The third instalment of our Hall of Fame series.
30 Eddie Colman
108 appearances, 2 goals 1952-1958
2 League titles
Having featured in the 1953 FA Youth Cup winning run, Eddie Colman – a lad so ‘Salford’ that he lived on Archie Street, the road which was used in the original opening credits of Coronation Street – did not have quite the typical path to the United first team.
He played 26 senior games in the successful 55/56 season, and 51 as United won the league and reached the FA Cup Final in 1956/57.
‘Snakehips’, as he was called, due to his ‘hula dancer’ body movement (as described by Bert Whalley) had played 31 times in the 1957/58 campaign before he became the youngest person to lose their life as a result of the Munich air disaster.
No player could claim to be responsible for Duncan Edwards’ brilliance, and no coach tried to take the credit either, but Colman’s tigerish commitment made him the perfect foil for the Midlander to play his own natural game.
Colman made 108 appearances for the United first team, winning two First Division medals and scoring two goals. His unusual jump which saw him make just eight appearances at Central League – even more surprising given his relatively small frame – made him even more of an interesting case. Colman’s performances made such an impression that every successful United team which followed had a player of his ilk; one whose commitment to the cause extended beyond personal glory.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, though, when considering the esteem his coaches held him in. For Colman was given the task of man-marking the great Alfredo di Stefano when United met Real Madrid in 1957. Jimmy Murphy once said of Colman that there was ‘no better tackler in the game’.
Colman was, without doubt, one of the most-loved members of the Manchester United team. So adored was he that twenty seven workers from local firm ‘Boxmakers Limited’ were sacked for skipping work to attend his funeral (they were later re-instated). It said everything you need to know about one of United’s most loved ‘Babes’.
29 Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
366 appearances, 126 goals 1996-2007
6 League titles, 2 FA Cups, 1 Champions League, 1 intercontinental cup, 2 Charity Shields
One of the deadliest strikers the Premier League has ever seen, it’s hard to believe that Solskjaer cost only £1.5m when he arrived in the summer of 1996.
After impressing on his reserve debut, Solskjaer was immediately promoted to the first team squad and made an impression straight away there, too, scoring with the rebound of his first effort.
The Norwegian was the evergreen sub, a reputation that took on a life of its own in 1999 when Solskjaer’s name was carved in immortality. His winning goal in the European Cup Final was, perhaps, the most astonishing moment in British football history.
It might not have happened at all if Solskjaer had chosen to move to Tottenham Hotspur earlier that season; and, despite his Nou Camp heroics, Ole never really quite made a permanent spot his own in the coming years. The closest he came was as an able right-winger in David Beckham’s last days at the club. But Ole then suffered a knee injury that kept him out for almost three years.
An emotional swan song in 2006 saw Ole contribute to another league title.
He retired due to the injury in 2007 and became reserve team manager, where he enjoyed success, before moving to Molde. I wonder what happened to him since?
28 Roger Byrne
280 appearances, 20 goals, 1951-1958
3 League titles
Jimmy Murphy said of Byrne: “Roger Byrne, a superbly built athlete had already won a League Championship as a winger before he became our regular left back and captain.
“Tackling is still important of course, but there are not so many sliding tackles as there were. These days a back must be able to read a move so instead of going for the first tackle he can hold off and try to force the opposing wing man to go down the touchline. If he stays out there and the back stays with him the rest of the defence has a chance to re-group. Roger Byrne, who started this style, was a winger or inside forward before we converted him in a full back.”
Murphy would also say that Byrne would have been part of an England team that could have won the 1958 World Cup.
Byrne was that little bit older than the other Babes. And though his own career had benefitted from their guidance, he wasn’t so besotted with the teachings of Murphy and Busby that he wouldn’t challenge them. If he thought a tactical decision was wrong he would question it, whereas other players like Jones, and Colman, and even Duncan Edwards, believed so much in the word of their coaches that they wouldn’t even question it.
For Busby and Murphy, this made Byrne the perfect captain – someone who, whilst never exactly belligerent, was not indoctrinated enough by their methods that he wouldn’t ask why when told how high to jump. Though a defender by nature, Byrne’s attitude on the pitch and as skipper was similar to that of a Bryan Robson or Roy Keane.
