Tag Archives: Legend

Brilliant Beckham

Beckham has an enduring place in my heart, as he was a truly magnificent player whose quality at United and contribution during our period of success cannot be undervalued. He was a quite superb dead ball specialist whose corners and free kicks created havoc for opposing defenders and goalkeepers alike. He was the sort of winger that strikers thrive off, who had an unerring accuracy in knowing the position to place the ball so that they had maximum potential to be able to supply the finishing touch. He was a member of the Class of 92, one of the elite youngsters who when combined with more seasoned professionals would sweep all before them during a period of domestic dominance which culminated in the Holy Grail of the Champions League trophy in 1999. During that famous night Beckham was the key ingredient which first salvaged and then secured a trophy which had been on the brink of escaping, the final piece in the magical Unprecedented Treble. Firstly a whipped delivery into the middle of the crowded box for his initial corner where Schmeichel’s green jersey lurked and could cause the most havoc, from which the result was a prodded Sheringham finish. Secondly, a near post corner which found Sheringham to flick toward goal which Solskjaer rammed home to spark raucous celebration. Had we the current crop of United players, these corners would more than likely have been wasted, the delivery either overshot or failing to evade the first man. Beckham’s potency gave an edge that almost seemed like cheating, in a time where we were festooned with strikers who would score all types of goals if given such a cavalcade of ammunition to utilise. This is summed up aptly here by goalkeeping legend Peter Schmeichel:

“You only have to go on MUTV and watch programmes like ‘Ruud van Nistelrooy: all the goals’, ‘Andy Cole: All the goals’ and so on, and see how many goals they scored came from his crosses. A cross from him is as good as a goal. His crossing was unbelievable. ”

Beckham’s early life was typical of that of a precocious boy who dreamed of playing football, whose soul ambition was to secure a playing role in the beautiful game. When asked the arch old question of what career he wished to pursue, Beckham remained obstinate beyond castigation that he would indeed fulfil this dream. Fortuitously for him, as all United fans know, he had the talent in abundance in order to make this dream a reality and was signed up for United after impressing particularly as a youth who had come to prominence whilst attending one of Sir Bobby Charlton’s football schools. As Neville remarked during his own recollection of Beckham’s arrival into the group of fledgling prodigies that were to become later known as the Class of 92, there was a real sense that Beckham’s presence acted as catalyst for the others who were envious of the sheer natural football talent that he (Beckham) had at his disposal even at such a young age.

He was the final member of the greatest midfield quartet to grace the Premier League, providing the width and demanding the pressure of the Number 7 shirt. In Keane’s autobiography, Keane recounts that Sir Alex wanted to give Keane the shirt but that the Irishman thought that Beckham better befitted that jersey. It proved to be an inspirational choice, particularly as Beckham was charged with filling the shoes of the King, Eric Cantona. On the first day of the 96-97 season Beckham scored a goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon, it was a goal which propelled the youngster straight into the nation’s consciousness. It was the season where Beckham cemented his place as a first choice starter for United and was voted to be PFA Young Player of the Year by his peers. Though the following season was disappointing, it was during the Treble season that Beckham came alive; this flying in the face of the widespread condemnation Beckham had received for the infamous petulant kick which many felt was the direct contributing factor to England’s early exit in the previous summer’s World Cup. It was here that Beckham demonstrated his endeavour and bravery by succeeding when many prayed for his failure. He finished the season, as arguably United’s most valuable asset, an assertion given credence by him finishing runner up to Rivaldo in both the European and World Player of the Year award.

As Ryan Giggs pointed out, the remainder of the United squad knew Beckham’s value to the team and the squad pouring the following praise upon his team mate:

“The best crosser of the ball I have ever seen. You would make a run and he would put the ball into your path without having to break stride. A brilliant footballer.”

His fine form was carried into the next season as United won the Premier League by a handsome 18 points in the 99-2000 season. In particular though it was Beckham’s extracurricular activities which were giving Sir Alex the biggest headache, the fact that in 2000 he was given permission to miss out on training in order to take care of his son, Brooklyn who had gastroenteritis. However, Victoria was then spotted at the London Fashion Week Night that day which meant that she could have looked after the sick child. As Ferguson was quick to admonish:

“He was never a problem until he got married. He used to go into work with the academy coaches at night time; he was a fantastic young lad. Getting married into that entertainment scene was a difficult thing – from that moment, his life was never going to be the same. He is such a big celebrity; football is only a small part.”

United though were still in a period of great dominance and this was reflected when they secured their third successive league title in 2000-1. He scored nine goals that season, all of which came in the Premier League. In the following season Beckham scored 16 goals in 42 games in all competitions which was the best of his career, it demonstrated a player whose capabilities were at an all time high in terms of end product. However, Beckham lost his place the next year, following an early season injury, to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and struggled to get back into the team. In February 2003 following an FA Cup defeat to Arsenal Beckham was infamously then the victim of Sir Alex Ferguson’s ire receiving a football boot to the head which really sparked the beginning of the end for the winger. All in all, Beckham made 265 league appearances for Manchester United and scored 61 goals. He also made 81 Champions League appearances and scored 15 goals. His medal total was quite remarkable accruing 6 Premier League Titles, 2 FA Cups, 1 UCL, 1 Intercontinental Cup and 1 Youth Cup in a 12 year period with the club.

When Beckham left he moved to Real Madrid, his dream of continuing to play for United was in tatters. As he has said before, he couldn’t bear to watch United for two years following the swap. He had a heartfelt connection to his boyhood club and ultimately didn’t want to leave, though he then enjoyed the remainder of his career sequentially with Real Madrid, LA Galaxy, AC Milan and Paris St Germain which amounted to quite an illustrious spell of globetrotting. There are those including Sir Alex who felt that Beckham could have made more of himself had he really applied his full talent to his craft rather than what some might refer to as his brand and the celebrity where he really excelled, becoming a global phenomenon in how he marketed himself. However, it is hard to forget how much Beckham had worked to get to where he was and also that he was a quite incredible footballer first and foremost. He had a natural engine which few could match, often covering great distances and was very much an athlete which gave him the extra longevity that only the footballers who take the greatest care of themselves can hope to achieve. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, himself an undisputed legend of the game was quick to praise Beckham’s personality and ethics with regard to how he handled himself even at a mature age, when he went to play for Paris St Germain:

“As a footballer it is important to be yourself and live your life – not to live in a bubble, not enjoying your life. That is what I admire about Beckham. The attention that follows him is not easy to live out your life. But he does it. I even told him that I admired him because he brings his children to surfing, to the park. I felt sometimes I would stay at home, because I want to be left alone. But after I saw him, he brought me off the couch and he motivated me to take my family out and do these things. If he can do it, then me, someone with 10% of his attention, can do it.”

For me David Beckham is a United legend, a man who won many trophies with us and contributed sublimely at many key times. He will forever belong to the greatest exclusive club in football, those who have worn the hallowed United Number 7 shirt and his football prowess justifies that he is within that pantheon, a player who played with grit, style, determination and panache in equal measure. Without Beckham’s efforts United fans would not have so many enduring memories with which to comfort our souls during this barren period of true domestic success. Beckham will remain interwoven in the rich tapestry of United’s history, the member of the Class of 92 with abilities so unique and special; they even made a movie about one of them. Indeed, nobody could bend it like Beckham and precious few in United’s history have been as good as he was, a legendary player, never forgotten.

King Cole

Every top side needs an outstanding forward, a man who leads the line, who holds the ball up for his team mates when necessary, who finds space and links the play and who scores freely at the top level, contributing to the team and taking the pressure associated with the obligations that the role demands.  In Andy Cole, United had a rare gem of a player, someone who was excellent in all aspects of the forward role and above all had a mentality, resilience and fortitude in the face of so many denigrators over the course of his career. He talks of the sacrifices he made during his career, including some he regrets such as missing the birth of his eldest child to play a match but this is a by-product of the edge and resolute focus which all top professionals need to succeed in their walk of life.  Cole was not someone who welcomed the media spotlight that his talent invited; he was someone who was completely focussed on the game, a single-mindedness that helped him to cement his place as one of the greatest Premier League strikers of all time.  Indeed there can be few strikers even amongst that illustrious pantheon who can compare with his aptitude in so many facets of the striking position, in particular his shooting ability off both feet was remarkable and spoke volumes for his special talent.  As a United fan privileged enough to watch Cole at his peak, there can be no doubting the striker’s place at the top table, as he won his way into so many hearts with his desire and passion, the honesty and integrity with which he threw himself wholeheartedly into battle for the club to secure us the trophies which we craved.

Andy Cole’s childhood, as for so many footballers, was totally based around football, his love and passion for the game was evident from an early age. His background as is typical of many footballers’ was one of hardship, struggle and strife with money, or the lack of it, prevalent. In 1985, Cole joined the FA’s School of Excellence at Lilleshall, which he himself admits was an extremely tough experience for him as a youth, leaving home at just 14 years old. Cole’s first club was Arsenal, when he signed schoolboy forms for George Graham, the Gunner’s then manager. Cole reflects with a wry smile on his time with Arsenal where he had just a couple of starts that there was a personality clash with him and the boss which doomed his fledgling career with the club. Cole was loaned out during the 91/92 season to initially Fulham and then Bristol City, with a permanent move to the latter cemented by a club record fee. In 1993 on the back of tremendous goal scoring achievements with Bristol City, Andy joined Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle. Cole’s price tag again was large for its time, especially for someone still so young but Keegan’s faith was vindicated as he once again scored freely for the North East side. The following season with Newcastle promoted Cole enjoyed the most prolific season, scoring 41 goals in all competitions and winning the Golden Boot, he was simply outstanding. In October 1993, Cole was accused of walking out on Newcastle after once more his fiery temper flared and he was involved in a training session flare up with Keegan. Cole recounts how his stubbornness and pride allowed the situation to develop when Keegan told him that he could leave if he didn’t feel up to it and Cole complied in a fit of self righteous pique. The following week, Cole was brought back into the team and the episode was consigned to history. Cole’s strikes secured Newcastle a 3rd place spot in the Premier League and his efforts were rewarded on a personal level as he secured the PFA Young Player of the Year Award.

In January of 1995, Manchester United broke the British transfer record to bring Cole to the club in a deal worth 7 million pounds. Sir Alex recounts that United at the time, needed someone with the spark and electricity in the box who was two footed which were certainly in Cole’s locker in abundance. The publicity that Cole’s goals brought was unwanted as alluded to previously; he was someone who was economical with his words, who resented the media attention which his career brought from the journalists and there was a degree of animosity between the two parties. This since his career has proved something of an enduring legacy since Cole seems almost the forgotten man, when other great strikers of the era are mentioned there are people with fewer goals and less impact who are more prominently represented consequently. Cole talks about how he enjoyed the diversity and range of personalities in the United dressing room and also how he loved Roy Keane as captain, describing him as phenomenal. On the pitch, though at the end of the season, United needed a win to claim the Premier League but were held to a one all draw with West Ham, a disappointing climax to Cole’s first few months in a United shirt. Cole received the majority of the flack, following the grief at not obtaining the prized crown, having missed a few chances in that match. Nevertheless, Cole, being the tenacious and determined individual that he is, accepted the criticism and determined that this one game would not define his playing career. Indeed, it was around this time that Devante his son was born and adoration of his family shone through in Cole’s motivations as he mentioned lovingly:

“My little boy said it would be nice if I got a hat- trick to celebrate my birthday, so I dedicate my two goals to him”.

