Any list of the best Manchester United (opens in new tab) players of all time is bound to be subjective.
It’s impossible to compare across eras for one thing, and we all have a tendency to favour players who stand out in our personal memories for whatever reason.
And of course acclaiming individuals in the ultimate team sport is always going to be hostage to the fortunes of the team at the time.
How do we weigh achievements against performances during a less successful period for the club? Should longevity and being a one-club man be a major factor? Do we look beyond appearances and goal-scoring records to consider a player’s impact at the club, no matter how short-lived?
Regardless of how we judge the various parameters, fans always have and always will attempt to compile ‘greatest’ lists, and it gives us all a chance to recall those staggering moments of skill and perseverance that form our best memories.
So here we have a very personal take on Manchester United’s best of the best; I know many of you will disagree – and so you should – but it’s based on my supporting the club for over 40 years, and writing about them for almost as long.
Best Manchester United players ever: 50. Teddy Sheringham (1997-2001)
Sheringham joined in what was assumed to be the autumn of a fine career with Spurs and England only for it to blossom into another summer.
He won three Premier League titles, an FA Cup and a Champions League during four years, but he will always be remembered for the equaliser in that final.
49. Harry Gregg (1957-66)
Gregg signed from Doncaster Rovers for £23,500 just two months before Munich but stayed at the club for almost a decade more.
A brave if unshowy keeper, he suffered numerous injuries but always fought his way back into the side, showing that same resolve that he displayed on a German airfield.
48. Stan Pearson (1936-54)
Despite losing six years of his career to World War II, Pearson still scored 148 goals in 343 appearances, including a hat-trick in the semi-final and another in the final of the 1948 FA Cup.
His movement off the ball brought him many tap ins – and 22 goals in 41 appearances in the 1951–52 league-winning season.
47. Johnny Carey (1946-53)
Irishman Carey was another whose career was interrupted by World War II before returning to claim league and cup titles.
Spotted by legendary scout Louis Rocca playing for St James’ Gate in Dublin, he was signed for £250 and became an influential figure as club captain.
46. Jaap Stam (1998-2001)
Signed from PSV Eindhoven for a then world-record fee for a defender of £10.75 million, Stam was built like a traditional English stopper but had technical gifts as well.
Robbed of his pace by a nasty Achilles injury, United surprisingly decided to cash in on his resale value earlier than might have been expected.
45. Tony Dunne (1960-73)
Signed as a 19-year-old from Shelbourne in the difficult post-Munich years, Dunne was another Irishman to have a successful career at United, playing the reliable full-back role in a team packed with attacking talent.
He went about his job unassumingly and quietly notched up over 400 appearances.
44. Brian Kidd (1967-74)
So well known as Ferguson’s assistant did Kidd become that it’s easy to forget his playing career.
Coming through the youth ranks, he started a European Cup final on his 19th birthday. Kidd scored the third goal that day and looked set to take his place in the pantheon of great United strikers, but it never quite happened.
43. Dwight Yorke (1998-2002)
The yin to Cole’s yang, Yorke always seemed to play with a broad grin on his face, as if he were truly loving every minute and couldn’t quite believe where he was.
His pace, eye for a pass and instinctive finishing were a deadly combination, even if his spell at Old Trafford did prove to be short lived.
42. Andy Cole (1995-2001)
It’s as hard to separate Cole and Yorke in the rankings as it was on the pitch, their glorious partnership bringing so many goals – and trophies.
There was a suspicion that Cole needed a lot of chances to make one stick, but his goal-scoring record across six seasons speaks for itself.
41. Arthur Albiston (1936-54)
Albiston joined United as an apprentice in 1974, signing professional forms two years later, but he had played only a handful of games before being named in the starting line-up for the 1977 FA Cup Final.
He did well against Liverpool winger Steve Heighway and established himself at left-back, making over 480 appearances.
40. Paul Ince (1989-95)
The self-styled ‘Guv’nor’ was a combative midfield player who ran hard, tackled ferociously, passed well and could still weigh in with the occasional goal.
He misread the room when later signing for Liverpool, which has led to him being less of a fan favourite than he could – and probably should – have been.
39. Sammy McIlroy (1971-82)
Irishman McIlroy was Sir Matt Busby’s last signing, making his debut in the 3-3 draw in the 1971 Manchester derby, scoring one and creating the other two.
Initially a striker, he reinvented himself as an attacking midfielder, and his longevity at the club owed much to his versatility.
38. Liam 'Billy' Whelan (1953-58)
His death in the Munich air disaster prevented us from seeing just how good Whelan might have become, but at 22 he had already played 95 times for United, scoring 52 goals, and four times for the Republic of Ireland.