Byrne was at his peak when the Munich Air Disaster took his life. Matt Busby described his captain as ‘majestic’. There is a reason why many historians name Byrne in their all-time best United team.
27 Paddy Crerand
397 appearances, 15 goals 1962-1971
2 League titles, 1 FA Cup, 1 European Cup, 2 Charity Shields
“When Crerand plays, United play,” went the saying, and the midfielder made a huge impression at Old Trafford. At the end of his first season he was man of the match in the FA Cup Final and went on to be the heartbeat of the side who win league titles in the mid-Sixties.
Crerand was ostensibly a holding midfielder but had a range of passing that really made him the original ‘Carrick’ in a sense. He had one thing Carrick wasn’t renowned for; aggression. And he had it in spades.
Without the solid platform he and Stiles provided, the likes of Best, Law and Charlton would not have been able to enjoy the freedom and liberation which made them the best players in the world.
26 Norman Whiteside
274 appearances, 67 goals 1981-1989
2 FA Cups
Manchester United Football Club has an enviable historical relevance; great games, trophies won (and lost!) and of course great players. Everyone knows about the ‘Busby Babes’, the United Trinity, Robson and the modern heroes but there is one player who fans of a certain age will always hold up as epitomising the United way and in the era he played in, in many ways, fatefully characterised United’s fortunes during that time – that player is Norman Whiteside.
A club renowned for giving youth a chance, Whiteside was another example of the adage “if you’re old enough, you’re good enough” and boy was he good enough.
Aged just 16, Whiteside made his debut in 1982 against Brighton and one dominant memory being the financial rewards of winning the match: “When I first broke into the first team, I was only getting paid £16 per week. I made my debut as a second-half substitute against Brighton, replacing Mike Duxbury. Shortly after I came on Ray Wilkins scored and we won 1–0. I’ll always remember the trip because the lads were asking me what I was going to do with my win bonus. I was like ‘what win bonus?’ It turned out the win bonus was £800! Not bad for 12 minutes work.”
There is little doubt that Whiteside had arrived. A precocious talent, Whiteside was mature beyond his years, both physically and mentally, as he possessed the football intelligence and physical prowess to be an effective midfielder but with the guile and eye for goal to also play further up the pitch.
Playing in an era when United were rarely serious challengers for the title, it was the Cup competitions which offered trophy success for Whiteside and the team. Having been the youngest scorer in a League Cup Final in the defeat to Liverpool in 1983, the Northern Irishman would also write himself into the FA Cup history books as he became the youngest goal scorer in an FA Cup Final that same year. Whiteside would repeat the feat two years later when his only goal, a stunning effort for a 10-man United against Everton, would see Whiteside collect his second winner’s medal in three years.
“It is every schoolboy’s dream to play in the FA Cup Final. To score in one is just incredible, let alone two. Ok the 1983 final was slightly tainted by the fact it was a replay and I scored the second of four goals, but the 1985 final was a very proud moment for me and my family.”
“Everton won the league that season and Neville Southall was probably the best goalkeeper in the world at that time, which made it even more special. But, like I said, we were a cup team and we always did well in big games. The ball arrived at my feet in extra time and the crowd were screaming for me to pass the ball to Strachan. Basically, I bought an extra yard by using Pat Van Den Hauwe to shield the ball from the goalkeeper’s view when I got near the box and curled the shot into the bottom corner.”
Those are just two examples why Whiteside endeared himself to the United faithful. A true terrace favourite. He had youthful exuberance, a swashbuckling and committed style and he always rose to the big occasion. Focus inevitably centres on the FA Cup Final goals he scored, but United fans will also remember a stunning volleyed winner in the 1983 FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal.
Moreover, Whiteside’s style was nowhere more epitomised by repeated and often recited performances against Merseyside rivals Liverpool and Everton – Whiteside was the 1980’s ‘Scouse Buster’!