His faith was rewarded as United were successful the following season with a League and FA Cup double and then in the 96/97 when they retained the league with Cole contributing a fabulous 25 goals in all competitions. Cole was on an upward trajectory in terms of his development as well, he improved upon how he held the ball up, how he linked up with his team mates and other key facets which make up a striker’s job description. This was helped in no small part by the excellent relationship which he enjoyed with Sir Alex Ferguson, who Cole believes was the only manager he worked with who truly understood what he was about and appreciated him fully.  Sir Alex realised Cole was someone who demanded respect and honour when dealt with and they held an accord on this.  Cole’s striking partnership with Teddy Sheringham, during the first part of his United career, was strictly professional since there was no love lost on a personal level but it was one that thrived nevertheless. It stemmed from when Sheringham snubbed Cole on the touchline of Wembley on the latter’s England debut, it was a slight that Cole cannot abide given his strict rules on respect especially in such a public forum. The pair’s striking partnership proved fruitful with a combined 54 goals together as a duo.  Cole, throughout his career, is perhaps not appreciated enough for his ability to combine in a strike partnership, his selflessness and ability to work cohesively with others was a hallmark of his career. The enmity with Sheringham is so bad that Andy Cole has famously said he would rather meet Neil “Razor” Ruddock again, the uncompromising defender who broke both of his legs than his former striking partner but as always despite journalistic revelations about a poor temperament, Cole proved that on the football field with the serious business of matches and trophies to be won the greater good triumphed, where he was a constant thorn to the opposition.  As Robert Laurent summed up perfectly:

“With Andy Cole up front they can score at any time. We’ll be watching him”.

However, in August 1998, Cole was to get a partner whom he got along with famously both personally and professionally as Dwight Yorke signed, the players would strike up an instinctive, telepathic understanding of one another, providing the scoring basis for the greatest season in the club’s history, the Unprecedented Treble. Cole himself puts undoubted emphasis on the off the cuff aspect of their bond, playing what they saw and how they felt as they put defences to the sword on countless occasions with their rapier sharp exchanges and interchanges. Yorke too when interviewed replies that there’s was a natural synergy, not contrived through training regimes or drills. Unlike Sheringham, Yorke can be nothing but complimentary about Cole whom he shared so many magical moments with during a season where they became the most feared strike partnership in Europe. During the Champions League group stages, at the Camp Nou, Yorke and Cole combined to their most memorable degree exchanging passes and leaving the Spanish giants’ defence torn to shreds as Cole finished deftly. This summed up their quickness of thought and action perfectly; it was a goal that was simply majestic in its poise and execution. Cole was to score many important goals during that season, one of which was the winner in an enthralling against all odds victory in Turin, another in the final match of the Premier League when he again scored the decisive goal against Tottenham, a moment Cole describes as euphoric as he chipped Walker to win United the first of their trio of trophies that term.  Cole describes his incredible relationship with Yorke thus:

“When we started playing together, it was like meeting a special woman and falling in love. Everything felt right. We never had a cross word.”

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of Cole’s career was how infrequently he was used by England; something which the striker admits never worked out and just wasn’t meant to be. It was Glen Hoddle who’s infamous words that Cole took five chances to score which seemed to mark a death knell on his credentials at international level. As Sir Alex and Cole both articulate the fact that Cole scored goals in Europe at the time, showed that on a continental basis he could be trusted as he had the pedigree at the highest of levels. Much like Scholes though England’s refusal to use the talent which they had at their disposal was United’s gain as the striker continued to find the back of the net with the regularity needed to fire them to the numerous trophies we accumulated during our period of dominance. Sir Alex, like all the best managers, was not one to take notice of what others thought or felt and continued to believe and trust the striker who paid him back handsomely. It was not within Cole to be anything but motivated to prove his doubters wrong; he becomes emotional particularly about the struggles which his father had to combat regarding racism when he moved to the United Kingdom and that desire to succeed when all hoped for your failure made Andrew a chip off the old block.

In the 99-2000 season, Cole was once again United’s top scorer with 19 goals in 28 Premier League matches. Another title followed in the season afterwards, despite an injury plagued year which saw his appearances restricted, he scored 13 goals but it was to be the final full season of his United career, due to the arrival of Ruud Van Nistelrooy and he was sold in December 2001 for 8 million pounds.  It had been an incredibly successful stint with Manchester United for Cole where had won an astounding 5 Premier League medals, 2 FA Cups and the UEFA Champions League, he had contributed in no small amount to these successes, his United career ending with 275 United appearances and 121 United goals, putting him 17th on the club’s all time list of record goal scorers.  For Cole there are records and numbers which prove he was an accomplished finisher, in the history of the Premier League he has the third most goals in history, and he also boasted 73 assists in the Premier League which puts him right up there with the best in that regard as well. He was an extremely well rounded footballer who was equally accomplished on both feet and possessed an unerring heading ability to boot.  He was the blueprint for the striker that was to come later, one who possessed a complete repertoire of talents and not just a predatory finisher and as such deserves the respect and recognition which his talent justifies. Cole regards his time at United with the fondest of memories and he will always deserve recognition for the memories and trophies which his extraordinarily diverse range of goals helped acquire, an underrated and underappreciated legend elsewhere but not in United fans’ hearts.  As Sir Alex Ferguson says:

“I’ve been very fortunate having these fantastic strikers but I would say without question he is in the top part of the pantheon of the greatest strikers I’ve ever had- absolutely no doubt about that in my mind”.

Fearsome Ferdinand

These days it seems that the art of defending has lost its lustre, gone are the times of the truly great defenders who attracted such plaudits and accolades for their style, panache and professionalism.  It is often forgotten that titles and cups are won on the backbone of a solid defence, a universal truth that is not lost on Mourinho who likes to build his teams from the back. How then, he would welcome the subject of this piece, back to the club in his heyday. Rio Ferdinand, by all accounts, was a simply exceptional defender. When United bought him from Leeds for a world record fee for a defender, there were those who would have baulked at the price tag, Sir Alex’s faith and judgment was rewarded with peerless, fearless service from Ferdinand. Our dominance over Sir Alex’s latter years was built on the bedrock and foundation of the defensive solidity of this man’s partnership with Nemanja Vidic. Whilst the Serb was the uncompromising warrior who put his body on the line where necessary, Ferdinand was the thinking man’s defender, calm, cool and composed when on the ball, capable of the quality and skill necessary to bring it out and set willing runners ahead of him free.  Ferdinand, above all, was also a consummate winner whose failure to win an FA Cup during his United tenure, still irks him to this day. He talks like Roy Keane does; of the nature of having good characters in the dressing room and it is perhaps his leadership and personal characteristics combined with his supreme playing style which make him the best Premier League central defender of all time. As Ryan Giggs praises he had a myriad of talents which put him above his peers:

“He was a brilliant leader, brilliant in the air and a great defender.”

When Ferdinand came to the club, as I have already alluded to, it was under the weight of expectation which a hefty transfer fee brings. He had shown already at Leeds that for one so young, he had rare leadership skills, having secured the captaincy the previous year.  However, Leeds’ precarious, perilous financial position at the time necessitated the sale of their prized asset and their loss was certainly very much United’s gain.  He had the balance and grace which we associate with him already in abundance, as in his more youthful days he had trained as a ballet dancer which gave him an enhanced flexibility, extremely beneficial in dealing with all of the exertions one has to as a Premier League defender. In the first training session, Ferdinand was understandably at his most nervous surrounded by stellar household names and in particular was devastated when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, during a game of piggy in the middle, was teasing him about his large transfer fee and whether he was really that talented or not.  Ferdinand also recounts how in one of his initial training sessions, he was introduced and inducted in the United way of playing when he passed the ball sideways to Gary Neville. Roy Keane was apoplectic, raging that Ferdinand wasn’t at Leeds or West Ham now and that at United you took risks if you wanted to win trophies. Ferdinand spent time mulling over his words, before realising Keane was right, it’s all about the details at the highest level, those extra ingredients make the difference between sweet victory and agonizing despair.  He started off though extremely well in his first season at the club, winning the Premier League and showcasing some of the excellent form which had justified Sir Alex Ferguson’s faith in bringing him to the club. However, in the following season, Ferdinand became embroiled in a drug test scandal which was to mark one of the lowest points in his United career.

Ferdinand had been said to have gone shopping for some sheets for his new home, when the testers called but missing these was not something which was condoned for any reason. He was then banned for 8 months as a punishment, which seemed a rather harsh sentence given the other punitive measures that were being utilized at the time. Certainly, there is evidence to suggest that Sir Alex Ferguson’s assertion that he was being punished as a high profile player does hold some credence. Ferdinand returned for the 2004/5 season, dusting himself off and enjoyed a superb run which earned him a spot in the Premier League Team of the Year. However it was to be in January of 2006, that Ferdinand was to meet the greatest defensive partner he ever had when United signed Nemanja Vidic, the Serb and he were to form the greatest defensive partnership that the Premier League has ever known. Ferdinand with his communication and organisational skills was the perfect complement to Vidic’s aggressive, no nonsense, and physical defending style. Ferdinand was so masterful, his intelligent reading of the game and ability to intercept at crucial points made his disciplinary record exemplary, where he could go months without picking up a yellow card. In 312 Premier League appearances for United he committed a paltry 68 fouls. His effectiveness made him a joy for his fellow team mates to play alongside as Mikael Silvestre articulates:

“Rio Ferdinand was so calm and composed. He read the game so well and his technique was superb. There is no panic from him and that is what you need at the back. If the defence is shaky, it brings negativity to the whole team. Rio’s main attribute was bringing a balance to the side.”

Ferdinand was like a well oiled machine, he seemed able to assess any dangerous situation and work to snuff it out in an efficient and conscientious fashion. There were so many imperative blocks or defensive actions where he required all of his nous and know how to pre-empt threats, he made movements which other lesser defenders never would have done because he was so adept at predicting how the play would unfold, and he was blessed with perfect vision and anticipation. Currently, United’s defensive contingent is not blessed with anyone who can hold a candle to his ball skills, he was expert at bringing the ball out of the defence and spraying it to forward players, he had all of the composure and finesse that our current crop of defenders so evidently lack. There had been much discussion earlier in his career about whether he was world class or not but in the late Noughties, there were no longer questions, only accolades and epithets about what a superb player he was. Alan Hansen, in particular, (a defender by trade), glowed with praise for Ferdinand during the 2007-08 season when although Ronaldo was the one who was taking the world by storm,  said that when Ferdinand had been at the top of his game, he’d been better than anybody in the United team.  This had been further reinforced with captaincy for the Champions League final as Ferdinand skippered us to glory in club football’s most prestigious trophy.

From a young age, he had always set himself new targets and aspirations of what he wanted to achieve and this represented the pinnacle of all of those hours of hard graft and effort which had been extolled. He had a fear of failure and of complacency which was to make him deeply insatiable for success, a fierce competitor and a relentless winner. He talks of how he had to learn how to win when he came to United, how he was a student who was like a sponge, soaking in the knowledge and wisdom of his new team mates who were serial winners. From then on it was all about self sacrifice, about having full clarity on what he wanted to achieve and working tirelessly to achieve his goals and dreams in football. He had become so incredibly consistent during his late twenties that it was truly remarkable, his continual drive and desire to succeed had propelled him onto a level that was simply magisterial. Even after just winning the Champions League his first question to the higher ups, at the celebratory feast was who were they signing, he needed some reassurance and comfort that they would enjoy further continued success the next year.  This aura and expectation of the highest standards attainable transmitted to the entire United defence in 2009, when they combined to secure goalkeeper Edwin Van Der Sar a new clean sheet record, the hallmarks of a defence firing on all cylinders indeed.

