Supporting United

I’ve been asked by the esteemed Mr Gormley to contribute towards this debate by naming my top United XI since I’ve been following them and a top Fergie XI. Easy you may think, but incredibly subjective and much harder than I thought.

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Some background: my Father, God Bless Him, worked on the trains and did shift work: with a young family, almost every opportunity for overtime was taken and so there were many weekends when he would be away.
Dad was from a very poor Irish background, and yes, he firmly believed in the fact that they were only two teams to support: Ireland and whoever was playing against England! He wasn’t a big sports fan so imagine my delight in May 1963 when, in that lovely Irish brogue, he suggested we watch what he described “with the exception of the All Ireland Gaelic Football and Hurling finals, the biggest sports televised event in the world. In those days, the FA Cup Final, seems incredible these days, was the ONLY live football on TV.
The game was shown on both channels, yes there was only two as BBC2 was still in its conception, and from around nine in the morning the build up started on the box. Goals from previous finals, unheard of interviews with players and managers, meet the wives, expert analysis and predictions, jinxes and traditions were all a manna from heaven to a wide eyed, open mouthed 5 year old sat next to his Dad on the settee. Then the game came and went in a flash: Leicester were overwhelming favourites being in what would now be a Champions League spot: United had been fighting relegation all season and finished 19th, just 3 points above the relegation zone (City – ironically) and lost home and away to Leicester in the league. But United had the X Factor on the day, in the shape of an athletic, lightening quick, blond and cheeky forward called Denis Law. I was smitten: I had enjoyed kicking a ball around our small garden and when it rained, an improvised ball of paper wrapped in Sellotape: but now, every waking hour, I was Denis Law! I sent off for free posters from his boot manufacturers, Mitre: I read voraciously about anything to do with football, Manchester United but mostly Denis Law. Later that year, an unexpected bonus: another live match! The English FA were celebrating their centenary and arranged a match against a Rest of the World XI: what an array of stars – Yashin, Santos, Schnellinger, Masopust, Kopa, Di Stefano, Eusebio, Gento, Baxter, Puskas and Seeler: a veritable who’s who of international football and who was the best player on the pitch (in the experienced eyes of aforesaid 5 year old)? Who scored the only goal for the ROW? Who else then my hero, The King!

