When writing about the best players in any one position, your perspective is obviously biased towards recent memories and those players you have actually seen play. However, it is relatively easy to get a historical perspective on most players these days regardless of how long ago someone featured in the Manchester United first eleven.
The more difficult task is to compare and contrast player’s abilities and styles when tactics have changed so considerably over the last century. It was only during the 1960’s that over-lapping fullbacks became ‘de rigueur’ and in the modern game it is a necessity. However, there was once a time when fullbacks simply gave the ball to the halfbacks and rarely ventured into the opponents half.
Nevertheless, the question still needs to be answered…of all the players who have played for United, who is the best right fullback?
There have been some great players to turn out in this defensive role over the years including Roy Keane, Paul Ince and even Ryan Giggs. However, my main criterion is that each player must have appeared in over 100 first team games. This roughly equates to two full seasons of football and therefore fair comparisons can be made.
What is interesting to note is Manchester United have been blessed with fantastic home grown talent in this position for many decades.
So here is the top ten in order of appearances:
- Gary Neville (1992-2011)
- Charlie Moore (1919-1930)
- Bill Foulkes (1952-1970)
- Shay Brennan (1957-1970)
- Johnny Carey (1937-1953)
- John Griffiths (1933-1940)
- Jimmy Nicholl (1975-1982)
- Mike Duxbury (1980-1990)
- John Mellor (1930-1937)
- Paul Parker (1991-1996)
Let’s look at each player in turn to narrow it down to a Top Three.
10. Paul Parker
Previously with Fulham and Queens Park Rangers, Parker, an England international who was part of the 1990 England team that reached the World Cup semi-finals, joined the Reds in August 1991. Blessed with fantastic pace, great temperament, superb tackling ability and seriously underrated in the air, Parker was one of the few players who did well against the physical presence of Mark Hughes. Although a central defender at QPR, he was slotted into the right back role upon his arrival at Old Trafford and apart from injury, made the right back spot his own over the next four years. During that time he won league and cup honours, before he eventually succumbed to numerous injuries and lost his place to Gary Neville. Parker moved on to Derby County at the end of the 1995/96 campaign.
Player rating: 9/10 (wish he had joined sooner)
9. John Mellor
A former Rugby League and Rugby Union player, Mellor joined the Reds from Witton Albion in May 1929. After a season in the Reserves, he replaced the long serving Charlie Moore but after losing the opening twelve matches United were relegated. He was a permanent fixture over the next three terms but upon United’s return to the First Division found himself back in the second string. A solid fullback who was reliable in defence, he moved on to Cardiff City in 1937.
Player Rating: 6/10 (ok in the Second Division but not at the highest level)
8. Mike Duxbury
Joining United straight from School, Mike was originally a forward who then moved into midfield. It was in this role that Dave Sexton gave him a ‘derby debut’ in 1980 and Duxbury went on to become one of the most consistent performers for United over the next ten years. A versatile player, he took over from John Gidman at the start of the 1982/83 season and featured in all 42 league games. With neat distribution, crisp tackling, good passing and no limit to his determination, it was no surprise to many supporters when he was called up into the full England squad in November 1983. Like many who followed him, he was heavily criticised while representing the Three Lions which severely affected his confidence. Nonetheless, he collected two FA Cup winning medals in 1983 and 1985 and went on to amass over 350 league appearances. A seriously underrated player, he never let the team down in any role he was selected to play.
Player Rating: 8/10 (superb professional who suffered through his own versatility)
7. Jimmy Nicholl
Another junior, Jimmy was originally a midfielder and central defender in United’s youth teams before Tommy Docherty tried him out at right fullback after injury to Alex Forsyth. He made the position his own and did well enough to retain his place under Dave Sexton, clocking up nearly 250 senior appearances for the Reds. Tidy with the ball and good going forward, Jimmy lacked a little pace and was often caught out tactically in defence. These deficiencies were enough for Ron Atkinson to replace him early in his tenure.
Player Rating: 7/10 (defensive frailties)6. John Griffiths
A native of Staffordshire, Griffiths joined United via Bolton Wanders and Wolverhampton Wanderers in March 1934 and his consistent displays in the United defence brought some much needed stability as the Reds lived a ‘yo-yo’ existence between the top two divisions throughout the 1930’s. In 1936, such was his form that he was selected for England International trials and he won a Second Division Championship medal the same term. A notable athlete, his long raking stride often resulted in success in sprinting and he was one of the fastest players at the club during his time at Old Trafford. His career was cut short by the war but he still managed to notch 176 league and cup appearances and an additional 53 during the war.
