Like all football fans, I’m a sucker for the debate of all-time best XIs. So this week, I thought I’d have a go at my Best Manchester United Team Since I’ve Been Watching.
Now I’ve been a United fan since the late 80’s, a dedication begun by the combination of all my pals being Liverpool fans, getting a Panini sticker album for the ’86-87 season and being drawn to this team nicknamed The Red Devils, and then taking down a poster on my bedroom wall of the band A-Ha and serendipitously finding a Manchester United squad photo on the back, and deciding to just put the poster back up the other way around. Once I started to watch the team and get into the history of this club that played cavalier attacking football, and had a history of giving chances to young players like the Busby Babes and recovering from the Munich air disaster with the ’68 European Cup winning team, I was caught. I have vague memories of watching United winning the FA Cup Final in 1990 – I remember being sort of disappointed that our average left-back Lee Martin scored the winner rather than one of the attacking stars – but I was definitely utterly wrapped up in watching every game of United’s run to the European Cup-Winner’s Cup Final in 1991, beating Pécsi Mecsek, Wrexham, Montpellier and Legia Warsaw on the way to overcoming the mighty Barcelona in the final, with Mark Hughes scoring two before United were hanging on the final minutes with our goalkeeper injured and barely able to walk.
So anyway, for this team, I’m not selecting any players I didn’t really see play, so we’ll save the Busby Babes, and greats like Best, Law and Charlton, for another day.
There’s really nobody for this but the burly Dane – a brilliant shot-stopper and good at coming for crosses, but most of all because he was a formidable presence, including being superb in one-on-ones against strikers, giving them the minimum angle by jumping at them in a star-shape. Also, he was a truly grumpy man back there, constantly keeping his defenders alert with his barracking and complaining. And when United were losing, in the dying moments, he would come forward for corners, and he even scored a goal for United. Quite possibly the best goalkeeper ever. The Dutchman Edwin Van Der Sar would be his back-up, an elegant and calm keeper, with his world record-breaking run of not conceding a single goal for 1,311 minutes in the 2008–09 season and brilliant mind-games in saving Nicolas Anelka’s penalty to win the 2008 European Cup Final. Current keeper David De Gea would push him close, with his world-class form in the last three seasons, but as of now he’ll have to settle for being third-choice.
2. Right Back
A mean and focused defender and a truly perceptive reader of the game, no winger had an easy time against “Citizen Nev” who made up for limited natural skill with relentless application, making himself positionally outstanding, surprisingly good in the air and a fierce tackler. Also, over time you could see him training himself to be a quality crosser of the ball, and his overlapping understanding with David Beckham became almost telepathic. This would take him past his main challenger for this spot, the excellent marker Paul Parker. Add Neville’s genuine leadership and true love for the club, and you couldn’t ask for better at right back.
3. Left Back
A quiet but steely operator, the Corkman started off at right-back but trained himself to be effectively two-footed and so from left-back he could cross off either foot. Utterly reliable, he was also terrifically skillful, and was a true threat curling in free-kicks and penalties. It’s no wonder that Sir Alex Ferguson called him, pound for pound, his best ever signing. The only true challenger to his position would be the pacy Frenchman Patrice Evra, who had feisty toughness, leadership drive and a sweet left foot, but Irwin as the better defender shades it – we’ll put Evra on the bench.
4. Centre Back
In what I’ll call the “sweeper” role, I have to go with the brilliant beanpole Pallister. Lazily looking like he couldn’t be bothered breaking a sweat, Pallister would langourously win headers, stretch out his long legs to make clean tackles, and lay the ball forward. He was such a good tackler, I don’t think I ever saw him get booked. How he only won 22 caps for England is a wonder. Now some people would say it is heresy to put him in ahead of Rio Ferdinand, who was probably a better passer, but Pally edges it for me in being such an uncannily reliable defender.
5. Centre Back
This was a super-tight call, but the ruthless Serbian edges out the surging Dutchman Jaap Stam for the “stopper” role. In the end, Stam had fearsome power, both in his defending and his drives forward, but Vidic combined reading the game brilliantly with an absolutely vicious tackle and genuine fearlessness. In a deep position, there’s no place either for Steve Bruce, who was a mighty defender and had real goalscoring prowess at set pieces (who can ever forget his two last-minute beauties against Sheffield Wednesday?) but at the best of times, Brucey was slooooooow, so he can’t match Vidic.