I have followed my precious Reds ever since: the early days were great: the triumvirate of Best, Law and Charlton supplemented by Crerand and a rock solid back four: league titles in 65 and 67: European Champions on an unforgettable May 30th in 1968: then the slump culminating in our relegation to the old 2nd Division in 1974, ironically to a goal from The King himself!
Between relegation, which we corrected with immediate promotion, and the Fergie years were the wilderness years. We just kind of drifted! Great cup wins in 77 and 85 against the champions of the time, Liverpool and Everton respectively: also won the cup in 83 against Brighton but we were never seriously in the hunt to be Champions and the years were ticking by and the natives were restless!
So after Docherty, Sexton and Atkinson had tried and failed, enter Alex Ferguson and the rest is history! The sheer relief of finally reclaiming the league crown in 93 followed by another TWELVE titles: that 1st trophy beating Palace in FA Cup Final in 90: Beating Barcelona in Rotterdam in 91 to win the ECWC: the treble in 99 and the great escape in the final against Bayern (we undoubtedly got the rub of the green in the final, but after we lost to Middlesborough in December 1998, we didn’t lose another game that season, including trips to Stamford Bridge (twice), St James’ Park, Anfield, Ewood Park, San Siro and Stadio Delle Alpi! There was the epic FA Cup semi final against Arsenal where we had to play for 64 minutes with 10 men and Giggsy’s stunning winner and everybody forgets we qualified, undefeated,from a Champions League group that included Bayern and Barcelona: we were also forced to play Beckham in the centre of midfield in the final because our two best players were suspended (self inflicted, i accept) and he was awful on the night, so maybe we earned the rub of the green?) The win in a very rainy Moscow against the nouveau rich and new enemy (I know there’s a lot of Chelski fans on this site, but to an old fart like me, you’ve changed the game I love, to its detriment, forever and you represent everything that’s wrong about the game) to regain the title of European Champions. All the way through to the man’s retirement and his final accolade as the manager of the champions of England.
United are easy to support now and have been for the last 20 years: but I’ve experienced almost as many disappointments (relegation, wilderness years) as I have successes, but my passion is as strong now as that wide eyed 5 year old back in 63 and that ain’t changing anytime soon! But it does give me a pretty experienced view on the United greats over the years.
There will fans more qualified than me to pass judgement as I haven’t seen United “live” as often as thousands of others. I chose to have a playing career: a reasonably successfull career as a semi pro playing in the Hellenic, Isthmian leagues and as a squad player in the Conference. When I reached 30, a combination of a bad injury and realisation that United would never sign me, forced my retirement from playing and I decided to take up refereeing. Again, I enjoyed good fortune over the next 15 years and officiated regularly on both the Conference and Football Combination. This also qualified me for 4th Official appointments, before they changed the rules, on both Football League and Premiership matches allowing me to line at both Griffin Park and Adams Park. I loved refereeing, but it could never replace playing and being a spectator doesn’t replace either, so I’m comfortable with my choices.
These days, I’m trying to get around the 92 league grounds plus 8 selected European venues to make it a round 100. I would love to be visiting Old Trafford for every home match, but a audience with the Pope is comparable to getting a season ticket at United! It’s not the same anymore anyway: Keane was right: football, particularly at Old Trafford, has turned into a money making night at the opera! There’s so much corporate entertaining that the average Joe Public is getting squeezed out of this game that I f****** love!
So where do I see the future? Unfortunately, not great! Once the money men and Sky sort out the format and funding, I genuinely believe that within the next 10/20 years, we will see an NFL style European League with 2 “conferences” of 12 teams. No relegation: ownership changing hands regularly: possibly clubs combining under one franchise and even clubs (franchises) possibly moving to new locations. At the end of the season, there will be a play off system ending with 2 sides playing for the title of European Champions. Who will be the 24 clubs? Who knows: but it will be the 24 richest clubs! How many from each country? Again, who knows: but I would guess no more than 4 from each country. Anyone outside of these elite clubs cannot exist in their present format: they’ll either go bust or be forced to go part time. I don’t mean just the Bristol clubs, Glasgow clubs, Exeter and Hartlepool, but probably Everton, Swansea, Norwich, West Ham et al. There will be minimal, if any, TV money and eventually attendances will dwindle and finances will become untenable. Bleak I know, but the money in the game is unsustainable and killing off the game that I have grown up with and have loved for 50 years. Suarez wants to leave Liverpool because he is persecuted (correctly in my view – how the f*** does anyone justify biting another player?) by the English press but is happy to talk to Arsenal – nothing to do with money then?. Rooney wants to leave United: he can hardly speak English, so a move abroad seems out of the question: putting aside my bias, so he’s going to find a bigger club in England then? Really? If he could put away his ego for a while and learn to play alongside RVP, he may become an even better player, but no: his over inflated ego, along with his over inflated wallet, cannot cope with the fact that there is a better all out striker at the club, so lets throw my dummy out of the pram, demand a move and maybe increase the pauperish salary I’m on at the most successful club in England. Drogba, Anelka, Eto, Beckham, Roberto Carlos, Hulk, all moved on to ‘broaden their horizons’ in far flung corners of the world: bollocks, they went to 3rd class football leagues to add to their bulging coffers of cash: sickens me!

This has turned into a tome, apologies! On to the subject I was asked to write about: United’s best XI since 63, best XI under Fergie and for a bit of fun – the worst I’ve seen at United! Some of its controversial, it’s all subjective, it’s definitely fun but its my own personal selection – fill your boots!

