The fourth instalment of our Hall of Fame series.
20 Jaap Stam
127 appearances, 1 goal 1998-2001
3 Premier Leagues, 1 FA Cup, 1 Champions League, 1 Intercontinental Cup
We are at that stage in this list where minor details become the dividers. This list has attempted to do a fair job of taking into account all facets of a contribution — ability, longevity, impact on the club, performance and trophies won. The top twenty players on the list all have a claim to be in a ‘best XI’ (some who didn’t make the twenty do of course!). There can be no denying that the twenty are subjective, but, let’s be fair.
So, why doesn’t Jaap Stam feature higher? His three years at the club serve as a reason, and yet only underline the impact the Dutch star made. One of those rare occasions of Sir Alex Ferguson confessing to an error, Stam was sold after a controversial autobiography was published where he was critical of some of the players and also appeared to bring speculation about the way he was signed. The official reason was a question over an injury.
Stam was signed for a record fee for a defender in May 1998. He had a questionable World Cup and was then given a hard time in the Charity Shield against Nicolas Anelka.
The recovery was swift and spectacular. Stam was near imperious for the next three years, a physical specimen who was almost unbeatable. His menacing figure was intimidating for opponents and he played in only two defeats all season after that debut. His quality in defence was a major reason for United’s unprecedented success. It is difficult to list one quality above the other because Stam was, like McGrath, one of those defenders who had everything.
The defensive issues which followed his departure would not have been so pronounced and one can only wistfully daydream of a Stam and Ferdinand partnership which would have surely yielded at least one more championship.
19 Ruud van Nistelrooy
219 appearances, 150 goals 2001-2006
1 League title, 1 FA Cup, 1 League Cup, 1 Community Shield
The Dutchman arrived a year later than planned after a serious knee injury set him back, but when he did come to Old Trafford he hit the ground running. Likeable and lethal in equal measure, Ruud was deadly in the penalty area and at ease in both domestic and European competitions. He became the club’s top scorer in continental competition after being signed to provide that stamp of quality but was unable to add a second European Cup as Ferguson had hoped.
Van Nistelrooy was the most deadly striker in the land with a greater instinct than any contemporary and a sole league title in 2003 barely seems reflective of his impact.
So, Ruud’s reason for not being higher – relative lack of trophies and the way his last year appeared to be obstructive to chances of the club succeeding. Again, like Stam, you could also argue it the other way and say that despite this, his quality demands that he is this high.
18 Gary Neville
602 appearances, 7 goals, 1992-2011
8 League titles, 3 FA Cups, 2 Champions Leagues, 2 League Cups, 1 Intercontinental Cup, 1 Club World Cup, 3 Charity Shields
Neville is a difficult one to place in such a list; in terms of natural talent he arguably falls further down, but it is worth remembering that he was a fantastic player in his own right. If the club were to commission a further statue at United you would envisage that it would be another ‘trinity’ and he, Scholes and Giggs would be on it.
He was tipped to be a centre-half but made a breakthrough at right-back and eventually made it his own, establishing a partnership with best friend David Beckham on the right which was easily the best of its kind in the country. Neville was a highly-intelligent defender and a good crosser of the ball, with high fitness levels which enabled him to have such a long career.
Unfortunately injuries disrupted his last couple of seasons but it was a sign of the professional integrity held by Neville that he retired midway through the season in 2011, sacrificing a title medal because he admitted his performance levels had dipped.
17 Tommy Taylor
191 appearances, 131 goals 1953-1958
2 League titles, 2 Charity Shields
Tommy Taylor was so highly-rated that United were forced to turn down an offer of £65,000 from Inter Milan in 1957 — more than double the £29,999 paid for him four years earlier. Taylor was a sensation at Old Trafford, scoring plenty of goals in the First Division, and, when the time came, the European Cup.
On his United debut, he scored a header from outside the area; a demonstration of superior prowess, and it was such domination he repeated on numerous occasions at Old Trafford. Though he made his England debut in 1953, it was in 1956/57 where the Barnsley-born forward really earned his reputation as the best striker in the world, at home, in Europe, and in an England shirt when he scored two hat-tricks.
At the time his life was tragically cut short by the Munich disaster, Taylor was undoubtedly the best centre-forward in the world.