6. Centre Midfield
There’s nobody you would ever want more at the base of your midfield than the ultimate competitor, Roy Keane. A full-blooded tackler, tactically superb, a tremendous athlete, and a leader of men with utterly unbending standards, Keane would be the core of any team. Typically he shrugs off his masterclass in brilliance against Juventus in the 1999 European Cup semi-final as just doing his job, a performance about which Alex Ferguson said “it was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player.” Bryan Robson could have pushed Keano with his lionheart performances, but by the time I was watching United seriously, Robson was past his best. It’s got to be the second Corkman in the team!
8. Centre Midfield
Joining Keane is the centre is Scholesy. A brilliant football mind, Scholes’ ability to pass the ball with visionary perception and to strike it at goal with astonishing velocity and precision makes him essential to the team. While I value Paul Ince very highly as a force-of-nature in midfield (I’ve never seen another player who could get up straight from a sliding tackle into a shot on goal), ultimately Ince is more suited to being a defensive midfielder. Scholes’s always rather clumsy tackling is utterly outweighed by the unmatched creativity and intelligence he provides from the middle of the park, and his plain love of the ball.
7. Right Wing
In a very tough call on the wing, I’ve chosen Ronaldo’s world-class flair and dancing feet, and how he grew into a muscular athlete who learned quality delivery in his final ball, and with his combination of scourging dribbling, laser-like long-range shots and powerful headers, was a threat from anywhere on the field. It’s very rough on the equally pretty David Beckham, whose surgically precise crosses and free-kicks, combined with a lung-bursting work-rate and a brilliant eye, were what made him a star way before all the celebrity. Note must also be given to the Russian speedster Andrei Kanchelskis, whose scorching runs brought equal fear out in defences as Ronaldo, but didn’t have the Portuguese’s range of skills. You just can’t argue with how by the time Ronaldo left United, he was already possibly the best player in the world.
11. Left Wing
On the left wing, Giggs is the obvious choice. 672 appearances for United, and so many magic moments. From the first time I saw Giggsy skating along the field with the ball at his feet, there was just something ethereally brilliant about him, how he could jab and weave the ball past players, sting crosses over and score some beautiful goals, none better than the winner against Arsenal in the 1999 FA Cup Semi-Final.
Well, of course this should a #7 on his shirt, but the first forward I would put down, and maybe the first name at all, on any United teamsheet, is the King, Eric Cantona. Delightfully skillful, full of fire and a temper that sometimes runneth over, deliciously arrogant yet also surprisingly generous, with a theatrical air that seemed to make all his achievements just that much more fitting to some wonderful story. He could score impossible vollies, delicate chips, cool one-on-one finishes, meaty headers. His passing was sweetly visionary, with his flicks and floated through-balls opening up any defense. Eric had magic in his boots, and he remains for me the perfect Manchester United player.
Now with Eric, you might want to play the god-like strength of Mark Hughes or the pure pace of Andy Cole, both outstanding strikers for United, but I would have to go with the dead-eye assassin goalscorer from Holland. You can’t argue with his 95 goals in 150 appearances for United, but it was the feeling you had that if Ruud got a chance in the box, he wasn’t going to miss. Some may say he was too slow or too selfish, but to me, he was always a threat and very, very likely to score. The 2002-2003 season, where he scored 25 goals in 34 Premiership games plus 12 goals in the Champions League, that kind of scoring rate just can’t be matched. It’s a little rough on Wayne Rooney, and on the 1999 perfect four strikers, who as a unit (Cole, Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer) had everything: pace, flair, creativity, aerial ability, finishing, and would displace Van Nistelrooy, but none of them individually do. And on the bench, we have to have the ultimate super-sub, and still the best pure finisher United have ever had, Solskjaer.
So the team is:
Neville Pallister Vidic Irwin
Ronaldo Keane Scholes Giggs
Cantona Van Nistelrooy
Bench: Van der Saar, Evra, Stam, Ince, Beckham, Hughes, Solskjaer