When one sits back to construct lists of the best players on a team or the best players of all time, obviously the position has to be taken into account. And let’s face it, one position that comes with players who showed true skill, pedigree and a touch of class is that of the center forward. Manchester United has been blessed throughout its history with extraordinary center forwards who transcended their position, redefined the duties of that position and above all either created or scored plenty of goals or both.
For me it is easy to make a top ten list but where within that list does one place such incredibly talented individuals like Mark Hughes, Wayne Rooney and of course the King, Eric Cantona? Well let me start by taking the drama out of my selections right now. Anyone who has known anything about me over the years on this blog knows my love and totally biased affection for King Cantona. Simply put, the best by a country mile and the title of King is there for a purpose. As for the rest, it’s a short list I am going to offer because after these names, nobody really has earned the right to be included in this list of exceptional center forwards. Cantona may be king but the rest are not chipped beef by any stretch of the imagination.
Let me start with players who were well before my time but thanks to books, documentaries and the Internet, I have learned a lot about over the years. It’s hard to know where to place such players on a top ten list, which is why I refuse to make my list a top ten in any specific order.
Cantona is number one – all the rest are number two.
So let’s begin shall we:
Tommy Taylor – 1953-58 One of United’s most prolific scorers, Tommy was also one of the unfortunate victims of Munich where he lost his life well before his career was over. Tommy scored 112 goals in only 166 matches for United which for me made him almost Gerd Mueller prolific. So good was he that Sir Matt actually turned down a massive transfer fee from Inter Milan in 1957 because he felt that Tommy was just too good to lose. Even more amazing is that in his role of CF, he scored goals like an out and out striker. Impressive numbers indeed.
David Heard – 1961-68 202 appearances and 114 goals. Top player for Busby and scored big goals in big games like the 63 FA Cup where he scored a brace. Presently 10th on the all-time list of scorers for United and a player who could have achieved more if not for a terrible leg break in 67 which rendered him useless and within a year he was sent packing and was never really the same player again. Heard scored over 200 goals in his entire career in just over 430 matches. Basically, a goal every other game speaks for itself.
Stan Pearson – 1936-54 Before Dimitar Berbatov scored a hat trick vs Liverpool this past season, the last player to have achieved that was Salford born Stan Pearson. One of the all-time favorites and home grown, Stan scored 127 goals in just over 300 matches for United and just under 200 goals for his entire football career. He spent 18 glorious years with United and left many with indelible memories.
Jack Rowley – 1937-54 Initially Jack was bought as a left sided winger, but soon after he was to develop into a highly effective center forward in Matt Busby’s first United team. He helped United to the 1948 FA Cup (scoring two goals in the final) and also in their championship run of 1952. Rowley is one of only three players in the history of Manchester United to score over 200 goals for the club along with of course Denis Law and Sir Bobby. A long seventeen year span speaks greatly of this player’s value to United.
Frank Stapleton – 1981-87 The only man to have ever scored for two different clubs in an FA Cup final was also one of the finest center forwards to ever play the game in the English league. Stapleton unfortunately wasted most of his years playing for the scum at Highbury and actually scoring for them against us in the 1979 epic final where United lost 3-2, but once he came to United, the club and fans embraced him as one of their own. Not as prolific a scorer as some of the other greats on the list, Stapleton still scored over 60 times for United in the league and 78 times overall and played major roles in United’s 1983 and 1985 FA Cup victories. Great pace and able to run well off the ball, Stapleton was the perfect complement to old school strikers and was often seen playing a deeper role which is a “staple” (sorry for the pun) in many of today’s center forwards. I know I really liked watching him play and yes, my memory goes that far back.
Teddy Sheringham – 1997-2001 For me one of the smoothest and truest finesse plays to ever play the game with English heritage. The greatest complement I can ever give Teddy is that he played the game like a continental. Not known for his speed but known for his ability to thread a perfect finesse pass and for intelligence that was second to none. Unfortunately, United bought Teddy late in his career. He was over 30 when we got him and for many players that is the time one retires, not accepts a role of trying to replace the King. But to Fergie he was the closest thing to Cantona before he showed up. Vision, skill on the ball, finesse, finishing skill and intelligence are what Teddy was about. Yes the arrival of Dwight Yorke cut into his playing time but even as a super sub along with Solksjaer, he was able to come in and make a difference. Key examples of that are his goal and assist in the 99 European final vs Bayern and the FA Cup final from that same year when he came in for the injured Roy Keane and scored a goal and assisted on the other. A clutch performer if there ever was one and to add to all his previous exploits, he napped the PFA and FWA player of the year awards at the age of 35 in 2000/01. Sheringham was a three dimensional player who achieved legend status in a short period of time and who will always be seen as a fan favorite at Old Trafford.
