Since July this year, RedRants has been running a series of articles attempting to decipher who’s been the greatest ever player in Manchester United’s illustrious history in each and every position. Many of RedRants own community got involved and so too did enthusiastic guest writers, I’m grateful to them all, Thank You.
Some positions in our XI are filled with the obvious, others are not so cut and dried. One thing is for sure though, the debates will rage on and there’s absolutely no definitive answer because Manchester United have fielded more than one fantastically gifted performer in every position.
This final article amalgamates all the articles into one; to produce RedRants’ Manchester United: ‘All-Time Best XI’. The important question is…..How closely does it mirror yours?
It’s ingrained into the footballing philosophy of Manchester United, arguably the greatest football club in the world, that playing free-flowing, attacking football; in a 4-4-2 system with flying wingers, is not only the ‘correct’ way to play the game, but also ‘the United way’ to play the game, some even suggest it’s in our DNA.
It could perhaps be argued that, in recent times, we’re seeing a shift away from this formation (reflecting a general shift in tactics throughout the entire footballing world) in order to compete at the very highest level – regardless of the many obstacles the club now faces.
Sheikhs, Oligarks, Tycoons and Governments are all dipping their fingers in football’s pie, and it’s starting to get messy.
United cannot be discounted from that. Off the pitch United are without doubt a beacon of all that’s wrong in the game with massive debts, abhorred; pilfering owners and rocketing ticket prices.
On the pitch however, the passion and desire remain. If, in 100 years time, someone publishes a similar article, I suspect and certainly hope, that many of the players on this list remain. More importantly, I’d like to believe the formation and its philosophy remain etched to the club and the cries of ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK ATTACK ATTACK continue to bellow from the Old Trafford
It’s with that in mind I’ll begin on the right-wing where the winner of this little argument is – Christiano Ronaldo: Ronaldo made 292 appearances scoring 118 goals between 2003 & 2009 before he parted company with United bound to fulfil his lifetimes ambition of playing for Real Madrid in a deal worth a whopping £80million. Bought for £14million from Sporting Lisbon, Ronaldo is widely accepted as one of Sir Alex Fergusons best signings, I mean who could argue with that when for three years Ronaldo – almost single handedly – took United to three league titles and two European Cup finals (winning one and losing one) scoring superb solo efforts, magnificent free-kicks and remarkable back-flicks (see: Villa at home, 2008) along the way, not to mention his countless assists that have helped to cement his place in our Best XI.
Another of Sir Alex’s best signings proudly takes his place amongst the Best XI as centre forward – Eric Cantona: Eric was signed from Leeds United way back in 1992 for a paltry £1million. At the time United were battling Leeds United for the now Premier League crown, it seems unbelievable a club would sell such a jewel to such a bitter rival…..but then, we are talking about Leeds United here! Eric went on to score 82 goals in 185 appearances for the club, many of which are replayed, and replayed, and replayed not only because of their genius, but because they came at a time when United were trying desperately to overcome twenty-six baron years that had become a chalice around their neck. When United did eventually remove the chalice and lift the league title for the first time since 1967 (the 8th time in the club’s history) many believed Eric was the catalyst. In season 95/96 Eric epitomized his value to the team (and the club) scoring countless, crucial goals to secure vital points that saw United go on to win their 2nd league and cup double. Games against Newcastle away; Arsenal, Spurs and Coventry at Old Trafford, all ended in one-nil victories with the solitary goal scored by Eric. Just for good measure he fittingly secured United’s 9th FA Cup triumph with a one-nil win over arch enemy Liverpool, again providing the only goal of the game. It’s amazing to think that his arrival at the club was only sparked by an inpromptu phone call enquiring about the availability of Denis Irwin!
For many, Eric is the King. For Eric, United is the club. Eric retired prematurely in 1997 after (I believe) becoming disillusioned with the authorities and the unfair, inconsistent treatment he received. He did however leave us with great memories and some unforgettable quotes.
It’s not all about attacking football no matter how the chant goes. Defending has been the fulcrum of everything United have built upon and achieved down the years. Nowhere is that more evident than in the centre of defence. It’s my opinion that this particular article was probably the most difficult to conclude. Nothing highlights that point more than the omission of Paul McGrath. If Paul McGrath cannot get amongst a Top 10 (let alone be considered the best) then you know there’s been some special talent taking care of the ugly side of the game. Steve Bruce and Nemanja Vidic will occupy these central defensive berths and my guess is they would strike fear into managers and centre forwards up and down the country and throughout Europe. Both fearless, both leaders, both tough tackling and both determined defenders worthy of consideration for this honour. Steve Bruce made 414 appearances between 1987 & 1996 scoring an incredible (for a defender) 51 goals, none of which are more important or more famous than the one he headed in (with swerve by the way!) in the dying moments versus Sheffield Wednesday in ’93. That goal, and the one minutes previously, ultimately carved a path to ending United’s arduous 26 year wait for the league title. Alongside him, Nemanja Vidic: 236 appearances and counting. Recently plagued by injury, Nemanja is currently finding his way back to form, but his inclusion here is testament to his tremendous heart, his strength and his prescence since arriving at the club. Nemanja is now club captain and led United to their record breaking 19th league title in 2011 whilst also being named PFA Player of the Year.