A skilful winger, Whelan had tricks-a-plenty but end product too as he glided past opponents.
37. Michael Carrick (2006-2018)
A big-money purchase from Spurs, Carrick won an impressive 17 major titles with United, proving a vital cog in the midfield engine room, though he could also step back into defence more than adequately when required.
Always calm and seemingly blessed with time, he would frequently control even the highest-pressure games
36. Paddy Crerand (1963-1971)
A hard-tackling, combative midfielder, Crerand was an important figure in the mid-1960s team when his perceptive passing and endless running kept everything ticking over for the superstars up front.
Later assistant manager to Tommy Docherty and then a regular at club TV station MUTV, Crerand is United through and through.
35. Steve Coppell (1975-1983)
Part of the long-standing tradition of exciting wingplay at Old Trafford, Coppell was a highly regarded right wing whose speed and work rate were a major asset in the years of only moderate success.
A Liverpudlian, Coppell initially played for lower league side Tranmere Rovers so he could continue his education via an economics degree. But the wages United offered him were too good to turn down, and he made his debut from the bench in a 4-0 win over Cardiff City on 1 March 1975 – United were in Second Division that season.
A horrific knee injury suffered while playing for England against Hungary all but finished his career at just 28.
34. Paul McGrath (1982-1989)
McGrath rose from a difficult background, which included time in foster care and an orphanage, to become a truly great defender.
He had power, pace and touch and was equally assured in the air and on the ground. The fact he looked in control all the time on the pitch provided a stark contrast with his time off it, where he needed alcohol to ward off his shyness and dislike of the limelight.
A combination of alcoholism and knee surgeries led to Ferguson selling him to Aston Villa, where he later reunited with Ron Atkinson and had a successful ‘second’ career, culminating in him winning the 1993 PFA Players’ Player of the Year Award.
33. Brian McClair (1987-1998)
‘Choccy’ McClair joined United in July 1987 for £850,000 after four successful seasons at Celtic, where his goal-per-game ratio was considerably better than one in two – often quoted as the measure of a world-class striker.
McClair quickly proved he wasn’t just a flat-track bully and was equally capable of scoring hatfuls in the English First Division, becoming the first player to net more than 20 goals in a season for United since George Best 20 years earlier.
That his goal-scoring feats became fewer owed much to him being moved around, eventually back into midfield, but his versatility made him indispensable to his manager.
32. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (1996-2007)
The Norwegian made his name at home club Molde before a £1.5-million transfer during the Euro 1996 tournament.
Solskjær quickly made a name for himself and was soon nicknamed ‘the baby-faced assassin’ by fans for his combination of youthful good looks and deadly striking.
Tactically astute, he was able to analyse games from the bench and made a habit of coming on late in games and scoring, most notably his four in ten minutes against Nottingham Forest in February 1999 and of course the Champions League winner that same season.
His ‘Olegend’ status has not been diminished by his underwhelming stint as United manager.
31. Edwin van der Sar (2005-2011)
United had targeted Van der Sar as a replacement for Peter Schmeichel in 1999, but instead he went to Juventus and then to Fulham, so it was another six years before he came to the club.
When he did, he established himself as one of the very best keepers, saving a penalty during the 2008 Champions League Final, which led to him becoming one of a select number to win Europe’s premier club competition with two different clubs.
Slim but tall and athletic, he had excellent positional sense and could distribute the ball accurately with either foot. He won 26 major honours across the teams he played for and gained 130 caps for the Netherlands.
30. Gary Pallister (1989-1998)
Pallister grew up a Middlesbrough supporter in County Durham and signed for the club when he was 19, going on to make over 150 appearances.
He moved to United in August 1989 for £2.3 million, a record fee for a defender at the time. He proved worth it, making over 300 appearances for United at the heart of the defence.
Having not previously played in the top flight, Pallister was initially prone to the odd lapse of concentration, but once he had ironed that out he became a powerhouse. A back injury suffered at the end of the 1995–96 season robbed him of a little pace. He returned to Middlesbrough to see out his career.
29. Norman Whiteside (1982-1989)
Born in Belfast and growing up in poverty on Shankill Road, Whiteside was a footballing prodigy. Legendary scout Bob Bishop persuaded Whiteside to sign, though initially the youngster remained in Belfast, flying to Manchester for training at weekends.
He made his first-team debut as a 16 year old and scored his first goal, in a 2-0 win over Stoke City, a mere eight days after he turned 17. He’s the youngest goalscorer in both an FA Cup and League Cup final.