Having won the FA Cup in 1983, United qualified for the European Cup Winners’ Cup a year later and in a match that has gone down in United history, Whiteside was in the team which overturned a 2-0 first leg deficit against Spanish giants Barcelona to win 3-0 at Old Trafford. Those that were there recall the incredible atmosphere, the way the team played and the mayhem at the final whistle as fans carried players off the pitch. For a young footballer during the infancy of his career, Whiteside recalls what an incredible occasion that was:
“Up until that point I only knew about ‘European Nights’ from talking to the older players, so to finally experience one for myself was just incredible. No one thought we had a chance because we had lost the first leg 2–0. But back then we always did well in cups and we got the job done by winning 3–0.”
“Without a shadow of a doubt that was best atmosphere I experienced as a player. I know it’s a cliché to say that the roof came off, but I have no apologies about saying that because that’s exactly what it felt like. It was just a fantastic night – great look back on.” That 1980’s United side unfortunately lacked the depth for a sustained league title challenge, but on their day were a formidable opponent. Any team that can call upon Paul McGrath, Ray Wilkins and Norman Whiteside always had a chance. Captained by the incomparable Bryan Robson, Whiteside has fond memories of the time they spent playing together.
“Robbo was a different class. He’s the best player I’ve ever played with. He could score goals, tackle, defend, but he never got enough credit for passing ability. The other great thing was about Robbo was his leadership. He was the captain and he led by example.”
While Robson went on to play for United well into his thirties, Whiteside was cruelly beset by injuries which regrettably cut his career short as he retired when just 26 years old.
Having achieved so much in such a short period of time, remember he was also the youngest player to play in a World Cup Finals in Spain in 1982 beating Pele’s record, Whiteside has only one regret and as ever it centres on what he missed out on with United
“The biggest regret of my career is that I never won the league with United. Every player wants to win the league, but we were just too inconsistent to win week in week out. That annoyed me a lot. I am just glad Robbo finally managed to win it in 1993.”
There is an inevitable sense of ‘what might have been’ with Whiteside but he packed so much into his short time at United that for many the memory of what he did achieve, and more importantly how he achieved it, resonates to this day. For some sporting greatness is attained through sheer longevity of service. For Whiteside, the greatness of performances was more relevant and defining, and certainly enough to bestow upon him deserved hero status among United fans.
25 Gordon Hill
134 appearances, 51 goals 1975-78
1 FA Cup
Hill’s spell at Old Trafford lasted from November 1975 to April 1978, an improbable length of time for a player to make such an impact that he is included in a list like this. But it is a testament to the outstanding ability of the Southerner that his place can be fully justified. The first post-Busby United player who really fit the bill as a true entertainer, Hill was both a great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals, with a left foot volley regarded by his peers as the best in the game.
Hill – dubbed ‘Merlin’ at Millwall for his mercurial ability, a moniker he kept at Old Trafford – was, according to Tommy Docherty, the ‘final piece of the jigsaw’, and took to life in Manchester like a duck to water. Highlights included 2 stunning goals against Derby County in the 1976 FA Cup semi-final and a rasping volley against Juventus in the UEFA Cup later that year.
When Docherty was sacked, his successor Dave Sexton did not take to Hill’s cavalier approach and attempted to encourage the winger to partake in defensive duties. When he did not, Sexton promptly sold him for a club record fee, to Docherty’s new club Derby. The transfer was met with protests, with some fans painting graffiti on the Old Trafford walls.
Hill was gone but the relative briefness of his career at the club only amplified the magic that came with his nickname. With a goal ratio similar to Cristiano Ronaldo’s, Hill was the shining light of Docherty’s team and whilst the romance associated with him is now mostly a ‘what if’, there was enough evidence to suggest he would have been one of the all time greats. Only the length of his time prevents him from being higher on this list.
24 Steve Coppell
396 appearances, 70 goals 1975-1983
1 FA Cup
The industrious hard-working foil to Hill’s flamboyant adventure, such a description does nothing to explain what a superb player Coppell was. He was industrious and he was hardworking but he was also a great midfielder, with economic use of the ball, great timing and a fantastic level of consistency.
He played every single league game under Dave Sexton but the year after Sexton’s departure, suffered a knee injury in the 1982 World Cup. He was able to play again but never out of discomfort; eventually being forced to retire in 1983 at the age of 28. Another then, whose potential was unfulfilled, but another whose quality deserves a place this high on such a list despite that.