Dwight Yorke – 1998-2002 A great little player with great skills and touch which allowed him to play the role of a CF or even an attacking midfielder. I think many felt that when he was bought that the club was getting another striker but the fact is Andy Cole was the striker, while Yorky had the freedom to move around, create and support in a traditional CF role. 47 goals in 95 games leaves no doubt that he was a valued goal scorer but his pace and ability often opened channels and space for others to exploit. Like Sheringham, it is unfortunate we got Dwight so late in his career as he had already spent a decade and scored over 70 goals for Villa. But as they say, better late than never.
Mark Hughes – 1980-86 1988-95 Was he a striker or a center forward. Fact is Sparky had two stints for United and in both those stays, he played the role of striker and center forward depending on what the manager wanted. CF suited Sparky well because he had great vision and skill with the ball at his feet. He was not just about finishing. He scored over 120 times for United in the league during those two stints but he really came into his own under Fergie’s tutelage. His time playing for Bayern and Barcelona taught him a lot about the game and how to be a more rounded player. A great scorer Sparky was also a man who came up clutch for us at key times. Evidence of that are the numerous big goals in domestic cup finals but most of all, his two big goals vs Barcelona in the 91 Cup Winners Cup lifted United to their first European trophy since 1968. Andy Cole’s arrival ended his stay with United in 1995 but Sparky will always be seen as one of the all-time great and versatile forwards United has ever had. His ability to play deep and carry the football as well as pass it leaves me to the belief that he was not just a striker but in fact, floated around much like Cantona as part of a two CF system. Loved that Sparky.
Wayne Rooney – 2004 The always exciting Roonaroo. I have always loved watching Rooney play but have always been frustrated by him as well. Part of the frustration is his fault as he has shown bad judgment and a fierce temper at times that has cost him and the club, but also, his inability to be consistent for long periods of time has frustrated. Add to that Fergie’s inability to reign him in and also not play him out of position makes me wonder what would have been if Fergie allowed Rooney to develop as the player he was that first game he played for us when he scored three against Fenerbahce? Let Rooney be Rooney rather than placing shackles on him and above all, teach him discipline and patience. The skill is there as well as the football intelligence and vision. Rooney has already scored over a hundred goals for the club and almost at a one every two game clip, but I cannot help feel there is more to tap into and if only he would grow up a bit, then who knows. Still for me, Rooney is the second best CF United have ever had because of his outstanding multi-layered skill set and because he is still so young that the world is still his oyster.
Eric Cantona – 1992-97 Quite frankly, the best. Bow down to the King. Eric was and still is not only the best and truest United center forward of all time, but in my humble opinion, the best United player of all time. For me he is a football god. There were better natural goal scorers but nobody possessed all the tools of the trade like the King. Passing genius, finesse, cocky confidence, arrogance, aerial ability, able to use both feet, dribble, run to space, and score with free kicks and penalties and just basically deliver using every tool in the box as well as being a Kung Fu master. After all, he himself coined the phrase “I am not a man, I am Cantona”. 64 goals in the league in 144 games say a lot but I would count the assists and the presence as three times that amount and ten times more valuable. The man just made us so much better and elevated the English game with his presence which I felt led to the influx of foreign stars. Long live the King and there will never be another one like him.
Let me end by saying that my admiration for these players on the list is boundless. Great players, great gentlemen (perhaps I would exclude Rooney from the gentleman part), but above all, they all epitomize the very essence of what it means to wear United red. Playing center forward for Manchester United is not just a privileged position, but a honored position much like wearing the #7 jersey is for United legends. And what of the open case of Wayne Rooney? The book isn’t even closed on him yet. He still has so much to offer and so much untapped potential to draw from that by the time he retires he may be knocking on the King’s castle gate for entrance into his royal parlor.
How lucky we all are to have a team that not only wins silverware regularly, but has since before the days of Sir Matt Busby always believed in exhibiting the finest and most attractive aspects of attacking football. And that mentality or attitude has gone far in allowing such talented player to shine and reach their full potentials on their way to becoming United legends. Old Trafford is known as the Theatre of Dreams thanks in great part to the great and sometimes epic contributions of these players playing that esteemed position. They definitely have helped maintain the fact that the Old Trafford pitch is hallowed ground indeed. Apologies to those who feel I neglected anyone for the list.
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