In 2009-10, Ferdinand was to suffer a series of injuries as age began to take its toll on his body as a knee injury ruled him out of the 2010 World Cup with England and he suffered further time on the sideline at the beginning of the following season. Over the next few years, Ferdinand still showed that when used he could do a great job for United but the successive injuries he suffered plagued his career which became very stop start. A highlight in 2012-13 was scoring the final goal of Sir Alex Ferguson’s managerial reign in a 2-1 win over Swansea, with a finely struck volley, exhibiting more of the admirable skills that he possessed for a centre back. He had shown these throughout his career which was in truth somewhat pioneering during the early part, given that previous generations centre halves were required to be tough tackling hard men, Ferdinand brought an elegance and sophistication to the role which Gerard Pique describes here:

“Now the position of the centre-back is not just about defending or being nasty or tough. It’s about knowing how to play football, control the ball, pass and be more comfortable in possession. This is something that 10 years ago [in England] they didn’t understand. Rio was the first one who did it.”

Ferdinand was to leave the club in 2014, having not been offered an extension when his contract expired amid a season of mediocrity, following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson and the short tenure of David Moyes. There is no doubt that he had been unbelievably successful as he came away with a staggering medal haul of 6 Premier League Titles, 2 League Cups and 1 Champions League, as well as being named in the PFA Team of the Year 5 Times whilst in United colours.  He had been a defensive rock, a defender who was cultured but who knew when to use brute force if need be. He had shown such incredible composure and had been feared by many opposing strikers who had struggled to get by on the limited service they received with Ferdinand’s interceptions minimizing their goal scoring opportunities with style and class. He has received well deserved acclaim from pundits, fans and players alike for his fantastic career where he proved that he was truly world class and a United Legend to boot. He dominated all types of strikers whom he faced, he provided a platform for his defensive partners to be better by influencing them with his communication and leadership attributes, he was a leader not only of the back line but in the commandeering way he galloped forward.  He was incredibly consistent for a long period of time for United, bringing us the stability and reassurance that one needs in a back line and always performed outstandingly in big games, in particular in shutting out Barcelona for 180 or so minutes in the 2008 Champions League Semi Final legs.  Ferdinand was incredibly brave, and when called upon would throw himself in front of the ball to prevent shots or goals. He could pass incredibly well for a defender, finding team mates and would play forward, running with the ball seamlessly and effortlessly, gliding over the pitch like a swan.  It is fitting that Scholes, who Ferdinand cites as the best player he played alongside, has the final words on the legendary central defender:

“He was a great player, without a doubt the best centre-half I ever played with. I would say for a time as well he was the best centre-half in the world. He was such a pleasure to play with and play in front of. To play in front of him, he made your job so easy.”

The Great Dane

Having a superb goalkeeper is integral if a team wishes to be successful and compete for all the major trophies. In particular, if said team plays with the attacking potency and abandon which United did over the 1990s, where he will often be left isolated as the entire team swarmed forward in a marauding and cavalier fashion in search of goals, points and ultimately, trophies he has to be of the greatest quality.  Peter Schmeichel is considered by many as the greatest Premier League goalkeeper of all time because of his match winning contributions through saves and also the peerless way in which he distributed the ball with feet or with one of his infamous, pinpoint, accurate long throws.  A save from an Ian Wright header which would have beaten lesser mortals was quite simply supreme, the striker going so far as to acknowledge it by clapping his own hands together in appreciation for the athleticism and ability showcased. The goalkeepers whom we had subsequently to Schmeichel which included the likes of Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi and Roy Carroll before Edwin Van Der Sar arrived showed, in particular, the irreplaceable quality and assurance which Schmeichel offered United.

For most people, the crowning moment in Schmeichel‘s United career was the penalty save against Dennis Bergkamp in the FA Cup Semi Final in 1999. Although Giggs’ incredible wonder strike stole the headlines and remains the enduring moment of the match, had Schmeichel not kept out the Dutchman’s penalty in injury time the unprecedented Treble would have never been.  I have watched the save multiple times and still get the goose bumps at such a poignant moment, where a historic achievement could have been thwarted. However, the Great Dane clawed us back from the precipice of defeat and also ensured that the widely regarded best strike in FA Cup History took place.  Schmeichel has since revealed that he was unaware that it was the final minute of the match and of the immense import of the save. United down to ten men at that juncture, famously rallied driven on from the precipice of defeat, former national team mate Brian Laudrup explains his influence and personality on those he played with:

“The best ever. Peter’s charisma and character could change the game. His spirit spread to the rest of the team. Strong in the air, great reflexes and brilliant in one-on-ones. A true winner.”

Schmeichel was a colossus; a leader of men who would bark instructions at his defenders to ensure they remained vigilant and reinforce he was the unquestioned commander of his own penalty area. Schmeichel had a combative personality which intimidated strikers he faced and bred the respect that his immense talent deserved.  Opponents often recount how Schmeichel’s presence gave United an aura of invincibility and impregnability, he was a giant of a man physically who knew how to fully impose himself upon those around him. As Roy Keane recounts, Schmeichel was one of the rare few who stood up to him which flared up into the infamous scrap between the pair. Simply put, Schmeichel possessed an innate bravery and drive that earned him the immense respect and esteem which his team mates held him in. His defenders allowed him to vent so vehemently when they made mistakes because of his prodigious talent which so often saved their skins and atoned for their errors.

When Schmeichel was bought, it was for £505,000 which Sir Alex Ferguson was to describe later as “the bargain of the century”. Although his first season with United was tinged with disappointment given that we finished runners up, this was mitigated by League Cup glory and that summer Schmeichel was to play an integral part in Denmark’s greatest international football achievement, winning Euro 92. This cemented Schmeichel’s reputation and standing as the world’s premier goalkeeper, as he made his usual string of important saves. Furthermore, in the following season, 92-93, United were to break their title hoodoo, finally vanquishing demons and ghosts with their guardian between the posts contributing significantly, accruing a total of 22 clean sheets.  Schmeichel was a keeper who was worth his weight in gold and indeed in points as Ryan Giggs attests:

“Goalkeepers win you games sometimes, and Peter Schmeichel won more games than any other goalkeeper I’ve ever seen.”

In the following season, Schmeichel again showed his fiery temperament and tenacity when he argued strongly with Sir Alex Ferguson. The words exchanged were so terrible indeed that Sir Alex fired the Dane but subsequently reinstated him when he eavesdropped on Schmeichel’s apology to his colleagues.  In training, these colleagues had all experienced Schmeichel’s wrath, of course, in particular over any aberrations which might cause him to face a shot, never mind having to pick the ball up out of the back of the net. Absolutely inexcusable in his book were players who attempted to chip him, he would retaliate to such affronts venomously and with interest, hurling the ball straight at the offending miscreant who dared to commit such a cardinal sin.

Schmeichel was an unorthodox keeper in many regards, part of his speciality was in making the ridiculous look stupendous, for instance the classic star jump save which he counted amongst his goalkeeping repertoire which although looked decidedly ungainly came to the rescue on more than one occasion, most notably for the incredible save to deny Inter Milan striker Zamorano in the Champions League Quarter Final in 99.  Schmeichel’s clean sheet was of paramount importance and other concerns were of secondary relevance in the serious business of winning matches and trophies for the Great Dane. For someone who was so tall, Schmeichel could also be devastatingly quick and agile which really helped in those one on one situations, a striker looking to set himself would already find Schmeichel upon him before he had time to blink many times. This asset was very beneficial for United, as was an unparalleled shot stopping ability where he saved shots which he had no right to, tearing up and rewriting goalkeeping manuals on theories of the possible and impossible. Schmeichel’s method of communication with his colleagues whilst on the pitch is infamous, straining his vocal cords, every sinew in his neck showing as he marshaled his troops from the back. As he recounts himself in a game situation usual social niceties and graces had to take a back seat, with the fast paced nature of the beautiful game necessitating urgent actions at critical times. Some players who played with Schmeichel recount that he seemed almost managerial in his shouting, especially sometimes when the volume on the pitch was so loud the manager could scarcely be heard. Schmeichel explains that he felt it helped to reassure his team mates that he was there and fully engaged and ready to be called upon at a moment’s notice.

In 1996, Schmeichel became involved in a controversial incident where he was accused of making racist remarks towards Ian Wright during a typically heated game between Arsenal and United. However, eventually after much speculation and consideration no evidence was found and the case was dropped.  Schmeichel was someone who was outspoken and wore his heart on his sleeve. There would be no shirking his duty or hiding from situations. In training, he would play with the outfield players in control and dribbling drills, it was very important not only to foster greater camaraderie with his fellow United players but also so that they could appreciate and rely upon his ball skills. Schmeichel himself has often said that intelligence, knowledge and understanding as a keeper is the greatest skill which one can have in that position, knowing what your role is and appreciating the role of the team and their objectives. As the seasons of Schmeichel’s United career wore on he inevitably gained greater experience of what his job entailed and knew what permutations or eventualities he would encounter.  As former team mate Teddy Sheringham describes, even in training Schmeichel’s ability seemed absolutely supernatural:

“Awesome. He’s one of those players you didn’t like facing, but loved having in your team. Peter just fills the goal. Thinking back to my first year at Man United, when I struggled, maybe I should have trained against the reserve keepers instead. It’s so hard to score against him, psychologically it might have boosted my confidence to get away from him for a while!”

Schmeichel’s focus was legendary, he had a singular frame of mind during a game, he likens this to a kind of arrogance where you tell yourself you have never made a mistake, this mindset means you have a subliminal expectation or anticipation that your game will be flawless, lending itself in turn to a supreme confidence in your own abilities. However for opponents this mentality bred a respect and appreciation of Schmeichel, as John Barnes, who whilst playing for Newcastle had had a superb header somehow clawed out by Schmeichel miraculously, effuses:

“Simply one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time. [ . . . ] There are goalkeepers with presence who aren’t much good, but Schmeichel had both presence and raw ability. He was a great shot-stopper and a fine taker of crosses, he read the game superbly, he commanded his box. There hasn’t been a better player in the Premiership.”

In Schmeichel’s final season for United, he achieved ultimate glory as the club won the unprecedented Treble, securing him the greatest send off he could have hoped for. During key matches as ever, Schmeichel was omnipresent, making save after save and showing immaculate distribution as the United team cut down all foes that stood in their way. In particular his long throw was absolutely sublime, almost like a regular keeper’s kick such was its power and panache in launching some of the devastating counter attacks of that season. In the Champions League Final Schmeichel was to make save after save, including one where he had to use every inch of his towering frame to tip a Effenberg lob over his goal, keeping the score to within a goal, before the most amazing injury time the European Cup has ever seen. For the Sheringham equaliser, Schmeichel finally caused a chink in the legendary German organisation of Bayern Munich, when he raced up to join in with the corner. As the ball came across, he leapt for it but the ball evaded him and was half cleared to Giggs’ whose right footed shot was turned in by Sheringham grabbing the equaliser from the jaws of defeat. Of course moments later United won another corner and Schmeichel this time stayed in his own box. As Solskjaer gleefully prodded the ball into the roof of the net, the Great Dane, captain for the night, allowed himself a momentary exhilarating celebratory indulgence with joyous acrobatics which make up another piece of the glorious tapestry of that season and the night no United fan will ever forget.

It must be said that Peter Schmeichel is a United legend, he was simply an absolutely outstanding goalkeeper who provided the resolute foundation for the unparalleled success which the club enjoyed during the Nineties with so many Premier League and FA Cup glories, as well as the jewel in the crown of the Champions League in his final game for the club. He provided an inspiration to all young goalkeepers amateur and professional, including Oliver Kahn, for example and was someone who had a plethora of talents that beggared belief but which United fans and his colleagues adored and revered.  He was someone who had exceptional standards and who achieved those every day with a drive, desire and commitment which puts him in the ultimate bracket of goalkeepers who played the game, it is so singularly rare to find a keeper who has so many extraordinary talents and who showed a calmness and composure at the highest level reaching the pinnacle in his final outing for Manchester United. United were to struggle for many years to find a goalkeeper once the Great Dane had left, before Van Der Sar came along but in truth they would always find it hard to replace the greatest goalkeeper the Premier League has ever seen and arguably as Sir Alex Ferguson extols here the greatest there has ever been:

“I don’t believe a better goalkeeper played the game. He is a giant figure in the history of Manchester United.”