Worst XI

GK – Massimo Taibi: shocking! Indisputable choice as keeper. Everyone remembers the Le Tiss goal when a mis hit shot from the edge of the box trickled towards Massimo who somehow managed to let it slip through his arms, body and legs and over the line: it didn’t even reach the net! The week before however, he was worse in a particularly disillusioning 5-0 defeat at The Bridge!

Back Four:

John Fitzpatrick – ever present in relegated side in 70’s: didn’t play in promoted side following season: nuff said!

Ian Ure – bought from Arsenal at the end of a non descript career: form declined even further in 1 season at OT

William Prunier – played twice: two times too many!

Arnie Sidebottom – father of English cricketer Ryan: much bigger claim to fame than a very poor standard achieved at OT

Midfield:

Gabriel Obertan – never cut it at United and looks poor at Newcastle: quick but talentless

Eric Djemba Djemba – so good they named him twice! Only played 20 games before we shifted him to Villa where he was even more innocuous. Ended up playing poorly in Qatar

Kleberson – signed the same week as Ronaldo but very different careers! Another 20 game man (£325,000 per game) before he disappeared to anonymity in Turkey: footnote – Scolari described him as the hub of Brazil’s future for the next 10 years after the 2002 World Cup!!

Bebe – probably the worst outfield player I’ve seen at United: cost us £7m and wants to go back to Portugal: we should pay him to go!

Strikers:

Ted McDougall – another big money signing that failed miserably: once scored nine goals for Bournemouth in an FA Cup tie against Margate: Margate were obviously not as organised as 1st Division defences as I don’t think he had nine shots on target in the one season he had at United: we sold him to West Ham after which he spent time at 15 different clubs trying to recreate his Bournemouth form, but he never did!

Gary Birtles – yet another big money signing: never recreated the form he had shown at the City Ground and it took him 40 games to score his first United goal: I shudder when I hear him providing ‘expert punditry’ on TV: utter garbage!

Best XI since 63

Peter Schmeichel – simply the best I’ve seen: I’ve seen Yashin, Banks, Jennings and Shilton, but this guy was better than all of them. He had a presence: Six foot three, he filled the goal and you always fancied him to outwit the striker in a one on one situation: he scored 11 goals in his career and his presence at a corner contributed to Sheringham’s equaliser in the 99 Champions League final: no United fan will ever forget PS saving Bergkamp’s last minute penalty in that aforementioned semi against Arsenal, nor his performance against Newcastle at St. James’ when he single handedly kept the Geordies at bay, allowing Eric to nick the winner at the other end of the pitch. Like Taibi, totally indisputable choice.

Back four;

Gary Neville: love him or hate him, Mr Manchester United: 400 games for United and a creaking trophy cabinet: quick, reliable and incredibly consistent

Nemanja Vidic: old fashioned uncompromising stopper centre half who weighs in with a few goals: stiff competition from Bruce, Pallister, Stam, Rio and Foulkes, but Vidic gets my vote

Martin Buchan: in a word class: cultured defender who made up for a lack of pace with great reading of the game. Played over 450 games for United but didn’t get many goals, but I recall one amazing 30 yard strike against Everton. Wonderful defender who is the only man to captain cup winning sides in both Scotland (Aberdeen) and England ( v Liverpool in 77).

Denis Irwin: Mr Dependable who was comfortable in either full back position. Great dead ball exponent and all round great player and nice bloke

Midfield:
George Best – do I really need to explain? On his day, as good as Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Zidane or Messi: he was that good!

Roy Keane: inseparable from Scholes as the perfect central midfield combination. Keane had his faults: ruthless, Alfie Inge Haaland tackle, surly and a poor disciplinary record, but what a player! What a leader! Will never forget the performance against Juve in Turin: 2-0 down and going out of the competition: cue one of the best performances by any player in a United shirt: even after the yellow that would keep him out of the final, he tackled, he headed, he drove, he bullied and cajoled until we all believed and we did it: Keane was just magnificent

Paul Scholes: when Zinadine Zidane was asked who was the best player he had played either with or against, his immediate response was Paul Scholes! Along with Keane, the best midfield combination I’d ever seen, until Xavi and Iniesta. Scholesy had everything: a thunderbolt shot in either foot: great header of the ball: fantastic passer of the ball: great timing of runs into the box: great finisher and energy to burn. Couldn’t tackle, but would be the first name on the team sheet for me.