16 Bill Foulkes
688 appearances, 9 goals
4 League titles, 1 FA Cup, 1 European Cup, 4 Charity Shields
Until the 1990s Bill Foulkes was the club’s most successful player of all time.
There seems little need to add much else to justify his place here but let’s run through some career highlights. He was one of the first youth products to given a chance, before United had even had the FA Youth Cup to test players. He played as a right-sided defender at first and was a mainstay in the team, helping them win the league in 1956 and 1957.
When Munich happened, Foulkes helped where he could to pull bodies from the burning wreckage. Miraculously, he played in United’s first game after the crash.
He famously originally shied away from being named captain after the disaster but showed all the leadership qualities required; after a dip in form, Foulkes took some time out to retrain position and returned as one of the best centre-halves in the sport.
Bill was a veteran member of the side which won league titles in the Sixties and of course nobody could forget his ninth and final goal for the club, at the age of 36, when he ran the length of the field in the Bernabeu to score the goal which secured United’s place in the 1968 European Cup Final.
15 Denis Irwin
529 appearances, 33 goals
7 League titles, 3 FA Cups, 1 League Cup, 1 Champions League, 1 Cup Winners’ Cup, 1 Intercontinental Cup, 1 European Super Cup, 5 Charity Shields
United as a club is synonymous with flamboyance, with style, precocious ability and wayward genius. Sir Alex Ferguson dubbed ‘Mr Reliable’ Sir Alex Ferguson is one of the best players ever.
Denis Irwin is under-appreciated by fans of other clubs but those who know their football is a vital part of the wheel and an important thread of consistency that straddled different eras during the Fergie dynasty.
Irwin was unspectacular, but this is what made him so key. His brilliance was his contention which would have tested the present-day tabloid penchant for hyperbole and exaggeration.
He was a defender who could defend himself from the attack. The Neville-Beckham relationship is often quoted on the seminal full-back / wide midfielder partnership goal United fans will tell you that the Irwin-Giggs axis was just as good, if not better.
From set pieces, Irwin’s delivery and who can forget that free-kick he scored at Anfield? An accomplished taker too, Irwin was also truly two-footed; was he right-footing excelling at left-back or left-footing brilliant at right back?
Only eight players in the club’s history are represented by the United States. Humble on and off the pitch, which will be fast becoming a reality in the modern game.
14 Wayne Rooney
559 appearances, 253 goals
5 League titles, 3 League Cups, 1 FA Cup, 1 Champions League, 1 Europa League, 1 World Club Cup, 4 Community Shields
Wayne Rooney is the leading goalscorer in Manchester United’s history, is one of few players to have won every major trophy there is to win, and played a huge part in some of the greatest successes in the club’s history.
At almost every other club he would be regarded as the best player in their history. His range of excellent goals included shots from near the half-way line, overhead kicks, free-kicks and outrageous volleys. From the moment he scored a hat-trick on his debut for the club, it was clear they had got a special talent.
13 Peter Schmeichel
398 appearances, 1 goal
5 League titles, 3 FA Cups, 1 League Cup, 1 Champions League, 1 Super Cup, 4 Charity Shields
If Schmeichel loses marks for representing City and *that* celebration, then put it out of your mind temporarily to appreciate just what a sensational talent he was at Old Trafford. There was no weakness in his game and his physical prowess meant he was the owner of an advantage others simply could not match.
The Dane suggested some of his technique was thanks to playing hand ball, and you could certainly say that his style was revolutionary; some of his saves had to be seen to be believed, such as the one against Rapid Vienna in 1996 which might be the greatest of all time. A ‘star’ save against Inter Milan in United’s treble campaign ran it close.
The sight of Schmeichel’s colossal frame suspended in the air at full stretch to deny the opposition was one that would live long in the memory for those who witnessed it. For some years at United he was the best in his position and the best in the world. Despite the greats who have been and gone since, none have been better than Schmeichel; so, as divisive as he is amongst some fans, there can be denying his place on this list.
12 David Beckham
394 appearances, 85 goals
6 League titles, 2 FA Cups, 1 Champions League, 1 Intercontinental Cup, 2 Charity Shields
By far the most famous of the ‘Class of 92’, David Beckham was the least successful at the club and, according to most, the least talented; if this was true, and maybe it was, it was often represented as the idea that Beckham wasn’t actually very good. The truth is, had Beckham played for almost any other club in the country he would have been their greatest ever.