Alongside our centre backs we’re flanked by two players with an absolute contrast. First, at rightback, there’s only one Gary Neville: No pace, no acceleration, can’t shoot, won’t shoot; BUT. Twenty years, 602 appearances and the clubs-colours running through his veins; meant Gary Neville made the best of what he had. His attitude was second to none and his workrate insatiable. Gary was a defender who read the game beautifully but as the years ticked by the role became more demanding. Gary didn’t baulk at this, he puffed his chest out and learnt how to attack. He listened, he trained; he was motivated to stay in the team because he knew nothing else. Made club captain after Roy Keane’s departure in 2005, Gary called time on his career in 2011 after winning an incredible haul of domestic and European honours with his one and only love….Manchester United.
At Leftback, in contrast, we find the late Roger Byrne: A player with genuine pace and the ability to frighten opponents with his speed and a dynamic talent to switch from leftback to outside-left. A victim of the Munich Air Disaster, Roger had his career tragically cut short, but during his 280 appearances he received glowing praise from players such as Alfredo Di Stefano (Real Madrid) and Hungarian legend Puskas. After making his debut against Liverpool in November 1951, he was rarely out of the team. It was no surprise either, that the Busby Babes began to excel in the mid-1950’s as a consequence of Byrne being made captain.
With the back four complete it’s time to introduce our Goalkeeper. This is one of the positions where there can surely be no argument. Peter Schmeichel: Not only is Peter United’s greatest ever Goalkeeper, he’s also the barometer pundits use when comparing keepers around the world. Peter was one a kind, he redefined a keepers role and how ‘keeping nets’ is done. His distribution was second to none. United countered successfully from countless genius releases from Peter. Defence turned into attack, turned into a goal, turned into the stopwatch on Match of the Day highlighting the time between save and goal; week, after week, after week. I doubt another keeper in history could be attributed with as many assists as Peter was. Today, arguably Manuel Neuer is the world’s number one goalkeeper, you only need to watch him to see the influence Schmeichel has had on the art of goalkeeping. For his 398 appearances, spanning nearly a decade, Peter rightfully pulls on the gloves in our Best XI.
At the time this is published we’re all (evidently with the exception of Sir Alex!) aware of a minor personnel crisis in the middle of United’s midfield. Maybe we’ve been spoiled over the years? I’d suggest that’s not the entire truth but it certainly bears some weight as to what’s driven United fans to have such high expectations from our central midfielders. Bryan Robson is dressed ready to go, but our guest writer (Rob) couldn’t separate Roy Keane and Paul Scholes to sit beside him .Similar to the centre back pairing this would no doubt have caused the writer much deliberation; and the omission of either Paul Scholes or Roy Keane, emphasises this nicely. So, it’s down to me to decide. Roy Keane: Signed from Nottingham Forest (to the derision of Kenny Dalglish!) in 1993, he went on to captain United through their historically most sustained period of success, making 480 appearances, scoring 51 goals along the way. Keane is remembered for his no nonsense approach, his unquenchable thirst for success and his uncompromising demand on others to strive with him. Mentally he had no match but that wasn’t the end of his ability, there wasn’t an area on the pitch he didn’t know how to operate in. He had everything and epitomised what every United fan wants to see in the middle of the park. If only there was a 21 year old Roy Keane out there now. However…..Roy doesn’t make it in, simply because he and Robbo are too similar. After Roy’s epic header in Turin I invested in my one and only Champions League replica shirt with extra badges and KEANE 16 on the back. I’d never done it before then and I doubt I’ll ever do it again (I still wear that shirt to this day), but that’s what Keane did, he influenced people. Bryan Robson: Few words can describe Robbo more adequately than ‘colossal’. Signing on a rickety old wooden table under the watchful eye of Ron Atkinson and about 46,000 delirious Reds, Robson transferred from West Bromich Albion (for a then record fee of £1.5million) in October 1981 and quickly became cult hero and club captain. His motivation was simple – win! During his 461 appearances Robson would sometimes plough a lonely furrow, but he never gave up. Who can ever forget the night in ‘84 when Robson, Stapleton, Whiteside, and Co, despatched a Barcelona side (boasting a two goal first leg advantage and a certain Maradona) 3-0 to advance to the semi-finals of the European Cup Winners Cup? Robson’s career was littered with highs but plagued injuries, setbacks and comebacks, but still he soldiered on and was eventually rewarded when he lifted the Premier league title (jointly) with Steve Bruce in 1993 before calling time on a tremendous Old Trafford career. To compliment Robson I think the perfect partner is Paul Scholes: There’s not a lot to say that hasn’t already been said about Paul or indeed any of these players, but when Bobby Charlton says you’re the best and Xavi (Barcelona) describes you as ‘a reference’ [purporting to his midfield genius] you know you’re talking about someone special. Scholes made 676 appearances for United scoring 150 goals. Emanating from ‘The Class of 92’, Paul slowly captivated his audience and gradually became the heartbeat of a team that was reinventing itself after the loss of Robson, the moving on of Paul Ince and the eventual replacing of Brian McClair. Scholes quietly in typically humble fashion, retired in 2011 as one of English footballs most decorated players.