Whiteside was strong, fearless, good with both feet and in the air and blessed with a cool temperament; the only thing he lacked was a yard of pace due to his constant knee and pelvic injuries.
28. Patrice Evra (2006-2014)
Born in Senegal, Evra only lived there for the first year of his life before his family moved to Belgium and then France.
Evra was a street footballer who started out as a striker before being moved to the wing and eventually full-back, though he never lost his instincts to get forward or to make overlapping runs on the wide left.
Originally, several clubs rejected him for being too small, but he was physically strong and tactically smart. After bouncing around various French clubs he found his true home at United, signing in January 2006 and going on to make over 270 appearances and win 14 major trophies.
27. Steve Bruce (1987-1996)
Bruce was a hugely popular figure at United, as much for his whole-hearted approach and his captaincy credentials as his playing style, which could occasionally be described as ‘agricultural’.
A late starter who had all but abandoned hope of playing professionally, Bruce was well into his twenties before attracting attention from the top clubs.
He signed for United at the end of 1987, just before he turned 27, and his determination brought him over 300 appearances and a handful of very important goals. Famously never capped by England, a strange omission, Bruce has since had a solid managerial career.
26. Martin Buchan (1972-1983)
Buchan was exactly the sort of player United needed as they sought, successfully, to bounce back after relegation, his strength of character and leadership being just as important as his play.
Captain for six years, Buchan was the first man to captain both Scottish and English Cup-winning sides – he led Aberdeen to victory over Jock Stein’s Celtic in 1970 – and was a star of the 1977 victory over Liverpool, in which he calmly marked Kevin Keegan out of the game.
Buchan made over 450 appearances for United, along with 34 for Scotland, despite playing in the years when both club and country were not at their most successful.
25. Mark Hughes (1980-1986, 1988-1995)
Welshman Hughes’ time at United was more eventful than most, encompassing two separate periods. Born in Wrexham, ‘Sparky’ joined United straight from school, having been spotted by the club’s North Wales talent scout Hugh Roberts.
He didn’t make his first team debut for three years but then scored 37 goals in 89 games before being transferred to Barcelona. He returned to United two years later and went on to make a further 256 appearances and score 83 goals.
A quiet soul off the pitch, on it Hughes was a rampaging force of nature. The fans loved his whole-hearted endeavour and spectacular volleyed goals.
24. Nemanja Vidic (2006-2014)
Looking to all the world like a shaven-headed Eastern European gangster, Vidić bulked up and quickly adapted to Premier League life after joining in January 2006.
Often described as ‘no nonsense’, Vidić was the perfect foil to the elegant Rio Ferdinand, the brick-wall stopper who wasn’t interested in bringing the ball out of defence, just preventing anyone from running through it.
His positional sense and combativeness were much prized by Ferguson and team-mates alike, as was his bravery in putting his head in when he knew he was likely to get clattered. Vidić played over 200 matches for United, won 15 major trophies with them and was named in the PFA Team of the Year on four separate occasions.
23. Dennis Viollet (1953-1962)
Viollet came through the ranks at United and turned professional in 1950, when he was 17, although he didn’t make his first-team debut for a further three years.
Lightning fast, he was the perfect foil for Tommy Taylor’s more physical presence, and together they terrorised defences and scored hatfuls of goals – Viollet’s 32 in a 36-game First Division in 1959–60 remains a club record.
He was surprisingly sold to Stoke in 1962, having scored 179 goals in 293 appearances. Manchester born, but a City fan, Viollet moved to America to coach and was instrumental in establishing their professional league.
22. David De Gea (2011-)
The tall Spaniard was initially deemed too lightweight for the physical challenges presented by the English Premier League and looked too easy to intimidate, but he has worked hard on becoming a more dominant figure on crosses.
Always there was his supreme shot-stopping and athletic ability to get to the ball, even in the corners of the goal. During a largely unsettled period for the club, he has saved them so many times that his record transfer price of £18.9 million has been made to look a bargain.
Four times he has been voted the club’s player of the year, and five times he has featured in the PFA Team of the Year.
21. Nobby Stiles (1960-1971)
Stiles was a defensive midfielder who did the ‘grunt’ work of winning and retaining possession, enabling the ball- players such as Best and Charlton to thrive further forward.
A teenaged England Schoolboys international at the time of Munich, Stiles was devastated by the loss of his heroes and determined to live up to their memories.
Although unprepossessing in appearance – Stiles was short, ungainly, very short-sighted and prematurely balding – he was an invaluable rock in the sort of holding midfielder role that was virtually unknown in the 1960s.