Christiano Ronaldo: incredible talent: posing, pouting prima donna, but what a player? In his last 187 games for Madrid and United he has scored 186 goals. Because of a certain little Argentinian based in Catalunya, doesn’t get the recognition he deserved. Impossible to exclude.

Forwards:

Eric Cantona – the missing piece in Fergie’s jigsaw: made the difference between nearly winning the title and being Champions: won four titles in five years at United and scored so many vital, match winning goals has to be included in my XI: arrogant, ill disciplined and possessed a typical Gallic temperament, but fantastic player who lifted those around him to new heights and turned them into winners,

Denis Law – brilliant, just brilliant! Stiff competition from a very long list of strikers – Herd, RVP, RVN, Cole, Yorke, Rooney, etc. – but he was my childhood hero and maybe I’m showing my bias, but he’s a definite inclusion!

Subs:

Edwin Van de Saar – fantastic keeper and only keeper in my lifetime to get even close to Schmeichel, but PS was the best.

Tony Dunne – proper full back who rarely crossed the half way line: as quick as any current full back and rarely given a hard time by a winger: deservedly won a European Champions winners medal in 68

Rio Ferdinand – love him or hate him, in his pomp, a fantastic defender: comfortable on the ball, great timing in the tackle, great reader of the game and fantastic turn of pace: unfortunately, Rio has probably never been as good as he thinks he is and that has created problems for him and his team mates, but class defender all the same.

Bobby Charlton – controversial omission I know, but I honestly couldn’t omit either Keane or Scholes. Bobby was and is a perfect gentleman and his record for both United and England is impeccable, but I only have two central midfield positions!

Bryan Robson – another controversial omission but for the same reasons as Sir Bobby: Robbo was the original Captain Fantastic and had he arrived 10 years later would have added to his medal tally of 2 Premierships, 3 FA Cup winners medal and a ECWC medal. Longest serving captain in United’s history and probably the most unlucky omission from my XI

Ruud Van Nistleroy – the archetypal striker: 150 goals in 219 appearances over 5 years for United: super striker who could score from anywhere and with head or either foot.

Fergie’s XI

Keeper

Peter Schmeichel

Back Four:

Gary Neville

Nemanja Vidic

Rio Ferdinand

Denis Irwin

Midfield:

Christiano Ronaldo

Roy Keane

Paul Scholes

Ryan Giggs – longevity like we’ve never seen since Stanley Matthews: 13 premiership medals, 4 FA Cup winners medals, 4 League Cup winners medals and 2 Champions League winners medals: add 2 PFA young player of the year and 1 PFA player of the year – don’t think he’d let you down! Could probably be included for THAT goal in the semi against Arsenal.

Strikers:

Ruud Van Nistleroy

Eric Cantona

Subs:

Edwin Van de Saar

Gabriel Heinze – I was struggling to remember a good full back: Evra is a liability, Phil Neville not quite good enough and Rafael is not there yet? Heinze was great in the air, had a sweet left foot and a robust defender, so gets the seat on the bench.

Gary Pallister – great partnership with Bruce and a class defender who was very strong in the air: lack of genuine pace means he only gets a place on the bench and not the starting XI
Bryan Robson

David Beckham – one of the best crossers of the ball and dead ball specialists that I have seen at United: had a great partnership with Neville down the right flank and Cole and Yorke would never have got the amount of goals that they did without Becks. Not in the Ronaldo/Best bracket, but his contribution at United was immense.

Robin Van Persie – only one season, but what a season? If we get another two years like that, RVP will join the legends of Old Trafford.