Ruthless Ruud

During my time watching Manchester United, there has been one goal machine that stands above all others, a man who had a finishing style unmatched by others who have worn a Red Devils’ shirt. When he first arrived in a United shirt, he wondered why fans were booing him whenever he scored before he was informed that there were merely acclaiming him through his first name. This was to be a sound that would punctuate United matches with an alarming regularity and alacrity. The man, of whom I speak, is indubitably, Ruud Van Nistelrooy. The Dutch striker was simply a phenomenal finisher, a man who was born to score goals, who knew how to garner an extra yard of space at the key time to arrive precisely when he needed to, in order to supply a deft finishing touch to a move.  When you listen to him talk you are aware that he is a clever man and that it is perhaps this quality married with his astonishing finishing ability which led rise to his iconic and legendary status at Manchester United. Van Nistelrooy scored 150 goals in only 219 games for United, which is quite simply extraordinary, demonstrating how easily and repeatedly he found the net and how difficult it was for opponents to prevent him scoring. This goals per game ratio of 0.68 is superior to any of the top ten all time United scorers currently, showing his efficiency and effectiveness as a goal scorer.  As Louis Saha articulates Van Nistelrooy was an unbelievable striker with a wide arsenal of skills:

 “He has the ultimate mentality of a striker. He’s always concentrating so he can be in the right position to anticipate a pass or be in the right place to receive it. That’s what makes him so effective. There is nobody in the world like him. David Trezeguet is a similar player but he doesn’t have the same quality, control and technique. Ruud keeps control of the ball with three players trying to get it off him. He is the complete forward.”

 

Van Nistelrooy was first rumoured to come to United in 2000 however injury difficulties made the move impossible at that juncture and he made the transfer a year later, for a then hefty sum of 19 million pounds. His scoring form at PSV Eindhoven, albeit in the Dutch league, had already gained him a fearsome reputation, having bagged 62 goals in 67 appearances for the side.  In his first season for United in 2001-2 he enjoyed incredible success, scoring in his debuts in the Charity Shield and the League and scoring 23 goals in 32 league games, form of such a high calibre which earned him the PFA Players’ Player of the Year accolade on the back of his sterling efforts in his maiden season. He was always looking to improve, as Van Nistelrooy admits it was important for him to visualize where he wanted to go and what he wanted to achieve and this would have helped to spur him onto greater heights in the following seasons. Often, he would look at his abilities and achievements in a self critical way as only the top players will do and he particularly admires those players who had this kind of authentic, down to earth mentality. Players who did not get too hung up on the materialistic riches which football had to offer but instead conducted themselves in a professional and considered manner, with the game their primary focus. To this end, the player Van Nistelrooy mentions to exemplify these traits is Paul Scholes, someone who didn’t conduct interviews and whose stylistic approach was a simple hoodie and jeans for training, yet a player whom Ruud describes as one of the best the world has ever seen.

The following season, he won the Golden Boot, one strike ahead of his erstwhile rival for the award Thierry Henry and won the Player of the Season, as he appeared to be going from strength to strength. In particular it was his passion, desire, drive and determination to score as many as possible which further outlined his appetite for goals, scoring three hat tricks in the League that year. When we contemplate our current predicament, that it is now four and a half years since someone in a United shirt scored a league hat trick, you truly begin to appreciate what a remarkable and skilled striker Van Nistelrooy truly was. His goal against Fulham where he ran from the halfway line from this season is a moment Van Nistelrooy himself admits was the most exceptional point of his career, as a footballer he says you had to know what you were good at and what your limitations are and focus on those strengths, that was why he concentrated on scoring inside the box, where he was at his most dangerous and ruthless. Van Nistelrooy opines that the best player he played with was Brazilian Ronaldo at Real Madrid, as those types of goals were more of his standard and that Ronaldo had a far more natural ability in those types of situations that he did. Another noteworthy aspect of Van Nistelrooy’s scoring efforts was his Continental strike rate, in other words how predatory he was in Europe. He had further improved upon his ten Champions league goals the season prior with another twelve which earned him UEFA’s seal of approval with the epithet of the best striker in Europe.

By scoring in the first couple of matches of the 2003-04 season Van Nistelrooy had scored in ten consecutive league matches, a record which was to stand for over a decade before Vardy overtook it. At the time, Van Nistelrooy couldn’t have been more gracious in ceding the record to the Leicester front man publicly saying that records were there to be broken. This shows what a classy, considerate and thoughtful gentleman Van Nistelrooy truly is, in how he portrays himself through his intelligent words and actions.  Of course, Van Nistelrooy was also at the centre of the Battle of Old Trafford, missing a last minute penalty which would have won United the game; he was then attacked by Martin Keown as tempers bubbled up and players were caught up in the cavalcade of emotions of the fierce rivalry between Red Devils and Gunners. Vieira, who had been sent off earlier for a second bookable offence on Van Nistelrooy accused him of cheating and many players received censure for their part in the proceedings. Van Nistelrooy recounted later that he was scarcely aware of what was happening around him so devastated and surprised at missing the penalty.  Roy Keane sums up the respect and standards to which Van Nistelrooy held himself to and the esteem in which he held him:

“I would never have expected Ruud Van Nistelrooy to miss a penalty. Because Ruud Van Nistelrooy was brilliant. Ruud was the best finisher, ever, but especially in one on one situations, just the keeper to beat. When Ruud was going through one on one, I never doubted him. Some players would be going, “******* hell – hard and low? Or dink it over?”, but when Ruud was through there might as well have been no goalkeeper.

The season ended in FA Cup glory with Van Nistelrooy bagging a brace, once more showcasing further proof of his big game mentality and temperament.

Although the 2004-5 was one hampered by injury problems for Van Nistelrooy which were to dog him through the remainder of his career, he still continued scoring regularly and there can have been fewer goals sweeter than the penalty he scored against Arsenal at Old Trafford which ended the Invincibles’ unbeaten run.  Redemption of the highest quality had been rendered and the misery of the previous year had been replaced with the sweet joy of victory over the bitterest of rivals. As he recounts later when he reviewed his celebration it was slightly embarrassingly vociferous but in taking the penalty Van Nistelrooy provided further firm substantiation that he had a superb mentality, resilience and fortitude in the most important moments. Van Nistelrooy was retrospectively suspended for three games due to a foul on Ashley Cole which the officials had missed but the feeling of accomplishment could not have been dampened by such trivialities. The season was a disappointing one in terms of trophies accumulated, with a rare year where none were gained due to United somehow contriving to lose an FA Cup Final against Arsenal which we absolutely dominated in every aspect until the penalty shootout.

In the final season, 2005-06, of Van Nistelrooy’s time at United despite considerable time on the bench, he finished second highest scorer in the league to Henry. He was being punished for a falling out with Cristiano Ronaldo where had told the Portuguese to “Go crying to your daddy”. This had been a thinly veiled jibe at the closeness of Ronaldo’s bond with assistant coach Carlos Queiroz, but Ronaldo having lost his father a mere 8 months earlier mistakenly assumed it was in reference to his and, understandably, burst into floods of tears.  That summer, Van Nistelrooy made the move to Real Madrid to the despair and disappointment of his team mates, notably Rio Ferdinand who had this to say regarding the Dutchman when picking his all time United eleven:

“[Van Nistelrooy] was the most devastating finisher I have ever played with. We could win a game by three or four goals but, if he hadn’t scored, he would sulk. But in order to become a world-beating striker like Ruud, you need to have that attitude. He lived and breathed goals. I tried to make him stay through speaking to his agent but it was too late. One of the big disappointments in my time at Manchester United was seeing the club let him go.

When asked directly about whether he regrets moving to Real Madrid at the time he did, given the incredible success United were to enjoy in the years directly following this, Van Nistelrooy is quite honest in saying that he wouldn’t have missed out on the opportunity that Real Madrid presented him with. This he says was a new, fresh challenge, an opportunity to test himself once again, since he had fallen into a comfort zone at United. His levels he believes were 1 or 2% lower than they had been, particularly in his final season and for a footballer even such small increments are vital at the highest level of the professional game. What is obvious when he talks of United is his understanding of how we are meant to play, with an attacking adventure and verve that was characteristic of time at United, when players were allowed to express themselves and there is a clear understanding of the United way of playing and how much he reveled in how this particular style allowed him so much service to supplement his incredible goal tally for the Red Devils.

Ruud Van Nistelrooy was a hero for many fans during his time at the club, not least my brother who purchased his shirt. He was so intelligent, so reliable, composed and unique, a special talent whom United were incredibly lucky to have.  He epitomized everything that you could want in a striker, someone who’s myriad of abilities and attributes were coupled with an understanding of a forward’s role in terms of runs and spaces which was simply outstanding. Not just that but Van Nistelrooy helped fire United to success during a relatively lean period, between Champions League successes, with Premier League, League Cup and FA Cups won, whilst Sir Alex was in the middle of a rebuilding process centred around the two prodigious young talents of Rooney and Ronaldo.  Sir Alex Ferguson himself thought Van Nistelrooy was in a class of his own and it seems fitting to allow our legendary manager the final words on the greatest goal machine United have ever had:

“Ruud van Nistelrooy has been the best – without doubt the best finisher we have ever had at this club. We have had some brilliant centre forwards at United…….But van Nistelrooy has been the best, absolutely the best finisher. If I had played alongside Ruud the problem would have been getting a chance ahead of him.”

 

Red Nev

Right back is a position which is often derided, right back in the changing room is a common joke and Jamie Carragher, a centre back by trade, once said that no one grows up wanting to be a right back; they’re just failed centre backs.  However, right back, like any other position, is integral to how the overall team functions and when you have someone as consistent and ferocious as Gary Neville there it makes you appreciate and understand the value and impact which a strong right back can have. For years, Neville and Beckham developed an almost telepathic understanding with one another down the right flank before he then formed a strong bond with Cristiano Ronaldo on that side. He became one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s most trusted lieutenants, a member of the Class of 92’ who filled the position so well he would gain widespread acclaim and recognition to such a degree that when the BBC drew up its best Premier League eleven recently, he was named the right back of choice. Above all though Neville was a fans favourite, someone who was a United fan first and foremost and who essentially would put maximum commitment and effort into his work and became a legend of the club. Above all, he would come to be adored by his team mates, including Ryan Giggs who espoused:

“He was England’s No 1 for so many years and he was so consistent. His biggest quality was his positional play; he was always in the right position.”

When Gary grew up he was an excellent sportsman, indeed he played cricket to a high standard and was even photographed with Australian cricketer Matthew Hayden at one point by the newspapers. Football though was his real passion, like many youngsters during the eighties his support of Manchester United was much derided, particularly given the success that Liverpool were achieving during this decade. Neville would retain his hatred for Liverpool throughout his career, his passion and glee in defeating the enemy was evident on many occasions. Sir Alex was lucky to have someone so motivated to knock Liverpool off their perch as he was during his tenure.  Neville’s idol when he was growing up was Bryan Robson, an ideal hero to have since he was a player cut from the same cloth as Neville, someone who gave blood, sweat and tears, these virtues became synonymous with Neville over his playing career. As Neville grew up, United were making poor buys and spending a great deal of money, Neville was forced to tell himself that one day the glory days of Best, Law and Charlton would return.

