We know he's in the team, but who else gets into the greatest ever Manchester United XI?
I went to see Manchester United for the first time in March 1980 with my Dad at the age of six. They beat Crystal Palace 2-0 with goals from Mickey Thomas and Joe Jordan and I was hooked.
The history of the club soon lured me in just as much as the team of the day, possibly because for much of the 1980s it was the only place where you could see and read about United lifting trophies or doing what seemed almost impossible then: winning the title.
I recall reading all about the great names of the past and then jotting down who I thought would make it in to my greatest ever United eleven on scraps of paper or the back of envelopes, so when a publisher asked if I would like to do this for my recently released ebook I had been in training for the task for a long time.
My first job was as the staff writer, and then deputy editor, on Manchester United magazine, the official publication of the club.
This was in 1996, when the magazine was still the main source of club news. Even then there was no proper website and it was just before the rolling news of Sky Sports and MUTV, and a long time before today’s constant updates on Twitter and Facebook.
For a brief time, players were more accessible and less guarded. It was just them and us, and we would deal with them directly, unhindered by press officers or large entourages.
It was an incredible job for a United fan, and I got to know the players of the era, the manager, and interviewed a host of club legends as well, before moving on to be the deputy editor of FourFourTwo, and for the last decade, a freelance writer.
The ebook Manchester United’s Best XI is an appreciation of the eleven players I believe deserve to be in the club’s greatest ever side having spent the last three decades watching United home and away, while it also weaves in my own personal insights and stories after having spent time with and interviewed nine of the players.
I have sat with George Best on many occasions in a London pub and visited him back home in Belfast; sat with Sir Bobby Charlton at Old Trafford as he reminisced about the Busby Babes; written a diary of a season with Gary and Phil Neville; ghosted columns for Best, Ryan Giggs and Jaap Stam; helped a shy Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wearing flip-flops choose an Armani suit on King Street the morning after his European debut; had cups of tea at home with Bryan Robson and Mark Hughes; inadvertently had Roy Keane hauled into Sir Alex Ferguson’s office; and probably best of all, had Norman Whiteside recreate his 1985 FA Cup Final winner with a salt and pepper pot and a bottle of ketchup.
In the autumn of 1996, I interviewed a young David Beckham in a Manchester restaurant, when a television on the wall began to show the video for the song Wannabe by a new girl group called the Spice Girls. “Here, I do like that one in the black dress,” he told me, to which I replied I actually preferred the ginger one.
When it came to selecting the eleven the decision to put Peter Schmeichel in goal was probably the most straight forward. United’s two other European Cup winning goalkeepers Edwin van der Sar and Alex Stepney provided only fleeting competition, because if I was choosing a greatest XI from the entire history of the game, Schmeichel would be in that too.
You might assume after 687 games Gary Neville would claim the right-back position, but though he always made the best of himself, for me, he didn’t offer enough of an attacking threat.
Instead I moved United’s greatest ever full-back Denis Irwin across to right-back. Though he mostly played on the left, he was naturally two-footed and played his first season on the right before Paul Parker’s arrival. He called himself a mere “cog”, but Irwin was a player of unrivalled consistency, brilliant at augmenting United’s attacks, and he could score free-kicks and penalties too.
At left-back is the captain of the Babes Roger Byrne, whose life tragically ended at Munich two days before his 29th birthday, but by then he had already proved himself an exceptional leader and full-back.
A place in the side had to be found for Duncan Edwards. Blessed with both a colossal frame and an elegant touch, his most regular position of Half-Back is now redundant in the modern game, but he was renowned for his versatility and also played in the centre of defence.
Team-mates and opponents all testify to him being the Busby Babes’ best defender. According to Sir Stanley Matthews, Edwards in defence was like “a rock in a raging sea”, while Nobby Stiles has recalled when United wanted to protect a lead during their dominance of the FA Youth Cup in the 1950s, they always put Edwards in central defence.
While both Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand came close to partnering him, Jaap Stam was simply the best defender I have ever seen. Tough as teak and almost never outpaced, the Dutchman brought supreme authority to the back four as he was almost never beaten in the air or on the ground. His premature sale remains the greatest mistake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 26-year reign.
On raw talent alone, you could argue Cristiano Ronaldo is Manchester United’s greatest ever player. The only United player to win each of the individual World, European and English Footballer of the Year awards, in six years at United he also won every trophy possible, and yet he doesn’t make it in to my side.
The feeling always persisted Ronaldo was only ever passing through United, biding his time before Real Madrid called. As Oliver Kay once memorably wrote in TheTimes about Ronaldo’s United career, “It was a rocky marriage, but the sex was great.”
It felt important each player in this side enjoyed the best years of their career at United and Ronaldo is still young enough to reach greater heights in Spain. Crucially I wanted the side to capture the spirit of United and simply couldn’t countenance including Ronaldo at the expense of either George Best or Ryan Giggs, who were both obvious choices as geniuses who dominated their generations.
In this side Giggs would play on the left side of midfield, and Best, brilliant with both feet, would start on the right and roam.
The decision to choose between Roy Keane and Bryan Robson in the centre of midfield was my hardest. In the 1980s, Robson, along with Norman Whiteside, was my hero. He was a world-class player to be proud of during often bleak times but while Robson scored more goals, Keane edges it for bringing greater success to United with his presence and ability to constantly inspire all those around him.
A few years ago I asked Robson: who the better player, him or Keane? “If you put 1,000 people in a room, 500 would say me, and 500 would say Roy.” But history has been kinder to Keane and several people in that room will have swapped their votes by now.
In contrast, the selection of Keane’s partner in central midfield, Sir Bobby Charlton, scorer of a record 249 United goals, a record 49 England goals and the owner of both World Cup and European Cup winners’ medals, was one of my easiest decisions, even if it meant that there was sadly no room for Paul Scholes.
Up front Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney’s sheer weight of goals, 318 between them and increasing, made strong cases and Ronaldo could also have been deployed as a striker, but ultimately it had to be the two ‘Kings’, Eric Cantona and Denis Law.
They were meant to play together, too; Cantona, the “can opener” as Ferguson called him, sitting just behind Law, penetrating defences and providing chances for the Scot, the most natural goal scorer in United’s history.
Together these eleven players boast a total of 4,704 games, 1,041 goals and 87 major honours for United, whilst earning 677 international caps.
My pace would certainly quicken walking along the Warwick Road to watch football’s greatest ever goalkeeper, an impenetrable defence, and some of the game’s greatest ever attacking talent playing together.
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