It’s a debate that will never end, no doubt, it can’t end, how could it with so many players, characters and club legends having passed through the doors of Old Trafford leaving families, friends and foes alike idolising or begrudging the talents they’ve witnessed?
Definitely a subject heavily swung by the year you’re born in and/or the era you grew up in, choosing your favourite players for each position based on popularity rather than ability stroke success, is a challenge. Many factors go into making a ‘Fans Favourite’ from scoring winners to simply signing for United! There’s been a lot more than eleven over the years so here’s my attempt at producing a ‘Fans Favourite XI’ from the players I’ve seen personally grace the Old Trafford pitch.
NB: Please excuse the omission of Charlton, Law and Best (and so many others) as I wasn’t fortunate enough to watch them in the flesh. It always feels a little contrived or somewhat phoney when players are included in someone’s XI yet they never had the opportunity to watch them. I’m sure fans born earlier than 1974 will have a far different XI ahead of them, as will fans born later.
1. Les Sealey: A safer pair of hands than Jim Leighton and a personality you’d pay for. Sealey made just 56 appearances for United but many of those were in high profile, win or bust fixtures during the 1989-1991 seasons where Sir Alex was under the most fierce pressure he’s been under in his managerial career. Facing the sack if he didn’t win the FA Cup in 1990, Sir Alex handed the gloves to Sealey for the replay after bungling, error prone Jim Leighton had made a hash of his duties during the original final at Wembley just days before. United went on to win the trophy but Sealey opted to hand his medal to Leighton who’d played in every other round of the competition. The following year saw Sealey make the position his own helping United win the European Cup Winners Cup in Rotterdam against a Johan Cruyff and Ronald Koeman inspired Barcelona. It’s hard to put your finger on why Les Sealey was so well liked and admired, but he certainly loved the adulation he received and humbly took all the applause whenever he returned to Old Trafford or faced United elsewhere. RIP Les.
2. Clayton Blackmore: His ever changing hair styles and bleaching sessions, constant media tales of sexual conquests (consented or not!) and his penchant for a suntan; set ‘Sunbed’ apart from many players at United in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Clayton wasn’t blessed with the greatest football ability in the world but he was certainly blessed with a humility (akin to Gary Neville) that allowed him to become one the greatest utility players the club has ever seen. It’s a well known fact that Clayton wore every numbered outfield shirt from 2-11 (the original squad numbers, plus the 12 & 14) during his first team career and made an impressive 245 appearances spanning eight years. Clayton can now regularly be seen at Carrington assisting with the youth set-up.
3. John O’Shea: Worthy of his place in this line-up purely on merit and for the moment he nutmegged Figo. When O’Shea left the club, bound for Sunderland last season, I felt some sadness for the boy who I remember having one of the greatest break-through season’s I’ve personally ever witnessed. Thrust in at leftback in the 02/03 season, O’Shea made mugs out of many a seasoned full back and memorably hit the cross bar against Newcastle United after a devastating run forward which included one of the greatest, most effective stepovers you’re ever likely to witness. Couple that with his mugging of Figo and his handful of vitally important goals against Arsenal (clipping it over Almunia at Highbury), his delightfully jovial celebration against Liverpool (after turning in an injury time winner at Anfield, in front of the Kop) and a goal at Goodison that brought United back from the dead in 2007 when clause-tied Tim Howard’s replacement Iain Turner carelessly fumbled a corner in a game that saw United come back from 2-0 down to win 4-2 and go on to take the title two weeks later. Having made 393 appearances for the club and having a trophy cabinet the envy of 99% of fellow professionals, it’s hard to understand why O’Shea was so easily ushered out of the club, I can only imagine the fans who were happy to see him leave simply don’t recall why his song (When Jonny goes marching down the wing) quickly became one of the anthems of 2003/04.
4. Paul McGrath: He liked a drink, everyone knew it, but in those days it was widely accepted as par for the course so tales of all night binging just added to his legend. McGrath was blessed, he was possibly the most naturally gifted centre half never to have won a league title. Blighted by injuries McGrath made a mere 199 appearances in over 7 years at the club, often fighting through pain in his never fit knee. Solid and tough but with a gentle touch and an awareness difficult to teach, McGrath is often labelled as a wasted talent by those within the game, outside of it and on the terraces, McGrath could almost do no wrong. His sale in 1989 was met with unrest and McGrath left under somewhat of a cloud forfeiting the opportunity to receive a testimonial and a retirement package from the club instead opting to sign for Aston Villa. His upbringing was tormented by abuse, orphanages and later; attempts of suicide. His drinking habits were so bad he admitted in his autobiography that ‘I’d hold my breath in games so they could not smell the drink!’. Regardless of all that, he’s another one who’s song remains as popular now as it ever was. “I said Ooh Aah Paul McGrath, I said Ooh Aah Paul McGrath….”