Neville initially saw himself as a central midfielder, the position of his boyhood hero Robson when he joined the United Centre of Excellence. It was here that Neville would meet two of his illustrious compatriots in Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes; in particular Neville would form an incredible friendship with the latter that he would join in a Manchester cafe before matches to converse with. In those days with such fierce competition to be picked by United, Neville was unsure whether he possessed the requisite skill to be taken on. However, to the luck of all United fans, he was signed up just at the time that Sir Alex Ferguson was particularly keen to promote youth talent, as Sir Matt Busby had done previously.  David Beckham has also arrived, on the back of winning Bobby Charlton’s soccer schools competition. Instantly, he raised the level again, with the deliveries and passes that United fans would come to appreciate for their incredible unerring accuracy and venom.

The Class of 92 had begun to form, players who would go on to have incredible careers, picking up medals and trophies that most players cannot even dream of. Neville cites the incredible work ethic and endeavour that the group had as to why they were phenomenally successful, the fact that they played from such young ages into their mid thirties at the highest level is testament to how driven they were to maximise their careers in longevity and glory. Gary Neville, perhaps less naturally talented than some of his more illustrious peers gained the nickname “Busy” because of how regularly he trained and worked upon his game. He led an almost puritanical life in these early years cutting out women and drink entirely so that he could focus entirely upon succeeding on the football pitch. It was an example to others as they began to join in his little training regimes and a close knit group was formed. They were further moulded by tasting success in the Youth Cup; it created a winning mentality at a very young age, players who developed an innate craving for success and who demonized failure.  The perfect demonstration or example of this for the youths was the United side at the time, bristling with hardened, ferocious winners such as Robson, Schmeichel, Ince and Hughes.

Neville’s debut came in 1992, against Torpedo Moscow when he came on as a substitute, it was to be the first of many glorious caps and Gary relished it enormously at the tender age of seventeen years old. He was further delighted when he was praised in a newspaper by Bryan Robson, his idol, compliments like these gave him hope that he could really succeed in the exacting environment which the manager had created, where losing was unacceptable.  At eighteen, Gary made the move to a full back since his opportunities into the first team were blocked by the towering twin behemoths of Bruce and Pallister. Neville had the ideal player to learn from at full back in Denis Irwin, incredibly two footed, reliable and able to work offensively and defensively potently.  Additionally, the extraordinary Roy Keane has added his own unique mentality of excellence par none with his vehement disgust when Gary made an error. The titles had begun rolling in and the period of unbridled success had been initiated. However, when United lost the league on the final day to Blackburn, Neville admits that he felt inconsolable and desolate above all other moments in his playing career. The failure of that season was compounded in the FA Cup Final when Everton defeated United and it was to spur on Neville and his cohorts to further efforts to restore their place atop the English game.  The words of Alan Hansen “You’ll win nothing with kids” at the beginning of the following season were to become immortalised forever, especially given some of the high profile exits from the club like Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes.  In 1996, United chased down Keegan and won the league but Neville is quick to say that Cantona’s influence on that title win was the most defining factor, coming up with countless match winning contributions but the kids had succeeded. Neville had made the sacrifices he needed to, during the season engaging in a strict dietary regime which would further enhance his performance levels. Stuart Pearce commented on this dedication:

“He had a wonderful hunger and desire to succeed, which kept him where he was in the game… a Manchester United icon.”

Indubitably, United and Neville cast their eyes on the next gargantuan prize to achieve which was the European Cup. It had been so many years since 68 and Cantona in particular wanted to achieve the grandest prize in all of football in 96, as he confided in Neville and the others. When Cantona said something the others listened, the respect and admiration for his ability was immeasurable. When he retired after another season of domestic success but European failure at the age of thirty, United fans were shocked and so were Neville and his team mates. The talisman had gone and they needed to move on without him, even if his charisma was irreplaceable. Gary and brother Phil, showing their faith in the club’s path committed themselves to long terms deals of seven years apiece. The season of 96/97 dogged by injuries to key players like Keane, United ended up giving up the title to Arsenal who possessed in Marc Overmars, a winger who Gary admits was the toughest direct opponent he faced. He was lightning quick and able to beat Gary in any foot race, either coming to the ball or when it was pumped long over their heads.

In the 98/99 season, everything went right for Manchester United and Neville, in the season of the unprecedented Treble. At the end of it Gary couldn’t have been prouder that he had helped his beloved team to win the ultimate club prize, especially on the parade back in Manchester. He had helped to face some of Europe’s elite, including the legendary Luis Figo who had kept him incredibly honest with his incredible skill and ability. The camaraderie which had united the youth players ran through the whole team, as Neville and the others embodied a never say die spirit that enabled them to achieve the unachievable. Neville showed his tactical awareness and nous in the quarter final when he pocketed Roberto Baggio,”The Divine Ponytail”.  His other chief contribution in the final matches of that unforgettable season was the assist for Andy Cole’s winner against Tottenham in the final Premier League game, which was delightful. Despite Neville’s fatigue having played so many games, he was still able to throw Alan Shearer a dummy in the FA Cup Final showing that he was at the peak of his powers. In the Champions League final of course, like the others, Neville had a tired game but it was him that won the corner that led to Ryan Giggs’ equalizer in the dying seconds.

The following season, Neville paid for the Herculean efforts of the Treble by missing the initial months with a groin issue and struggled for form on his return, the game against Vasco da Gama in particular in the Club World Cup, was a personal horror show from someone who was normally so reliable and consistent. Gary was suffering from one of the troughs footballers find themselves in during their career, where their performances are not of their usual high calibre and they find it hard to retain faith in their abilities. Against Real Madrid, United were undone with Gary having a subpar game by his own exacting standards. In the following few years, United dominated the league and Sir Alex reversed his decision to retire early, whilst Ruud Van Nistelrooy was the most notable of the recruits. Van Nistelrooy demanded that Neville play him perfect balls and stayed consistently in the danger zone for deliveries, getting into a heated exchange with Neville once over an errant delivery.  When Carlos Queiroz arrived in the summer of 2002, he wanted to get some more pace on the right flank, since neither Beckham nor Neville were possessed of lightning rapidity.  When Beckham left at the end of the season, Neville was understandably devastated losing his best friend and team mate for so many years, they knew each other’s game perfectly with an incredible synergy between the pair. As Rio Ferdinand notes:

“Young players nowadays should look back at the way that he played the game, not just in terms of his defending but the way he overlapped and attacked.”

With the Arsenal Invincibles, Neville had to face Robert Pires who complained that Neville would get stuck into him unfairly, this buoyed Neville who knew that he had to make his presence felt in order to contain the tricky winger. Neville exploited the mental fragility of Arsenal players, including Jose Antonio Reyes, despite calls that he had been overly exuberant. Of course, Arsenal players of greater mental fibre tried to retaliate, most notably Patrick Vieira but Roy Keane inevitably took over and United ran out winners in that game, delivering the perfect answer to the arguments on the pitch where it matters most. However, it was a Mourinho inspired Chelsea who were tearing up trees and winning the Premier League. Sir Alex began to ring the changes, getting rid of Gary’s brother Phil who wanted more game time which Everton could offer him, and, of course, the irreplaceable Roy Keane, a player Gary Neville could not be more effusively praising of. This allowed Gary Neville to be given the captaincy of United which was an incredible honour for him. This didn’t stop Neville from wearing his heart on his sleeve with a few effusive gestures to Liverpool fans following a late win over them, which landed him in hot water. However, Neville had come to relish playing with a young Cristiano Ronaldo, who although scarcely passing to Neville despite his runs, possessed such incredible talent that Neville was astute enough to let such idiosyncrasies slide, especially for a talent Neville considers probably the greatest attacking force in world football. Although Ronaldo shirked his defensive duties which affected Neville the most playing on his flank, he didn’t mind because he had a talent that demanded indulgence. Neville, for his part, as Gascoigne articulates here would never be so lax in his duties:

I was fortunate to play with some great right-backs [ . . . ] you see players today as wing-backs, getting forward, getting round the back and whipping in crosses and people say this is the new game, but he was doing it 10 to 15 years ago. [ . . .  ] He was confident, he was a really quiet lad but he got stuck in and he was a team player. He was a guy that you would never see jogging back – he was up and down that line. He was an honest player.”

Neville’s injury hampered his involvement in the 2007/8 season where United were to win another Champions League, playing hardly any minutes but as Keane had prophesised in a text to Gary, Rooney and Ronaldo had won them the Champions League again.  Neville was gutted once again when Ronaldo left to join Madrid, telling him he’d miss United more than he knew. Neville, himself was turning into a squad member, still playing a fair portion of games, but no longer the automatic starter he had been for so many years.  In 2011, Gary knew it was time to call it a day, that his body couldn’t offer what his mind wanted to, his final game for United at the Hawthorns.

Neville’s medal haul was simply staggering; he was a vital cog in the machine United built up, winning trophy after trophy. He ended his career with 8 Premier Leagues, 3 FA Cups, 2 League Cups and 2 Champions Leagues and was voted into the PFA Premier League Team of the Year five times. What made him truly special was his insatiable hunger and desire to succeed playing for the club he has supported all his life. It was this fervour, coupled with a tenacity and determination of the highest quality that made him the best right back of the Premier League era.  As United fans we were truly blessed to have a full back who showed such leadership and who played so consistently well for such a long period of time. He was a stalwart in Sir Alex Ferguson’s plans, someone whom he could trust implicitly and who gave his all for the cause. Sir Alex Ferguson best sums it up here:

“Gary was the best English right-back of his generation. He is an example to any young professional; hard-working, loyal and intelligent. As a United fan born and bred, his fantastic career at Old Trafford has cemented his place in the affection of the club’s supporters everywhere.”

The Magnificent Seven

There have been many incumbents of the most iconic shirt in Manchester United’s history. Perhaps with the rather checkered final few years, the number 7 shirt’s lustre may have been briefly dampened from the days when it was worn by illustrious magicians such as Ronaldo, Cantona and Beckham.  The Manchester United Number 7 shirt has historically been worn by the best player at the club, the genius who has orchestrated and elevated his colleagues with his guile, wizardry and immeasurable skill. Perhaps the man who most epitomizes the dichotomy which the shirt has encompassed is the original number 7, who at times was simply unplayable in both senses, but whose enduring legacy is one of an astounding football talent that illuminated the world.

George Best was the original celebrity who paved the way for the others, who followed, a footballer who transcended the typical boundaries which separated footballers from celebrities. His looks and immense, peerless skill propelled him into a limelight that was unprecedented. A stardom that proved to be too effulgent to control for the young man who possessed a natural talent that rendered his playing opponents his puppets but who possessed other demons that proved impossible to prevail over.

When you watch the footage of George Best it is impossible not to be struck by the sheer balletic grace of him. The skill and dribbling capability were unrivalled because he seemed able to contort his body into unnatural stances to avoid the despairing lunges of opponents, before moving away again. Whilst it is unfair to compare players of different eras with one another, primarily due to the contrasting fitness standards, when you watch the players around Best, they seem mesmerised by his dazzling footwork. It’s as though Best has full ownership of the ball and has the anticipation to avoid the feeble pitfalls that his opponents seek to utilise against him. Spectators and critics alike were mesmerised by his plethora of talent:

“In terms of ability he was the world’s best footballer of all time. He could do almost anything – technically, speed, complete mastery of not only the ball but his own body. You could saw his legs away and he still wouldn’t fall because his balance was uncanny, almost supernatural. Heading ability, passing ability, I mean it goes without saying the dribbling – he could beat anybody in any way he chose. For fun he’d play a one-two off the opponent’s shins.” — Patrick Barclay, football journalist

Best came from Dublin to United at the age of only fifteen and showed the competitiveness necessary to survive the culling which crushed so many young boys’ futures in order to secure a professional football career with the Red Devils. He made his debut at the age of only 17 for United in 1963, against West Bromwich Albion in 1-0 win. He would go on to finish the 63-64 season with 6 goals in 26 appearances. However, it was his exploits with the Youth Team that really sets this year apart when he won the 1964 FA Youth Cup. This was particularly noteworthy because it was the first time the trophy had been won since the Munich Air Disaster. Already there were the first glimmers of hope that the rebirth and renewed success of Manchester United were underway.

