he spent most of the season at left back with Irwin occupying Parker’s spot. In 1995-1996 with the emergence of Beckham, Sharpe saw his first team opportunities reducing even more and he eventually left United at the end of that season. One of the first “poster boy” of English football in the 90s, United faithful will never forget his celebrations, from the “Sharpe shuffle” to his Elvis impersonation.

 

10. Ryan Giggs  (1991-present) (885 Appearances, 161 goals). Ryan Giggs isn’t a Manchester United player, Ryan Giggs is Manchester United. One of the most wonderfully talented players ever, he’s made the left wing position his own since coming into the side 20 years ago. In an era where players’ switch allegiances and change shirt on a weekly basis, Giggs is a perfect example of what football should be about. He’s evolved during his career, going from be a flying winger to fill in as playmaker, thanks to his enormous talent. After bursting on the scene when he was just 17-year-old and making his debut against Everton, Gigssy has never looked back and, perhaps, it was fitting that his first goal came against City (although for some it was a Colin Hendry’s own goal) as the man would go on to become a club legend. Ryan Giggs is the most decorated player in English football history with a trophy cabinet containing 12 League titles (alone he’s won just one title less than Arsenal have done in their history), 2 Champions Leagues, 4 FA Cups, 3 League Cups, an Intercontinental Cup and a FIFA Club World Cup spanning over a staggering 20 years career amounting to 885 appearances which make him United’s most capped player in the club’s history.

Giggsy is also the only player to have scored in every single edition of the Champions League since its introduction and the oldest goalscorer in the history of the competition. In his amazing career he’s scored in every single Premier League season and was inexplicably never awarded the PFA Player of the Year until 2009. Fergie famously claimed to have found “something special” when he first saw Giggs playing and he was right. Giggs is probably the closest modern football as ever come to see a new George Best in action, lighting quick with and without a ball at his feet, getting past defenders as if they weren’t there. Manchester United fans have been blessed to see many great players over the years, but few come close to the Welshman, in terms of class and devotion to the red shirt. Perhaps it’s hard and somehow unfair to single out a moment of two in a career brimming with unforgettable memories but, if pressed on, most United fans would probably pick these two: “He gets past Vieira, he gets past Dixon…it’s a wonderful run from Giiiiggggs!” screamed Martin Tyler after Giggs’ amazing solo goal against Arsenal in what was probably the greatest FA Cup semifinal ever, before adding that he had “cut Arsenal to ribbons”. That goal won’t ever be forgotten, the scenes that followed it won’t be forgotten either, they still send shivers down the spine of every United fan young and old. Then, in 2008, Ryan Giggs made history when, after replacing Paul Scholes in the Champions League final, he became United’s most capped player, surpassing Bobby Charlton’s record. When he stepped up to take what would prove to be the crucial penalty, nobody had appeared for Manchester United more times than Ryan Giggs. Nobody probably ever will.

When it comes to pick the greatest United XI ever this is probably the only position that gets filled without a debate, in fact Giggs’ name is probably the first on the team sheet. A superb player in his prime, he’ still capable of changing a game and producing moments of unrivalled class, and a fantastic team player as well in terms of dedication to the club – how many players as successful as him would be happy to sit on the bench? A lot has been said about Giggsy in terms of where he ranks in the list of football greats but, perhaps, we’ll only come to fully appreciate his greatness after he’ll have finally retired because, in truth, there may as well never be another Ryan Giggs. For that young lad that made his debut 20 years, 885 appearances and 161 goals ago is still tearing teams apart.

Daniele


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