Player Rating: 7/10 (solid if unspectacular)
5. Johnny Carey
Originally an inside-forward, Carey progressed through the United junior teams after joining from St. James Gate as a 17-year-old in 1936. He was highly thought of by many clubs as he spent time in the Reds second string before WW2 curtailed his early career. Upon his return, Busby switched him from the forward line to right fullback and he made the position his own over the next seven years, captaining the team to success in the 1948 FA Cup Final and 1952 League Championship. Such was his form that he was voted Footballer of the Year in 1949 and was one of the few players to feature for both Northern Ireland and the Republic. A calm, ball-playing fullback, Carey used his experience as a forward to manoeuvre the opposing attackers into positions they might not otherwise choose. A clever tactician and respected leader, Carey was one of the best fullbacks in the First Division during the later 1940’s, with a lack of pace being his only recognised weakness.
Player Rating: 9/10 (versatile, great leader, astute, great vision and passing)
4. Shay Brennan
Born in Manchester of Irish parents, Brennan was the first footballer to represent Ireland using the parentage rule. Originally an inside-forward in United’s junior set-up, he made a sensational debut immediately after Munich scoring twice from outside-left against West Brom. In the early 1960’s he was converted into a ball-playing fullback by Busby and he built up a great partnership with Bill Foulkes and Tony Dunne. Cool in possession and positionally astute, Brennan lost his place to Bobby Noble in the 1966/67 term and his career seemed to be over. Injury to Noble led to a recall for the 1967/68 term and resulted in a European Cup Winners medal. A solid if unspectacular fullback, Brennan was in the right place at the right time but probably lacked true ‘class’ in the fullback role.
Player Rating: 7/10 (dependable but lacked true quality)
3) Bill Foulkes
The St. Helen’s miner was a regular fullback from 1952 until the Munich Aircrash when he started to feature at centre-half, eventually taking over in the pivot role in the early 1960’s. A no-nonsense fullback, Foulkes was strong in the tackle, good in the air and positionally sound. However, his ability to support the attack was minimal and his skills on the ball were limited. It would be fair to say that Bill would never make it as a modern day fullback.
Player Rating 7/10 (limited technically with little attacking flair)
2. Charlie Moore
One of the safest and most dependable fullbacks in the entire football league, Moore joined the Reds from Hednesford Town in May 1919 and went on to appear in over 300 games. A player who was always in peak physical condition, he was a fine tackler, defensively sound and could read the game well. Many pundits expressed puzzlement over his exclusion from England trials given his consistent form. A very underrated player by selectors of the day.
Player Rating: 8/10 (solid defender who had little opportunity to attack)
1. Gary Neville
Selected as the number one choice at right fullback for over a decade by recognised managers such as Terry Venables, Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan, Sven-Goran Eriksson as well as Alex Ferguson. During that period Neville was probably the most consistent fullback in the Premier League with the ability to defend and attack. A fine tackler he also read the game well, often covering for the central defenders. A natural leader, he was a great communicator, and read the game extremely well. Neville worked hard on his distribution to become one of the best crossers of the ball at the club with either foot and was naturally gifted going forward, forming an excellent right wing partnership with David Beckham. With over 80 England caps and over 100 Champions League appearances to his name, Neville wore his heart on his sleeve and was a hero of the Stretford End.
Player Rating: 9/10
So there you have it. Ten candidates, with Paul Parker, Johnny Carey and Gary Neville all being awarded a 9/10 rating.
Any of these players could easily be selected as the best ever right fullback and while many may disagree on personal preference, few could dispute each player’s individual quality and credentials to wear the Number 2 shirt.
Personally, I feel Carey’s lack of pace would see him exposed in the modern game and for this reason he is eliminated.
I rated Paul Parker incredibly highly and thought he had everything you would want in a modern fullback. But for injury he would be more highly regarded by many United supporters. I wish he had joined United earlier in his career for everyone to see what a superb player he was.
In the end, the decision was not really that difficult. Gary Neville captained United to league and cup triumphs, won every major club honour in the game, is one of only a handful of players to play in over 600 matches for United and was a hero on the terraces.
In his prime, for over ten years, Gary Neville was the best right fullback ever to play for Manchester United!
My name is Tony Park and I’m a Manchester United Youth historian and statistician.
You can follow me on Twitter @mrmujac