Best was particularly lucky that he benefited from having Sir Matt Busby as his manager during this initial period, as the legendary manager ensured that the physical intimidation which could have thwarted Best with the regular rough and unscrupulous tackling became a minor irritant, through rigorous training regimes. Indeed, Best often seemed to relish these challenges and would invite them so that he could dance away from their clumsy provocations with the simplest, most beautiful of consummate ease.

In the following season, Best became more of a first team regular and would provide assistance in securing the league title, this time chipping in with 14 goals in 59 competitive fixtures. However, it was only the following year after scoring a brace in the European Quarter Final against Benfica that Best was propelled into the limelight as the next superstar. Best became a sensation and was dubbed “El Beatle”, his image and story had migrated to front page news which was relatively unheard of for the day.  His team mates had already begun to recognise that Best had a talent that was simply outstanding, as Sir Bobby Charlton extols:

“He was such an unbelievably gifted player. He had quality and control that was unparalleled, really.” 

In 1966-67, United claimed the league title and Best had proven himself an integral part of the United team by this juncture. This time he scored 10 goals in 45 games. However, it was the subsequent season of 67-68 where Best’s levels were raised to a phenomenal standard. All three of our European Cup triumphs have a striking similarity where our number 7 (Best ‘68, Beckham ‘99 and Ronaldo ‘08) elevate themselves to such an exceptional level that it drags the entire team to the greatest trophy in club football. Best was the First Division’s top scorer and was the youngest ever recipient of the FWA’s Footballer of the Year Award and scored and assisted at key points during the historic European Cup campaign. With the European Cup Final locked at one all, Best went on a trademark mazy dribble which ended with him selling the Benfica goalkeeper an audacious dummy and rolling the ball into the empty net. Strikes from Brian Kidd and Bobby Charlton added further gloss on an emphatic 4-1 win.

Best received the Ballon D’Or in 68 recognising his unrivalled influence and ability at the height of his powers. At the age of 22, he had achieved prizes beyond his years; it seemed that the sky would be the limit for a player who ostensibly had so many years of playing career left to enjoy at the peak of his physical health. However, it proved to be the pinnacle of Best’s career, due to the fact that a lot of the older, better team mates were coming toward the end of their careers and their replacements would not be of commensurate quality. In the 68-69 season, United slipped to 11th in the league and Best had begun to feel like the rest of the team relied too heavily upon him, although his personal goal tally of 22 goals in 55 games was excellent, the team was not a healthy one.

In 69-70, United only managed to achieve an eighth placed finish with Best scoring 23 goals, however, the most notable match was when Best scored 6 goals in an 8-2 demolition of Northampton Town in the FA Cup. It was a record breaking feat which stands as one of the greatest individual performances from any footballer in a professional match.

Denis Law, himself an incredible goal scorer, best summed up Best’s goal scoring prowess through his career, which had been captured so perfectly that day:

“A beautiful player. He could score from whatever angle, right side, left side, centre. He was just a marvellous player.” 

Although Busby returned in the next season, it also ended without any silverware and Best’s dalliances with various women had begun to affect his commitment to United, picking up yellow cards for misconduct in addition.

In the 71-72 season, United again finished eighth and despite off the pitch indiscretions Best’s performances were still incredible, with 27 goals in 54 games and finishing the club’s top scorer for the 6th and last consecutive season.   The following year and a half before Best left the club was marred with Best raging against the dying of the light, both of the club and himself, threatening retirement before finally leaving in 1974. His final statistics reflect his incredible contribution to the club, with 179 goals in 470 appearances in all competitions for Manchester United.

When Best quit United at the age of 27, it was mainly due to his inability to cope with all of the pressures which he was under. The enjoyment which he had sworn he would always have for football had been diminished by the other unnecessary vices and the situation with United had become untenable. The subsequent nomadic way in which Best drifted through the remaining clubs of his career listlessly spoke volumes of how far his legendary status and star had fallen.  However, as Best said in interviews himself, the lure of Italy and other countries didn’t appeal to him, there was only 1 top club he ever wanted to play for, which was Manchester United.  A fitting statement then of loyalty from the most talented member of the United Trinity and the man who paved the way for today’s superstars and the iconic, magical status that the United Number 7 shirt now embodies.

Best will always be venerated at United as part of the Trinity of attacking players who facilitated the premier European Cup in 1968.  For Sir Matt Busby and Best, it presented the realisation of the Holy Grail, the trophy which they had become obsessed by but that prompted the dawning predicament of what next accomplishment could be achieved. For Busby, understandably, given the events of Munich, he had reached the Promised Land and stepped down, but much as the current United have struggled since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, it created an unavoidable drop in standards which impacted the young Northern Irishman as deeply as any.

Another feasible reason for Best’s downfall was the constant, relentless pressure which he felt to perform to the highest levels. As fans, sometimes, when we analyse sportspeople we treat them as machines or gods. We don’t appreciate their human frailties which a lack of proper respite and recuperative periods can illuminate and debilitate.  As many of Best’s teammates attest, Best’s levels were so beyond compare that the temptation to rely upon him heavily was unavoidable.  This sort of reliance would have put great strain on the talismanic figure that had been top goal scorer for so many consecutive seasons, and had been relied upon to provide the piece of visionary skill or technique to decide so many crucial matches.

 “There are rare players, touched by God and the Devil in equal measure, you cannot judge by mere honours nor statistics. Sometimes when you were with him it was easy to forget that you were in the company of an immortal.” — Jimmy Greaves

Although George’s fondness for alcohol and women are well documented his frustrations on the pitch seemed justified given that United had fallen far short of the expected standards that their premier European Triumph had set. Best allowed his resentments to boil over with officials, getting involved in incidents which had previously been analogous to his character.  Often this fierce desire to succeed is much admired but in Best’s case it smacked of the throes of a man whose unhappiness with his fortunes, professional and personal, had consumed him.

Best often spoke of how he wished to be remembered, what is clear is the revere and respect that his football prowess garnered him is undeniable.  It was a talent which places him firmly in the legendary status at our club, not just through his personal achievements but also the trophies he won for Manchester United during his term with us.  He is an undoubted legend of the club, someone whose playing ability was up there with the greatest to have ever played the game. The shame was that the maelstrom of pressure which proved too ferocious for the young man to handle with none of the protections that modern day footballers are now afforded. In many ways, Best was a trendsetter for the modern footballer with his business acumen in trying to enhance his earning power through advertising revenue but he was a footballer, first and foremost.  Best said that he wished to be remembered for this ability above all others citing Pele’s praise of him as a crowning glory.  Therefore, in homage and respect to Best, I leave you with the eulogy of Pele, the footballer widely regarded as the greatest of all time:

“The great football critics said that because of his technical skill, he was like a Brazilian athlete who danced the samba with the ball at his feet. George Best, until today is a footballer without comparison and his technical skills will never be forgotten.” — Pele

Glorious Giggs

 

When you think of Manchester United legends, no doubt Ryan Giggs ranks highly in the pantheon. Someone who came from the youth set up and who completed 23 years as a professional at Manchester United, it reads like the fairytale of football.  Not to mention that Giggs is the most decorated player in football history. A player of Giggs stature can never have too many epithets about how fantastic he was and his legacy as undisputed best left winger that the Premier League has ever seen endures.

Perhaps his most poignant moment was his goal against Arsenal in the final FA Cup replay of all time, which was quite simply incredible.  The speed and agility bewildered the legendary Arsenal defence of the late 90s, the ball seemingly surgically attached to Ryan Giggs’ left wand. The thunderbolt shot sent ripples through my spine that still reverberate today as Seaman desperately tried to parry the strike that had already left him for dead. It is a goal for the ages, to delight Manchester United fans for generations to come.

“Obviously we know the goal he scored in the semi-final against Arsenal, an unbelievable thing to do [ . . . ] the best goal ever scored in the FA Cup. From 16 years of age to (his retirement in 2014), to be able to perform at that level, and to give the team so much, Ryan Giggs has got to be the greatest Premier League player ever. [ . . . ] What he’s given the Premier League is unbelievable, and what he’s given Manchester United is fantastic.” Peter Schmeichel

Surely, it is Giggs’ ability to reinvent himself constantly to stay in the Manchester United team throughout our glory years and the outstanding longevity he had that sets him apart from others. When Giggs burst onto the scene at the age of 17 he was the first of the class of ’92 and in taking the lead paved the way for the others to make a smoother transition. Indeed, he claimed the first of his major trophies that year, producing the assist in a one nil victory in the League Cup Final. A testament to the precocious talent and the vision, pace and trickery he imbued was his PFA Young Player of the Year award at the end of the season. The arrival of “The King” Eric Cantona provided Giggs with the platform next season to win the Premier League, in its inaugural year. However, Johan Cruyff himself had no doubt who the real master was of these two:

“Eric Cantona is a great player, but he’s not as good as Ryan Giggs.”

Another fascinating statistic is that Ryan Giggs was never sent off for Manchester United, quite remarkable when you consider how long that spanned.  When we consider how often players are targeted if they possess the flair and skill necessary to damage you in the modern era, it speaks volumes that Giggs retained his composure and showed a remarkable team spirit in ensuring he never left them short staffed.

During the Treble winning season, Giggs was a key part in the unprecedented achievement. It was his equalising goal in the semi final home leg injury time against Juventus that gave us a vital lifeline before that unforgettable Roy Keane inspired night in Turin. Additionally, it was Ryan Giggs’ assist off his unfavoured right foot that equalised in the Champions League final grandstand finish against Bayern Munich.  Giggs offered the artistry within the famous midfield four, contributing goals and assists but also striking fear into defenders who tracked his movements, which allowed the other attacking players to utilise their own respective talents more expressively.

Over the following few years, Giggs cemented himself as one of our standout performers during a period of United dominance. During the season of 2002-03 many people started to write him off, there was an incredible open goal miss against David Seaman in February of that year, off his right foot during a 2-0 defeat which I remember vividly but Giggs was to prove once again that rumours of his demise were premature and ill conceived. In a 3-0 victory over Juventus, he scored twice. One of the goals was a typical mazy dribble that showcased the dexterity and genius for which Giggs was revered.  It was an incredibly timely goal which helped to defuse a potential rumoured switch to Inter Milan and ensured that he extended his stay at United.

In 2004, Giggs won another FA Cup against Millwall, his final FA Cup triumph and had begun to look after his health far more seriously. It was to be this healthy lifestyle which included yoga which helped him elongate his career for so long, the hamstring issues which had dogged him for his career were eradicated.  The final part of 2005 was marred by United’s loss in the FA Cup Final to Arsenal but United were going through one of our periods of mini transition during the Sir Alex Ferguson era. In the 2006-07 season, Giggs was to chip in with a few vital goals and also scored a controversial free kick against Lille which demonstrated his quick thinking and inventiveness in one snapshot. With United’s Premier League crown, Giggs celebrated his ninth league title which saw him become the new record holder of most titles achieved by a single player. His record of 13 league titles as it stands is a mark which will stand for many years, one that we may well not see outstripped in our lifetimes, dear reader.

In the summer of 2007, Giggs called a halt to his international career as he wished to concentrate more on his United career.  There were many times where Giggs would make himself unavailable for selection for friendly fixtures or other non competitive fixtures during his Manchester United career. Like Scholes, his nation’s loss was very much the club’s gain as it helped to ensure he didn’t pick up as many of the niggling knocks and fatigue injuries from playing more games than necessary.  He represented Great Britain in the London 2012 Olympics and at the age of 38 years and 243 days scored a goal which beat an 88 year old record to become the oldest scorer in the football competition.