5. Jaap Stam: Yip Jaap Stam is a big Dutch man, get past him if you f**king can, try another trick and he’ll make you look a dick, yip yap, Jaap Stam’. I’m not sure many more words are necessary, his legend lives on and is belted out with regular frequency. Sir Alex himself, as has already recently been pointed out, openly admits to making a mistake allowing the sale of Stam to Lazio after his ill-advised comments about the boss and his team mates. However, during his short spell at United Stam can be described only as a beast. Spending exactly 3 years at the club, Stam made 127 appearances winning three titles, one FA Cup, an Inter-Continental trophy and also the Champions League, not a bad record I think you’ll agree. With his strong influence and immense leadership qualities, Stam was a true centre half, he took no prisoners and he thrived on beating opponents to the ball.
6. Roy Keane: Famously lambasted the Old Trafford crowd labelling them the ‘Prawn Sandwich Brigade’ after a difficult night against Dinamo Kiev. Keane said “Away from home our fans are fantastic, I’d call them the hardcore fans. But at home they have a few drinks and probably the prawn sandwiches, and they don’t realise what’s going on out on the pitch. I don’t think some of the people who come to Old Trafford can spell ‘football’, never mind understand it.” It wasn’t to be the last time Keane’s verbals took centre stage. Cue Patrick Viera getting above his station in the tunnel prior to a match against Arsenal (the same match O’Shea lobbed Almunia to seal a sweeter than sweet 4-2 victory over the Gunners) and taking a dig at Gary Neville. Viera was clearly taken aback by Keane’s instant and enthusiastic retort with Keane telling him ‘I’ll see you out on the pitch!’ and telling referee Graham Poll to ‘tell him to shut his f**king mouth!’ all gloriously live on Sky. It’s moments like that that endear a player to the Old Trafford faithful. Keane possibly took his hard man role a tad far when ending Alfie-Inge Haland’s career with a knee high assault for which Keane would later admit malice. Despite the controversies Keane was a hugely likeable figure thanks in no small measure to the fact he could not only talk the talk, but he could walk the walk too. A hugely motivational captain and leader and a massive talent with a thirst for success possibly only rivalled by that of the man who brought him to United in 1992 after spectacularly hijacking a deal between King Kenny’s Blackburn Rovers and Nottingham Forest, Sir Alex Ferguson. Sometimes controversial, sometimes outspoken, but in their heart of hearts I doubt any United fan would dare dispute his intentions were for the best of Manchester United at all costs.
7. Bryan Robson. Captain Marvel. You don’t get a nickname like that for no reason! ‘Robbo’, to me,is United’s icon. From the moment he signed on that rickety old table and chairs on the pitch at Old Trafford in front of the Warwick Road, to the moment he held the Premier League trophy aloft some 13 years later just yards from the same spot, Robbo captivated me and many many others with his selfless, fearless, sometimes ruthless performances that, had he been surrounded by better players (and managers perhaps) or played in a different era, would have seen him become one of the most decorated players in the country. Hampered by injuries (often thanks to his fearless nature, but more often due to his seemingly brittle body) the sight of Robbo in a cast or a sling or hobbling off with the aid of United physio, Jim McGregor, was common to say the least. Special moments will live long in the memory. The sight of Robbo being lifted towards the tunnel on the shoulders of thousands of fans after he orchestrated the 3-0 triumph against all the odds versus Barcelona at Old Trafford in 1984. His long range solo effort over Grobbelaar at Maine Road in the 1985 FA Cup semi-final replay versus Liverpool. Too many goals to describe or point at, in fact, had it not been for injuries and constantly missing matches who knows how many goals Robbo could have finished his United career with. In 461 appearances Robbo scored 99 goals which, from midfield, is not a bad return. Powerful, determined, influential, great vision, accurate passer with both feet, tremendous in the air, fast, driven and something special I’m afraid I’ll never see the likes of again. If anyone does find one of these somewhere else in the World any time soon, can you please be sure to let me know.