In his early days Beckham was a tenacious midfielder, competing for every ball and providing a harassment for opponents with his attention, but when he settled into the United side he began to express himself with his new-found confidence and that’s when we really saw the best of him.
Beckham announced himself onto the global stage with a sensational goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon in August 1996 and followed that up with a slew of long-range goals over the coming months. During this time he began dating Spice Girl Victoria Adams and attained a level of celebrity status which Sir Alex Ferguson appeared (initially) to feel more relaxed about, after his ultra-protective guidance of Ryan Giggs.
During this period Beckham evolved as a player and became one of the stand-out takers of set-pieces in world football, with his crosses from the right hand side and his free-kicks a constant supply of goals for Manchester United and England. His passing ability was as good as anyone in the world.
Controversy befell Beckham when he was sent off for England in the 1998 World Cup; he was singled out by the press with supporters around the country making him public enemy number one. Beckham was vilified, particularly at West Ham where fans hung effigies of him from local pubs. Most players would understandably have cowed to the pressure but Beckham showed remarkable character to not only keep going on, but to flourish, having arguably his best season ever as his crosses were a constant feature of United’s success.
His star grew and as people resented his success, that translated into the growing perception that he was over-rated; whilst Beckham may not have had the driving influence of Roy Keane, or the dribbling ability of Ryan Giggs, or maybe even the cleverness of Paul Scholes, his runner-up award for the Ballon d’Or in 1999 was merited through performance.
In some ways, Beckham is the biggest casualty of the split-vote mentality of that era, where one of that immense quartet had to be perceived as being worse than the others, and that subsequently led to an ironic underestimating of just how good he was. You will find an almost-universal agreement with the theory that he ranks fourth behind the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Patrick Vieira, a theory that apparently dismisses an actual examination into what Beckham brought to the table as a player. This theory ultimately relies on the idea that you can’t surely say Beckham, Scholes, Keane and Giggs were better than every other midfielder in the Premier League’s history, there has to be room for someone else. It’s only when you break it down into criteria when you realise Beckham not only belongs in the argument, he actually bosses it.
There are some who have a slight bitterness towards his exit in 2003 as it appeared it had been engineered for a while but in truth, Sir Alex Ferguson’s dislike of the circus which came with the player meant it was only ever heading one way anyway. A £25m transfer to Real Madrid followed (a fee that was staggeringly low even at the time, with rumours that the Spanish club quickly recouped the fee in merchandising sales) and Beckham tasted success there before being one of the most high-profile trailblazers to move to the MLS.
There was redemption on the international stage; whilst still at United, Beckham was named England captain and was undoubtedly the best performer for the national team from that so-called ‘Golden Generation’. His work-rate was, like Beckham as a player, often overlooked, but few players gave more to their cause than he did. A true great, with multiple defining contributions to trophy-winning moments.
11 Rio Ferdinand
455 appearances, 8 goals
6 League titles, 2 League Cups, 1 Champions League, 1 Club World Cup, 4 Community Shields
Eyebrows were raised when Ferdinand was signed by Leeds United for almost £20m at the height of their money-spinning phase. And when the centre-half was transferred to Manchester United 18 months later for almost £30m, most were sure that it was a fee that would look foolish in retrospect.
They were right. Because that record fee became a bargain as United enjoyed over a decade’s service from arguably the finest defender to wear the shirt for the club. In this stat-driven age of observers analysing players’ performance by numbers, Ferdinand was an anomaly, a player so good that he barely made tackles. His reading of the game was impeccable and the timing of his interceptions second to none. The former West Ham man had the intuition which singled him out as the best of his generation; Rio was one of those personalties whose reputation went before him and led to some significantly under-rating his actual ability.
There’s a good chance that if not for the bizarre episode which saw him banned in 2004, United could have won the league ahead of the ‘Invincible’ Arsenal team. Not that his career was defined by what ifs. Far from it. Six League titles, a European Cup and a few more medals thrown in for good measure are proof enough of how brilliant he was. Ferdinand was also part of the defence that, in 2008/09, set a new record for consecutive clean sheets.
One of those rare talents who was almost flawless – save for one or two moments earlier in his career which we’ll gloss over – Ferdinand will always be in the discussion when it comes to naming a best ever United side. For this writer, there were none better.