In the 2007-08 season, Giggs was rotated within the team by Sir Alex, seemingly saved for important games where his nous and experience would be most valuable for the team. It was Giggs who scored the second decisive goal against Wigan on the final day of the season to win United their 10th Premier League trophy and he celebrated breaking Bobby Charlton’s appearance record for United in the Champions League Final against Chelsea. In the sudden death penalty shootout at the end of the game, it was especially fitting that the new longest reigning bastion of the club scored the winning penalty, retaining his conviction beautifully on the most nerve wracking of all club stages.

In the 2008-9 season, Giggs shifted to a play in the deeper lying central midfield role which he was to make his own during the latter stages of his career. Despite not playing in many games, Giggs’ quality and exceptional displays merited him being awarded the PFA Player of the Year that season. Furthermore, he also won the 2009 Sports Personality of the Year award which showed that whilst even in his mid thirties, Giggs was winning individual awards normally reserved for players a decade or so younger than him. This is a glowing acknowledgment of his supreme reserves of talent. The club itself felt his contribution had been the most telling of the decade by awarding him Manchester United Player of the Decade.  Over the next couple of seasons, Giggs was to break more records, continuing his streak of scoring in every Premier League season since its inception and also becoming the oldest Champions League goal scorer in a 4-1 victory over Schalke 04 in the semi final of the 2010-11 season at the time. The following season he extended this record and broke Raul’s record by scoring in 16 Champions League seasons, another quite astonishing feat.  In February of that year, Giggs scored the winning goal in the 90th minute in his 900th appearance for Manchester United prompting Sir Alex Ferguson to deliver this superb speech: “For a player to play for one club for 900 games is exceptional, and it won’t be done again. He deserved that goal for his service to the club. He’s had an amazing career and is an amazing man.”

Only a couple of years later at the end of the 2014 season and the summer following his 40th birthday, Giggs retired and received an incredible amount of fitting tributes from players, pundits and journalists alike for a quite remarkable career of success and accomplishment. During the last few matches of David Moyes’ reign Giggs became interim player-manager, a time which caused the Welshman an incredible amount of stress given his novice status as a manager. The fact that he broke out in tears after the final match spoke volumes of the degree to which he cared and wanted to do well in the position as he had done for his entire United playing career. Ever the perfectionist as a player he wanted to translate these traits into his fledgling managerial career.

Giggs finished on a total of 168 goals for Manchester United which places him 7th equal in the all time list of Manchester United’s top goal scorers, the sheer variety of these goals makes them well worth watching.  He had an unerring knack of being able to score off both feet and knew how to find pockets of space quite wonderfully. In those moments, the finishes were often composed and swept home with utmost aplomb. Some of them were simply mesmerizingly beautiful in their impudence as he reduced opposing defenders and keepers to jabbering wrecks.  Not only that but Giggs was an exceptional provider of goals evidenced by the fact that he has the most assists of all time in the Premier League with 162. He was able to find team mates with his pinpoint passing and could also cross excellently at the end of one of his flying runs hugging the touchline. To be so high on both these end products which attacking wingers are often measured by whilst always adhering to his defensive duties in aiding his left back showed the stamina and overall peak efficiency at which Giggs operated.

If we take into account the sheer amount of medals Giggs won in his career, he has had the greatest club career of any player who has played the professional game. However, what this and other such staggering statistics of this magnitude fail to encompass all that Giggs accomplished during his professional career. This was not a man who allowed the vicissitudes of time which should have wearied him during his thirties. Instead, like a true legend, he adapted his game so that he could survive whilst other lesser mortals moved to more lowly leagues or retired. Of Giggs’ many attributes which set him firmly amongst the greatest players to have played the game, it was his reliability and flexibility which enabled him to remain an essential part of Manchester United’s team for over two decades. Whether he was dancing around opposing defenders as — Sir Alex Ferguson opined: (“When Ryan runs at players he gives them twisted blood. They don’t want to be a defender anymore.”), scoring with a vicious rifled shot or patrolling the midfield magisterially, Giggs was a truly glorious player whose unbelievable talent and skill shall never be forgotten by all Manchester United fans and all those who were fortunate enough to share the same pitch:

“He was the one that set the benchmark for us. He was the one we looked up to and yet he was only a year or two older than us. We never reached his heights because he is one of the best players of all time. We were just lucky enough to become team-mates of his.” — David Beckham

Sublime Scholes

The greatest English midfielder of his generation as the majority of Manchester United fans would describe him. The player, whose quietly spoken professionalism during his playing career, was at complete odds with the talent and skill that procured him a plethora of accolades and trophies.  Paul Scholes was so vitally integral to Manchester United’s success that Sir Alex Ferguson helped to convince him to revoke his decision to retire in 2012 because he knew that the ginger master would be an integral part of him finishing his managing career a winner. Additionally, Scholes himself was having difficulty coming to terms with his retirement and felt just as keenly that he could contribute amidst the injury crisis.  Whilst Scholes’ inability to tackle was legendary he more than made up for this defect by excelling in all other areas. He had a rocket shot, unrivalled passing ability and indeed, his rarest attribute, the ability to dictate the tempo and rhythm of an entire football game. This prodigious talent was harnessed by an incredible football brain which enabled him to extend his career for years beyond his peers at the top level and retain his immense effectiveness.

Scholes is undoubtedly a Manchester United legend, someone who was a one club man and who won many honours during the greatest era of the club’s history. When you think about the 11 Premier League titles, the 3 FA Cups, the 2 Football League Cups, the 5 Community Shields, the 2 Champions Leagues, the Intercontinental Cup and FIFA Club World Cup he amassed, you begin to get an understanding of the sheer volume of medals which he accrued during his decorated time. Scholes, unlike Giggs, was not an early bloomer and had to wait for his chance to shine whilst other members of the class of 92 broke through slightly earlier. However, the old rhyming adage, that Paul Scholes scores goals, was proven correct almost immediately as the youngster bagged a brace on his debut in 1994, in the Football League Cup 2-1 victory over Port Vale. Over the next couple of years he worked hard, scoring a few goals and in particular showing great fortitude in stepping in to complement Andy Cole in a strike force devoid of the suspended Eric Cantona. In 1996, it was reported that Blackburn Rovers would only allow Shearer to move to United if Scholes was offered in part exchange but luckily, for all United fans, given how Scholes’ career went, Shearer joined Newcastle instead.

By the season of the unprecedented treble, Scholes had begun to flourish fully and was part of arguably the greatest midfield four that the Premier League has ever borne witness to, Beckham, Keane, Scholes and Giggs. Keane, who was often grudging in his praise, knew the value of his midfield partner, offering this glowing tribute to him.

“An amazingly gifted player who remained an unaffected human being.” Roy Keane

Scholes would score many important goals during the campaign. In particular the equalising and crucial away goal against Inter Milan in the San Siro, Scholes showing incredible composure to finish the Italian giants off. Additionally, Scholes was further able to swallow his disappointment that like Roy Keane he was suspended for the Champions League final and scored the decisive second with a sweet left footed drive to score a decisive second in the 2-0 victory over Newcastle in the FA Cup Final.  Scholes disciplinary record was something which hounded him throughout his career, in total racking up many yellow cards that symbolised that although he was quiet, the fire and fervour to win were indubitable. Furthermore, in the 99-2000 season Scholes scored an incredible screamer against Bradford City, a goal of such immense quality and class it beggared belief.  David Beckham’s inch perfect corner against them was met with a full blooded rasping drive that almost burst the net. It was a goal which epitomised the natural talent which Scholes exuded and the almost supernatural gift he had for the superlative.

By the 2002-03 season, Scholes had well and truly established himself, scoring his best ever total of 20 goals in all competitions, goals of all varieties such was his creativity and attacking verve. In the following season, Scholes was to win the last FA Cup medal of his career scoring a winning goal against Arsenal in the semi final. However, against the same opponents in the FA Cup Final the following year, Scholes sadly missed the decisive penalty in the shootout. It was a rare aberration for a player who was usually exemplary and faultless during most games.

At this time, Scholes made the decision to retire from international football, which perhaps provided him with the extra recuperation period he needed to prolong his United career in the forthcoming years. It was well documented that Scholes was often placed on the left wing to make room for a Gerrard and Lampard axis in the middle.  England’s loss of course was his club’s gain, as it meant Scholes didn’t have the added burden of international duty to tire him over the following seasons.

In the following 05-06 season Scholes was subject to a health scare where he was experiencing blurred vision which may have ended his career prematurely. Thankfully, he recovered and in the 2006-07 season was shortlisted for PFA Player of the Year as well as getting a spot on the PFA Team of the Year. Perhaps, his finest moment of brilliance that year was his audacious flicked assist for Wayne Rooney’s equalising goal against A.C. Milan in the Champions League semi final. It was a moment of pure brilliance which encapsulated Scholes superb reading of the game and his ability to execute a perfect pass. Rooney, another of Scholes’ legion of fans, admired this visionary aspect of Scholes immensely.

“The best I’ve played with, no question. His touch, passing, vision, composure is outstanding. I try to copy him.” — Wayne Rooney

Similarly, he scored an absolute peach against Aston Villa where the ball came to him on the edge of the area and he struck it fully and quite wonderfully to strike fabulously. It was perhaps the best goal of Scholes’ United career which featured many priceless gems to cherish.

In the 2007-08 season Scholes fulfilled his dream of playing in a Champions League Final thanks to his incredible long range, lashed shot which provided the only goal in the semi final against Barcelona.  It was a sumptuous strike deserving of winning any tie and exemplified Scholes’ integral role in the team, even at the age of 33.   Barcelona’s Xavi, one of Scholes contemporaries at the time was undoubtedly a fan of the ginger magician:

“In the last 15 to 20 years the best central midfielder that I have seen – the most complete – is Scholes. I have spoken with Xabi Alonso about this many times. Scholes is a spectacular player who has everything. He can play the final pass, he can score, he is strong, he never gets knocked off the ball and he doesn’t give possession away. If he had been Spanish then maybe he would have been valued more.” — Xavi

Although Scholes was substituted in the 87th minute and did not participate in the penalty shootout he had secured a 2nd Champions League winners’ medal, thoroughly deserved for the orchestrator in our midfield.  In the Super Cup Final against Zenit St Petersburg, Scholes got himself sent off for deliberately handling the ball into the net to try to equalise. It was a moment of cheeky exuberance which highlighted the playfulness and inventiveness that flowed through Scholes’ veins. There is often talk that in training sessions no one was safe from Scholes attempting to hit them from long range with one of his laser sharp football missiles. Rather than attempting to curb this overenthusiastic side to Scholes, which may have contributed in part to the disciplinary issues, Sir Alex understood fondly that these antics were an essential part of Scholes’ makeup.

In the 2009-10 Champions League season, Scholes scored against AC Milan in the San Siro becoming the first player to score against both Milan clubs at that stadium in the Champions League.  Scholes also possessed an unerring heading ability for one so diminutive, often timing his run and leap to perfection. This was given further credence by a last gasp winner against Manchester City that year, where Scholes directed his header quite beautifully into the corner to send the United fans into absolute raptures along with Sir Alex and the coaching staff on the touchline.

At the end of the following season, Scholes retired for the first time but motivated by an injury crisis that winter returned and spearheaded a trademark United surge towards the title in the summer of 2012. When City won the title on goal difference, he signed another one year contract, perhaps like Sir Alex, he wished to end his career on a title winning high and by scoring in his 700th game for United he scored in his 19th consecutive Premier League season, 2nd in magnitude only to his Welsh wing wizard team mate Ryan Giggs (21 consecutive PL seasons).