Speak to a more senior Red and I reckon this ‘Final Best XI’ could be scoffed at. “Where’s George Best? [insert a shake of the head and a tut here]……You may as well stick that in the bin son!” But hold on…..here comes YOUR King. Yes many will register Cantona as the King but way back in the swinging-sixties that obviously wasn’t the case, they had their own King. Denis Law: In eleven years Denis made 404 appearances and scored with a ratio of more than a-goal-every-other-game. Hat-Tricks and vital goals at vital times turned ‘The Lawman’ into a fans favourite. Law went on to win the European Footballer of the Year in 1964 for his performances during United’s FA Cup Winning season. To this day, Law remains the only Scottish player ever to win the accolade.
Finally we come onto possibly the simplest of choices. Who plays on the left wing? It seems ironic we should begin on the glamorous, iconic right side of United’s midfield with Ronaldo’s £80million pricetag and his travelling circus and now culminate on the left with a boy who was hailed as ‘The Next George Best’, made his debut at 16 in March 1991, didn’t cost United a penny as part of that ‘Class of 92’ generation and is currently still clocking up appearances and defying the laws of physics and gravity. Ryan Giggs: The clubs most decorated footballer. English football’s most decorated footballer. Probably the World’s most decorated footballer. How many words can describe this man and his Manchester United career? One, Two, Thirty-Seven? You choose. Ryan Giggs has played professional football for the same team at the very highest level for an astonishing 249 months. That’s 20.75yrs or 7585 days. An unimaginable 885 appearances. 12 League Titles, 4 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 2 Champions League’s and the list goes on. There’s 2 Young Player of the Year’s, 1 Player of the Year, 1 Sports Personality of the Year and the personal awards list goes on. Ryan is an Enigma, a talent of epic proportions. We’ll all read this and see images of that
chest hair goal at Villa Park in the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal after Viera famously gifts him the ball. We see flashes of him jinking in and out of defenders, flicking balls with the outside of his boot into areas he knows only he will get to first. Giggs has scored in every Premier League season since its inception and is without doubt the greatest player to ever play left wing for Manchester United.
Hopefully you’ve had as much fun reading this as I’ve had putting it together, feel free to put me right if I’ve made any factual errors or if you’re opinion differs from this one. You can see all the individual articles created to assemble this XI in The All-Time Best XI Series section of the site.
In a great twist of fate, during the making of this series I was offered two copies of the newly released ‘Manchester United: Greatest Ever XI’ DVD in exchange for a small plug. We’re giving one copy away on Twitter and one copy on our Facebook page – so if you’re not already following @Red_Rants or facebook.com/redrants- then you know what to do. Failing that, you can buy your own copy of the 4 disc DVD set from the ManUtd Store.
AS VOTED FOR BY THE FANS, THIS IS MANCHESTER UNITED’S GREATEST EVER XI.
A host of great players have played for Manchester United over the club’s long and distinguished history, but who would represent the Red Devils in your ultimate dream team?
A unique, fan-driven project, MANCHESTER UNITED: GREATEST EVER XI sets out to select a definitive team of the greatest players ever to pull on the famous red shirt. A worldwide fan poll was held on manutd.com, giving fans the chance to vote for their Greatest Ever XI and decide the line-up that will be featured in this official club DVD collection.
Across 4 DVDs and more than over 130 players, fans make the case for their picks and relive memories of mighty performances on the pitch highlighting the club’s most memorable players.