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One response to “Supporting United

  1. So after my verbose effort on United (apologies, but I have time on my hands and I do have the ability to talk/write a glass eye to sleep!), Mr Gormley has asked me to construct an International XI with these qualification parameters:

    1: I must have seen them live
    2: Only one representative per country

    So with a much shorter preamble, here we go:

    Players who I never saw live, but would have loved to:

    Pele – universally recognised as the greatest ever; there are some contenders, but I wouldn’t argue. Even I’m too young to remember the 58 or 62 World Cups, but I do remember him being brutally kicked out of the 66 World Cup. At the 70 World Cup, he was over 30, but just THE star in a team of stars. He dummied the Uruguayan goalkeeper in the semi final that prompted one of Coleman’s greatest commentaries ” Mazurkeweicz was so lost, he had to buy a ticket to get back in the ground!”

    Zinadine Zidane – up there with Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Best and Messi; one of the best who unfortunately will be remembered as much for that head butt as he will be for his amazing talent

    Alfredo di Stefano – first of his type as a deep lying centre forward, now known as playing in the hole behind the striker; amazing goal scoring record who played for both Argentina and Spain (No, I don’t get it either but things were different then!) and part of the magnificent Real Madrid side of the late 50’s

    Duncan Edwards – very few recordings to view, but Sir Bobby described him as the best he’d ever seen. Capped by England at 18, went on to win 18 caps, played 151 times for United and won 2 championship medals, before tragically becoming a victim of the Munich crash aged just 21

    Michelle Platini – arsehole now that he has joined the administration ranks, but a truly gifted midfield player in a wonderful French side

    Mario Kempes – Fantastic striker who peaked in his home World Cup in 78

    Fat Ronaldo – what a striker, his performance at OT in Champions League was rightfully applauded from all four corners of the stadium

    Carlos Alberto – Captain of the 1970 Brazilian World Cup winning side, the best national side I’ve seen.

    The 1970 and 1982 Brazil National Teams – the former won the World Cup playing football from another planet (the 4th goal in the final against Italy is one of the best ever, finished off by a 20 yard thunderbolt from the RIGHT BACK!!!) and the latter were probably even better going forward, but naive defensively and got found out by Paolo Rossi

    Players who I’ve had to exclude because of nationality rules, or because there was just someone slightly better in their position:

    Pat Jennings
    Franco Baresi
    Gaetano Scirea
    Ashley Cole
    Gunter Netzer
    Gerd Muller
    Roy Keane
    Paul Scholes
    Bobby Charlton
    Bryan Robson
    Andreas Iniesta
    Denis Bergkamp
    Thierry Henry
    Maradona
    Jimmy Greaves
    Eusebio
    Eric Cantona
    Gerd Muller
    Denis Law (sob sob)

    And so my selection:

    Goalkeeper

    PETER SCHMEICHEL (DENMARK)

    Please refer to my earlier post, but the best I’ve ever seen, by a distance!

    Back Four

    DANI ALVES (BRAZIL)

    You have to be some defender to stand out in that Barcelona side and he does. Bit of a play actor, but great defensively and an extra forward who scores goals. Qualifies based on my one visit to the Nou Camp for a La Liga match against Espanyol.

    FRANZ BECKENBAUER (WEST GERMANY)

    The Kasier was magnificent. Started off as a midfielder and I saw him at 17 in a pre World Cup friendly at Wembley in February 1966. Like all great players, he always had time, but he always had SO much time which was a testament to his unrivalled ability to read the game. Won everything as both a player and manager and was the finest exponent of the sweeper role I’ve ever seen; he’d have to be, to be in front of Scirea. Absolute no brainer of a choice.

    BOBBY MOORE (ENGLAND)

    Mr Cool; almost a carbon copy of Beckenbauer; cool under pressure (the pass to Hurst for the 4th goal in the 66 final summed him up; most defenders would have hacked it up the pitch to waste time, but not Bobby; calmly dribbled the ball to the edge of the area and picked out Hurst with a 40 yard pass into his path to run in on goal, brilliant); you will rarely see a photo of Bobby in a dirty kit as he never made last ditch tackles as his reading of situations was such, that he normally intercepted the ball rather than having to tackle. Shame that we lost him so young.