When Paul Scholes finished his career he had amassed 718 total appearances and scored 155 goals, placing him at third and tenth respectively in the all time lists for these respective hallmarks.  In my opinion, the greatest footballer in the Premier League never to have won an individual Player of the Year award, Scholes perhaps did not receive the personal accolades which his success and commitment on the pitch merited.  A part of me feels glad since Scholes shunned the limelight at all times whilst playing but at the same time it still feels like a most egregious oversight on the part of the powers that be, especially when you consider the sheer weight of top players who held him in the highest esteem.  Whilst Scholes has become more outspoken as a pundit you can tell he has retained his insatiable desire to see Manchester United succeed and his criticisms are done with the best intentions to see his beloved club returned to the glory days which he was an integral/vital component of.

As a member of the Class of ’92, he and his contemporaries seemed to spur one another on to greater heights and the unity and respect between this particular group of players is very obvious to see, not only in the way they played for one another showing the indomitable United fighting spirit but also how they spoke and encouraged one another, the mutual respect and admiration for one another. We were supremely lucky that such a group of players came through the youth at one time as individually they were excellent, but unified could achieve greatness. Of those members, Gary Neville perhaps summed up the general consensus among them that Scholes was the most talented of them all:

“I wouldn’t swap Paul Scholes for anybody. He is quite simply the most complete footballer I have ever played with. He is the best.” — Gary Neville

It was a true privilege to be alive during Paul Scholes time at Manchester United, a man who could do anything with a football and then some. He was a genius whose contribution was invaluable and who firmly deserves his place in the pantheon of United legends.  Prodigiously gifted off both feet, blessed with composure, dribbling talent, skill and made to measure passing, United were incredibly lucky that we had a man who gave the one club he played for such an immeasurable amount. His retiring personality only heightened the contrast with his football which spoke volumes that will echo through the annals of Manchester United’s illustrious history. When you juxtapose his influence and impact with that of our current crop of midfielders there could not be a starker contrast.  As Sir Alex Ferguson foresaw when he eulogised about him:

“I think Paul Scholes is the best player in England. He’s got the best skills, the best brain. No one can match him. There isn’t a player of his mould anywhere in the world. Paul is irreplaceable.” — Sir Alex Ferguson

Captain Crimson

In my formative years growing up I spent a great deal of time, like many a boy, searching desperately for an idol to emulate, or people from whom to gain guidance on how to behave and act in certain situations. One of my heroes was a fictional one, a superhero “Captain Crimson” who came to life from a comic book writer’s strip and who embodied the ideals of heroism in an altogether educational form as BBC’s Look and Read was at the time. Another was our very own Captain Crimson superhero, Roy Keane, for me, still the best captain that Manchester United have ever had, in my lifetime. As a youth, I watched him and adored the way that he led the team, he was tenacious, fearless and incredibly talented. As I grew older, I grew to appreciate and love Keane more as I saw that no one embodied desire and passion better than he did. Keane had a multitude of impressive skills amongst which tremendous tackling, fearsome shooting and excellent passing were his most renowned assets.

Keane had an unremitting fire in his belly; he wanted to fight everybody who stood in the way of him winning. He is the most successful Manchester United Captain of all time for good reason; his drive carried the others forward. Perhaps the greatest example of Keane’s self-sacrifice was the infamous 1999 Champions League Semi Final against Juventus. In the match, which I watched live at the tender age of 8, Keane was absolutely peerless, it was a stunningly exceptional performance especially given the circumstances that his yellow meant being suspended for the Champions League Final. The entire team were on their game, so razor sharp; willing to fight for every ball and Keane was at the heart of it, cajoling the players, making interceptions, threading intricate passes. In short doing what Roy Keane does, leading by example and competing to win every ball and working harder than anybody to win the game. You can see him harrying the Juventus players like a terrier and winning the ball through sheer grit, determination and hard work. The Juventus star studded line up couldn’t get anywhere near Keane, as the UEFA.com official website describes it in their match report:

“Such was the Republic of Ireland midfielder’s influence in Turin, United may as well have had an extra player; there was one Keane to supplement their attack, and another Keane to stifle Juve. He was immense.”

Sir Alex Ferguson is a legendary figure with the club but there are certain things which he has said or done which seem illogical or erroneous. When he listed his four world class players he omitted Roy Keane which immediately raised the eyebrows of the majority of the football community. So the player who possessed every conceivable asset you would want in a midfielder is not world class? The player who exuded confidence, leadership, passion, dedication isn’t world class? Quite frankly, in my book, that is absolutely laughable. When you’re world class you turn up in the big games and Roy Keane made sure he turned up, even in the 1999 UCL semi final when he knew he wasn’t going to make the final, for Roy the team came first and he was incredibly professional and resolute in ensuring United’s safe passage. As Sir Alex Ferguson commented on that performance:

“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.”

I still get the shivers as I watch Roy Keane’s goal against Juventus and the commentary fills my ears, it is the pure brilliance of Keane.  As the commentator says about Keane’s textbook header “Roy Keane with a Captain’s goal”. My brother and I will often use this line to one another when a captain scores an important goal for his team in a match. It is in homage to Roy Keane, the Captain who scored the most important Captain’s goal of our lifetimes, as Manchester United fans.

Keane captained Manchester United to nine major honours, which makes him the most successful captain in the club’s history. He also won, overall, 7 Premier League Titles, 4 FA Cups, 4 Community Shields, 1 Champions League and 1 Intercontinental Cup, the last of these won by his winning goal. He was also named in the PFA Team of The Year 5 Times, the PFA Team of the Century (1907-2007) and was the Football Writers and Players’ Player of the Year, both in 2000.  These are just a smattering of the team and personal prizes which Keane picked up for Manchester United during a time of unparalleled glory in our club’s history. Furthermore, Keane scored 51 goals in his Manchester United career, the majority of which were extremely important and were at times where Manchester United needed him to step up and finish when the strikers couldn’t. Amazingly, in all of the matches in which Keane scored, Manchester United never lost, showing how his goals were always integral in winning games for the club.  The players knew how much Keane meant to the team, in particular summed up amongst the myriad of glowing quotes from team mates, I felt, by this:

“If I could pick one player in my team, I would always pick Roy Keane, in front of any other players I’ve played with. Keano had everything; he was a leader, a great player, and probably the best I ever played with.” — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Manchester United, during Keane’s time, were serial winners. Driven on by Keane and Sir Alex’s mirroring insatiable thirst for silverware, United plundered trophy after trophy. During Keane’s time at United, we often defended our Premier League title, or quickly snatched it back if Blackburn or Arsenal managed to secure one.  It is testament to Keane’s winning influence and how difficult it is to retain the Premier League that only one side (United apart) have managed to retain the Premier league, Chelsea in 04/05 and 05/06, which coincides nicely with Keane’s departure from United. In fact, at the height of Keane’s powers at the turn of the Millennium, United won three league titles in a row, a feat only achieved thrice since World War 2. In the year, Keane picked up his individual Player awards, Manchester United also secured the biggest title winning margin of the Premier League (18 points) which remains a record to this day. All of these statistics reinforce the assertion that Keane was absolutely vital to United’s extraordinary performances over his playing years for them.

One of the aspects of Roy Keane’s character that defined him was his inability to accept slights. It was to be perhaps the worst and most inglorious moment, which epitomised this, when he flew in with a completely unacceptable and outrageous tackle on Manchester City’s Alfe-Inge Haaland. In Keane’s autobiography he revealed that it had been premeditated and was a consequence of Haaland mocking Keane for feigning injury in an earlier encounter. For someone like Keane, a man who prided himself on honour and integrity, this seemed a grievous barb which demanded requisite retribution.  A significant proportion of the best footballers’ share this side to them, a characteristic which is best summed up by the one word which Keane uses to describe Sir Alex Ferguson, “ruthless”. In another interview with Kevin Kilbane, Keane admitted that this reputation and persona was something of an “act” and that he felt footballers, like other sports people, had to go into a zone to perform at their best. As with a lot of what the fiercely intelligent and articulate Keane says, there is more than a grain of truth in that admission.

Another fascinating nugget of Keane’s character and his football career at Manchester United can be found in how he confronted injuries, head on and like a man. However, as he often points out he could have been more careful and conscientious in how he dealt with these kinds of physical setbacks.  The hip injury that he had and which still affects him, is further confirmation that Keane never accepted lower standards and of the tremendous strain that his constant, relentless, over exertion in pursuit of victory took on his body.

One of the incidents which occurred late in Keane’s United career was that of the infamous Highbury Tunnel incident of 2005. When Gary Neville seemed to be under attack, Keane emerged from the back of the tunnel, as the fiercely protective leader he had so often been, vehemently defending Neville and insisting assertively “We’ll see you out there” to the Arsenal ringleaders. United ran out 4-2 winners confirming that Arsenal were beginning to lose some of the edge and lustre that they had had at the turn of the millennium. This was further reinforced by the 2005 FA Cup Final, a match that having watched myself, I still remain flabbergasted that United failed to win such was our overall dominance over the 120 minutes before we lost the shootout to the Gunners.

Possibly, the primary reason why Roy Keane doesn’t get as much respect or love as he might have done was the nature of his departure from the club.  The impossibly high regard that Sir Alex Ferguson is held in by the Manchester United fan base means that anyone who dares to question or contest him is fighting a losing battle. Keane, typically, doesn’t know a battle he can’t win and won’t concede defeat whatever the cost to his reputation with the United fans. The catalyst for Keane’s departure was his interview with MUTV where he was asked his thoughts and feedback after a 4-1 loss. Ever the pragmatist Keane outlined exactly where he felt that United players could have improved and that certain aspects of their performance had been unacceptable.

All in all, the way Keane portrays his exit from Old Trafford, paints the Manchester United hierarchy in a pretty unflattering light. Even on the prepared statement for his exit, the wording of the eleven and a half years tenure was a year short of the actual length of service given. Keane points this out as a particular flaring point, as we know with the Republic of Ireland in World Cup 2002, another issue which really infuriates Keane is unprofessionalism. Understandably, Keane was incredibly emotional at leaving the club into which he had poured so much of his heart and soul, the club where he had realised so many of his dreams and spearheaded so many indelible successes. He admits to crying in the car following the decision but resolutely retaining the belief that the club had lost respect for him, forcing his decision to accept their concerted efforts to eject him from the club.

It’s obvious that Keane doesn’t bear too much of a simmering grudge towards his treatment and that Manchester United still remains firmly ensconced in the Irishman’s heart. He goes on in his book to say that he “loved everything about United”.

However fabulous Roy Keane was as a footballer, it was his honest, down to earth character which got him into trouble and made him an indefatigable driving force in Manchester United’s engine room as Captain. As Roy Keane said of Sir Alex’s particular praise over his incredible performance against Juventus to him “it’s like praising the postman for delivering letters”. It is a line that reminds me of my other childhood hero Captain Crimson who used to say “It’s all in a day’s work” after whichever act of heroism and courage that he performed.  Keane, like Captain Crimson, was a superhero who epitomised so many values of bravery and tenacity, yet never took the credit he deserved. Of course, like Captain Crimson, that doesn’t stop him being idolised and venerated for the inspirational leader and hero that he was. As when Captain Crimson was sent back to the comic world and Keane retired, their names and deeds will never be forgotten nor the legendary status that they richly and fully deserve.

“Roy’s obsession with winning and the demands he put on others made him the most influential player in the dressing room. He became a great captain through that and, to my mind; he is the best player I have had in all of my time here. Over the years when they start picking the best teams of all time, he will be in there.” — Sir Alex Ferguson (on Keane’s retirement in 2006)