23 Mark Hughes
467 appearances, 163 goals, 1983-1986 and 1988-1995
2 League titles, 3 FA Cups, 1 League Cup, 1 Cup Winners’ Cup, 1 Super Cup, 3 Charity Shields
Sparky is far from the only name on this list whose position on it is unreflective of his current popularity with United fans. It’s fair to say that Mark Hughes is not exactly flavour of the month at Old Trafford and that is a shame as the Welshman is certainly one of the club’s most memorable and distinctive players.
Hughes was one of a kind; a striker who wasn’t judged on the number of goals he scored because everyone could see the benefit of him being in the side. He was a target man who wasn’t particularly tall; with hold up play that surpassed the quality of those taller or with an ostensibly stronger physique. He made the team play better and had the valuable knack of scoring at the right time. Perhaps the most memorable example of this was the 1994 FA Cup semi-final goal against Oldham Athletic but Hughes already had a more lasting impact on the legacy of the club with his brace in the 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup Final.
One of those goals was delivered in typical Hughes’ fashion, and by that you can take it to mean it was scored in a way that you could imagine only Hughes scoring it. His strong thighs generated the power to finish from an impossible angle.
Hughes continued to have a defining role in the club’s success, scoring on all four of their trips to Wembley in the 1993/94 season. He scored against his former club Barcelona in the 94/95 campaign but his age and the foreigner rule put his place as a starter at risk, especially when United signed Andy Cole. Despite Eric Cantona’s ban, Hughes knew his time as a first choice player was coming to an end and left for Chelsea in the summer of 1995.
It wasn’t this departure, or even his previous move to Barcelona, which destroyed his hero status with fans. For a while Hughes was even tipped to succeed Ferguson in the top job at Old Trafford after he enjoyed early success in his career with Wales and Blackburn; but a move to manage Manchester City soon turned Hughes into a villain in some eyes and it’s fair to say that the relationship has remained frosty.
It’s a genuine shame as Hughes was a brilliant player with brilliant, stand-out moments in a fantastic career.
22 David De Gea
362 appearances 2011- present day
1 League title, 1 FA Cup, 1 League Cup, 1 Europa League, 3 Community Shields
Sir Alex Ferguson missed very few matches as manager of Manchester United. One of those was to scout young Atletico Madrid goalkeeper David De Gea; suitably convinced to sign him, it was a decision neither Ferguson or the club would regret.
In a sense, De Gea is a modern Bryan Robson; a genuinely world class player, who makes his team much better, and yet with a potential which will always be unfulfilled because of United’s period of transition combining with the peak of his career.
To some, De Gea is the best goalkeeper to ever play for the club. There are few bad areas of his game. In an era when we are often force-fed the idea of some reinventing the position, one could argue that De Gea in fact has, with his sheer flexibility and ability to use any part of his body to make unconventional saves part of the reason why he is such a good goalkeeper. It was this sort of approach which made Peter Schmeichel stand out and it is certainly part of the reason why De Gea has been highly sought by predatory clubs on the continent, most notably Real Madrid, for a number of years.
So brilliant is the Spaniard that on a list of the club’s best-ever saves, you could easily list a top 20 just on De Gea’s before you get to anyone else. (Well, okay, you would probably have a few Schmeichel saves in there, but you get the point.)
Sadly it looks as if we’ll never know just how good De Gea could have been for United though we can be fairly certain he would have graced any of the club’s great teams. His place is so high because there has to be no question that for at least 3 years of his time at the club he has been the best in his position in world football.
21 Martin Buchan
456 appearances, 4 goals
1 FA Cup, 1 Second Division
Others in his various teams may have had more individual talent — Buchan did play with Best, Hill and Robson — but only the latter from that little selection could claim to have been a leader in the same way as the Scot.
You could go as far as saying Buchan, signed by Frank O’Farrell, was the club’s most important player of the Seventies. Described as a Rolls Royce and with good reason, Buchan was that rare blend of centre-half who could do everything, from dominating opponents to playing the ball out.
Impeccable timing and with a touch of class which conflicted the general perception of him being dour, the highest compliment you could pay Buchan is that he would have graced any of United’s best defences and still been the leader within it. There is a touch of the De Gea about his career at United, with the quality of the team around him providing the question mark about how good he could have been.