    PAOLO MALDINI (ITALY)

    Not a bad back five? Paolo Maldini – the man who has it all; fantastically handsome; married to a stunningly beautiful ex model; two sons, both of whom are already in Milan’s academy; oh, and he could play football a bit!! Gifted player who was comfortable at either centre half or left back; could use either foot, although naturally right footed, and great in the air; won everything at club level, only played for one club and his spell at AC Milan spanned 25 years in the first team, including seven Scudettos and FIVE Champions League titles, but surprisingly for an Italian, and 125 caps, no major international honours. When people discuss the best ever, defenders rarely get mentioned, but Maldini is truly a legendary great of the game. Qualifies as I saw him at OT in 2007 in Champions League match

    Midfield;

    GEORGE BEST (NORTHERN IRELAND)

    Again please refer to my earlier post. Quote from a BRAZILIAN journalist ‘Maradona great, Pele better, George Best’

    XAVI (SPAIN)

    Toss up between him and Iniesta, but rules only permit one. Ability to play a ball, mere mortals wouldn’t even see. Crucial part of the best club side I have seen and has won every honour in the game at both club and International level. Hard to believe that he came on as sub for Barca in the 91 ECWC final against United? Not as nailed on as some of my other choices, but still a world class player. Qualifies as part of the same match as Alves.

    JOHAN CRUYFF (THE NETHERLANDS)

    Only time I saw the great man live was when The Netherlands gave England a football lesson at Wembley in 1977; my first view of total football and although Jan Peters got the headlines for scoring both goals, Cruyff was simply magnificent and outshone everybody on the pitch, including Neeskens, Rep, Van Der Kerkhof, Clemence, Brooking, Keegan, Beattie and Francis. England were chasing ghosts all night and no-one could have complained had the Dutch won 5 or 6 nil. Cruyff, allegedly, was, and still is, a pig off the pitch and led many a players revolt at major tournaments, but he won every honour playing in The Netherlands and Spain and went on to a successful management career. Unlucky at international level to come up against the hosts in both 74 and 78 World Cup finals; particularly unfortunate to lose a tight final against West Germany in 74, but they gave Gerd Muller room in the box once and that was that! Argentina then overpowered the Dutch in extra time in the 78 final, but like so many great players, never quite made that ultimate playing accolade, when unfortunately many less gifted players have!

    LIAM BRADY (REPUBLIC OF IRELAND)

    What, I will hear many shout? However, based on the players I have seen live, there won’t be many who were as gifted as Brady and those that were have had to be excluded on International rules. I genuinely believe that had Brady been born in a top international footballing nation, he would be even more acclaimed. A wand of a left foot and an understanding of the game that made up for a lack of genuine pace. After a vaunted career at Arsenal, where he became the first non British player to win the PFA player of the Year, he moved to Italy and became a much respected and heralded member of a Juventus team that won two consecutive Scudettos. He then moved on to enhance his reputation at Sampdoria, Inter and Ascoli before returning to the UK at West Ham. One of the few British Isles players to genuinely make a success overseas, perhaps linked to the fact that he was/is an intelligent man who embraced the new culture of a foreign land as well as being a top class footballer?

    Forwards;

    CHRISTIANO RONALDO (PORTUGAL)

    Again, please refer to my previous post; you have to be good to keep out Eusebio, who was a fantastic striker, but Ronaldo is up there with the greatest there’s ever been.

    LIONEL MESSI (ARGENTINA)

    Keeps Maradona out of my team (who I saw at OT in a ECWC game when he was at Barcelona) and up until 3 years ago, I would have said that is impossible! Only player I have seen (on aforementioned game v Espanyol, where he scored both Barca goals including another hand of God goal from an Argentinian!) that might even be better than Pele. I don’t believe his inclusion needs any explanation, but he is a truly wonderful player, coupled with humility, sportsmanship and an apparent complete lack of ego – a throw back to the good old days before money and gamesmanship screwed up our beautiful game.

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