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.
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!
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!
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
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!
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
Ruud Van Nistleroy
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
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.