8. Lee Sharpe: Loved the women, loved the lifestyle, nightclubs, drinking, casino’s and loved dancing after a goal! The Lee Sharpe Shuffle was born (opens video clip) on December 1st 1990 at Goodison Park when Sharpey scored the only goal of the game late on in front of the delirious travelling fans. Signing from Torquay United in 1988, Lee Sharpe was the brightest young talent at the club and, with another fans favourite (Ralph Milne) failing to live up to his promise, Sharpey found opportunities for games easier than he maybe would have although his United career would be cut short (more than likely) thanks to his love of the good time. Despite this, Sharpey provided us, and himself, with some spectacular memories like his hat-trick, which to this day remains one the most elegant and impressive hat-tricks I’ve seen, against Arsenal at Highbury in a 6-2 win in the League Cup. His efforts against Leeds United, Liverpool and Legia Warsaw were all unbelievable finishes in their own way. He enjoyed his football, he played with a smile on his face and waltzed past players like they weren’t there. Unfortunately he enjoyed the trappings of a footballers life just a little bit more.
9: Ole Gunnar Solksjaer: The original Baby Faced Assassin. What can you say about Ole? He’s so much of a favourite that after bringing the title home for Molde (in his first full year as manager) in his native Norway for the first time in their 100 year history last season, many United fans are calling for his return, this time as manager/trainee manager. On the 26th May 1999 Ole sealed his place in United history and cemented his place in the upper echelons of United fan’s favourites with a poachers goal that brought happiness and joy to millions of fans around the World and gave that team and it’s manager a place in history. Who will ever forget where they were and the now infamous words of Clive Tyldesley “..and Solksjaer has won it!”? With or without that goal I believe Ole would have earned a place in this team, often used sparingly he would strike when the chips were down. Ole had the wonderful knack of carving out a goal from nothing when all those around him had toiled unsuccessfully for the previous 80 minutes. A friendly, down to earth character who always makes me happy when skies are grey.
10: Eric Cantona: Poet, Actor, Footballer, King. Eric made no sense every time he opened his mouth but when he let his football do the talking something beautiful happened. Like Maradona and Napoli; Eric and United were meant to be, they fit each other perfectly and together they guided each other to the dizzying heights both desperately craved. Any player who signs for United via Leeds United always earns himself a few extra brownie points before he’s even kicked a ball. Arthur Graham, Joe Jordan & Gordon McQueen all defected across the Penines long before Eric Cantona, but it was Eric who found his spiritual home, it was Eric who stole the hearts of a generation, it was Eric who provided the last missing link in the clubs transition from ‘nearly men’ to a period of never-seen-before domination of English football. Born in a cave in the hills of Marseille, Cantona was a descendant of migrants, Catalan separatists and Spanish Civil war survivors, no surprise then that Cantona had a streak of petulance in him that saw him suffer community service, fines, assault charges, prison sentences and more suspensions than a supermarkets toddler shelf! One suspension, famously of course, lasting nine months! Scorer of many vital winners in single-goal victories and a vision of the game that’s second to none. Eric puffed his chest out when he joined United, he famously did it after that goal against Sunderland. I personally remember him best for this moment of magical movement, fabulous touch and a finish that’s ‘Magnifique’. The man was a genius who helped lay the foundations of what we now see before us at Manchester United. His (fairly) surprising retirement from football at just 30 years old was befitting the character and the make up of a man who will never be forgotten.
11: Norman Whiteside: The original ‘ScouseBuster’. ‘Big Norm’ made a habit of scoring against Liverpool and quickly became one of the most loved characters/players ever to play for the club. Norman was United’s youngest player since Duncan Edwards and also represented his country as the youngest ever player, a record that still stands today. Hailing from the same area as George Best, Whiteside was originally lauded as ‘The New George Best’, a tag he was cruelly halted from living upto thanks to, in my opinion, a series of knee injuries that blighted his career from as young as 16 years old. Most notably remembered for his role in United’s FA Cup runs in 1983 & 1985 and his goal at Wembley in the league cup against Liverpool, Norman illuminated Villa Park with a bullet strike against Arsenal that sent United fans into raptures and United into the final in 1983. The following season he took West Ham apart in a tricky quarter final tie before bending that winning goal against Everton at Wembley with United down to ten men. The arrival of Sir Alex Ferguson was the beginning of Whiteside’s long and painful decline due to injury and off-field discipline. Nothing reduced his popularity among the fans though, even issuing a transfer request in an attempt to improve his contract offer was, although unpopular, quickly forgiven.
Having put this together I come away with a sense that today’s game isn’t littered with characters the way it used to be, the world of football no longer allows characters to flourish or players to push their own personality. The one’s who do are generally demonised and hung out to dry. Is that a good thing? Who knows. Maybe not from a business or ‘product’ point of view, but if like me you grew up before SkySports and it’s almost invasive obsession of the game, you’ll appreciate why this list has no current United players. I’m interested to know what this team will look like from someone born circa 1990.
Thanks if you got this far. Please leave your XI in the comments section along with your year of birth.