Throughout the history of Manchester United Football Club, we have been blessed with great fullbacks on both sides of the pitch. While we have enjoyed watching numerous players in the right back berth, the selection of Gary Neville was hardly a surprise. The left-fullback position, however, is a much more difficult decision. The top ten candidates have together made nearly 3,500 collective appearances for the Reds, a clear indication of the stability we have had in that role over the years.
- Jack Silcock (433 appearances)
- Johnny Aston (284)
- Roger Byrne (280)
- Noel Cantwell (146)
- Tony Dunne (535)
- Arthur Albiston (485)
- Clayton Blackmore (245)
- Denis Irwin (529)
- Mikael Silvestre (355)
- Patrice Evra (179)
Jack Silcock was a no-nonsense fullback who first came to the attention of supporters and opposing outside-right’s at the start of the 1919/20 campaign when he made his debut in the 1-1 draw at Derby County immediately after the Great War. 400+ appearances and fifteen years later, Silcock made his exit in the 2-1 home win over Bury in March 1934. Although United often found themselves in the wrong half of the Second Division, for longevity if nothing more…Jack Silcock deserves his place in the Top Ten.
One of the original MUJAC’s, Johnny Aston signed professional with the club in 1939, but had to wait seven years to make his debut. An inside-forward of some ability,after WW2 he made his bow at home to Chelsea in September 1946, linking up play with Jimmy Delaney and Johnny Hanlon. With Matt Busby unhappy with the ability of Billy McGlen, he switched his schemer to left fullback and Aston performed so well in his new role it brought him England caps and a World Cup Finals appearance. Although Aston was pushed back into the forward line on occasion, winning a league title medal after leading the attack in 1951/52, it was at fullback that he most reknown, collecting an FA Cup winner’s gong in 1948.
With Johnny Aston leading the line, Busby made another tactical switch, moving Roger Byrne from outside-left to left fullback. A player of genuine pace, he would often scare opposing wingers with his speed and incredible work ethic…Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews, two of the world’s best flank men, never fared well against Roger. After making his debut against Liverpool in November 1951 he was rarely out of the team after that point. It was no surprise either when the Busby Babes were starting to excel in the mid-1950’s that Byrne was made captain. He won 33 consecutive caps and was selected in the 1958 England World Cup Final squad to compete in Sweden. Regardless of the tragedy in Munich, Byrne was one of the finest fullbacks in his day and received glowing praise from the likes of Puskas and Di Stefano.
Although Ian Greaves did a sterling job after Munich, he was not quite up to ‘United quality’ so in November 1960, Matt Busby bought the cultured defender Noel Cantwell for £29,500, a record for a fullback at the time. Cantwell was a deep thinker of the game and unused to Busby’s ‘go out and enjoy yourself’ philosophy. Nevertheless, he captained the team to the 1963 FA Cup Final and was a regular during a relatively unsuccessful period at the club. Although tactically astute and good reader of the game…Cantwell perhaps lacked a little pace and didn’t have the ‘grit’ that someone like Jimmy Murphy preferred.
When Cantwell finally lost his place it was to Tony Dunne, a thoroughbred of a fullback. Equally at home on the left or right side of defence, Dunne had incredible pace and was one of the first fullback’s to be seen overlapping their winger to set up an attack. Making his debut at Burnley in October 1960, not long after his arrival from Irish club Shelbourne he was a regular for the next ten years. A winner of League, FA Cup and European Cup medals, Tony Dunne was a natural.
When young Bobby Noble burst on to the scene, Dunne was moved to right back and the abrasive Mancunian made the left fullback spot his own during the 1966/67 season. Many older Reds tell me that Noble was a cert to win England honours and I often see his name in all time United X1 line-ups. Unfortunately, after only 33 starts, a car accident prematurely ended his career. Over the next decade, Francis Burns and Stewart Houston regularly wore the number three jersey, but they were just keeping it warm for another Scot who would go on to retain it for another decade.
Making his debut in a League Cup tie against Manchester United in the 1974/75 term, Arthur Albiston first came to prominence when he put in an amazingly mature performance against Ian Callaghan and Steve Heighway in the 1977 FA Cup Final. Under Docherty, Sexton and Ron Atkinson, the quiet Scot was a model of consistency until Alex Ferguson released him during the 1987/88 campaign. A Scottish international, while never flashy, Albiston was one of the lynchpins in an often rocky defence during the early 1980’s.
Over the next few seasons the left fullback responsibility fell to the likes of Colin Gibson, Johnny Sivebaek and also Lee Martin, famously scoring the winning goal in the 1990 FA Cup Final success. But it was during the 1990/91 term that Clayton Blackmore made the position his own after filling in often over the previous four or five seasons. A versatile player with a rocket of a shot, his goal line clearance in the 1991 Cup Winner’s Cup Final, ensured European glory for the Reds. It was probably Blackmore’s finest period at the club and although not as appreciated as some, he rarely let the team down.
Unfortunately, the Welshman’s time at fullback was up the minute another Celt walked down the Old Trafford tunnel. An Irishman by the name of Denis Irwin would go on to win virtually every domestic honour with United and his consistent displays…and important goals…were paramount in the league title being lifted after a 26 year absence. Although Phil Neville made a play for his position in the mid-1990’s, Irwin’s experience, discipline, ability to play on either side of the pitch and uncanny positional sense were enough to see off the young usurper. A 1999 Champions League medal was a just reward for one of the best fullback’s the Premiership has ever seen.
Mikael Silvestre was bought from Inter Milan in the summer of 1999 as a replacement for Irwin with his electric pace and brave heading being respected attributes. Unfortunately his positional sense often led to gaps in the defence and he was often made a scapegoat when goals were conceded. After nine years at the club he was allowed to move on, with a haul of medals including a 2008 Champions League trinket.
And so we move on to the current incumbent…Patrice Evra. On his day one the best left fullbacks in the world, with pace to burn in attack or defence and an ability to out-jump forwards much taller than he. Skilful on the ball, Evra has everything necessary to be the best left-back the club has ever seen. However, his form over the last couple of terms has led to some criticism…particularly when he ‘goes missing’ in defence. A French international, he is well liked by all at the club.
While Jack Silcock spent most of his time in the Second Division, and Noel Cantwell, Johnny Aston, Clayton Blackmore, and Mikael Silvestre could never really be regarded as truly world class…I eliminated these five from my final reckoning.
Additionally, Patrice Evra has suffered from a loss of form and as such has not shown the consistency of the remaining four. Subsequently I have also dismissed his credentials, great player that he is.
Arthur Albiston perhaps lacked the class of Irwin at the highest level and the pace of Dunne, so he too fails to make the final three.
So, that leaves me with a choice of Roger Byrne, Tony Dunne and Denis Irwin.
To be frank, any of these players could easily be a worthy candidate, but based on his poise, mental strength, ability to play anywhere in defence or attack, footballing intelligence and finally charismatic leadership…he is not only one of the best captains in Manchester United’s history but also my choice as the best ever left fullback is……………..
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