He played almost 400 games for United and is one of only three Englishmen to have won the World Cup and European Cup.
20. Ruud van Nistelrooy (2001-2006)
One of the most prolific strikers to play for United, Dutchman van Nistelrooy’s goal-scoring exploits earned him 11th place in the club’s all-time top scorers list. And that was in just five seasons – a decade at the club with a similar games-to-goals ratio would have seen him comfortably top that chart.
Van Nistelrooy started life as a central midfield but was moved up front by his first professional club, Den Bosch. He then spent a year at Heerenveen before three at PSV Eindhoven, where he scored a ridiculous 62 goals in 67 matches. Fast, strong and with an opportunist’s eye for the goal, he was a lethal finisher.
19. Bill Foulkes (1950-1970)
Foulkes was the archetypal stopper; a big, rugged man who played at the centre of defence and for who the phrase ‘none shall pass’ might have been coined. Fourth on the all-time appearances record with 688, he was discovered at 18 playing for Whiston Boys’ Club.
Born in St Helens, both his father and grandfather had played rugby league for their hometown club. Not convinced he was good enough to play football professionally, Foulkes continued to work part-time as a miner, only stopping after winning his first (and ironically only) England cap.
Powerful in the air and solid on the ground, Foulkes was a fitness fanatic who worked hard on his game but remained resolutely low profile throughout his 20-year career.
18. Denis Irwin (1990-2002)
Vying with Roger Byrne for the title of United’s best left-back, Irwin might have been an understated player, but his team certainly appreciated the value he brought to the side.
Winner of seven league titles, together with three FA Cups, a League Cup, a Champions League and a Cup Winners’ Cup, Irwin boasts an impressive haul of trophies.
He made a huge impact playing for Oldham Athletic, helping the team reach the final of the League Cup and semi-finals of the FA Cup in 1990. United somehow acquired him for only £625,000, an absolute steal for a man who would go on to make 368 appearances.
17. Tommy Taylor (1953-1958)
How good might Taylor have become? It’s impossible to say for certain, but in his 191 games for United he scored 131 goals, and for England he scored 16 goals in 19 games.
As Taylor was only 26 when he died at Munich, he could easily have played another four or five years at the highest level, and if he had maintained a similar strike rate he would have been the club’s all-time leading scorer.
A big, physically imposing man, Taylor had a bullet header and a physical approach that – like many of the best strikers – intimidated defenders. A Barnsley boy, Taylor was wanted by many of the big clubs, but Matt Busby got him in March 1953 for the sum of £29,999.
16. Roger Byrne (1951-1958)
Byrne was naturally right-sided, but his work rate and footballing intelligence in terms of positioning was such that he could play in a number of different positions, including wing-half and outside left.
But it was as a left-back that he made his name with United – and England. United scout Joe Armstrong saw something in him, and he was offered first amateur, and soon after, professional terms. He had charisma and leadership potential, and the Busby Babes would follow their team captain wherever he asked them to go.
In the ensuing seven seasons he played 245 times for the club. He also played 33 consecutive matches for his country, appearing in every England fixture from his first call-up against Scotland in April 1954 to the 4-0 win over France in November 1957.
15. Gary Neville (1992-2011)
Neville was United through and through, from his days as a youngster on the terraces to his one-club professional career with 400 appearances. A tenacious right-back, Neville was recognised for his hard work and his professionalism, with his lack of natural flair occasionally leading observers to overlook his consistency and solid dependability.
He ploughed the furrow up and down the right flank for years, often giving his friend Beckham room to manoeuvre. He did the same for England, winning 85 caps and being described by Ferguson as the “best English right-back of his generation”.
A commanding presence on and off the pitch, Neville was a born leader and the sort of player fans of opposing teams love to hate. It’s a measure of his tactical ability that a decade after his retirement he is now recognised as one of the most astute analysts of the game in media.
14. David Beckham (1993-2003)
Fittingly, Becks sits right in front of Neville, as he did so many times for United and England. In more recent times it seems to have become acceptable to be overly critical of Beckham – whether for his fashion sense, celebrity wife or good looks.
But make no mistake, Beckham was a very serious footballer, a relentless trainer who supplemented his god-given skill at striking a dead ball – from corners and free kicks – with a range of passing and crossing that had few equals.
His career took off after he scored from his own half against Wimbledon in August 1996. He earned 115 England caps.
13. Roy Keane (1993-2005)
Every top club needs a Keane, a midfield enforcer who won’t shy away from confrontations and breaks up opposition attacks by fair means or foul. Keane certainly wasn’t averse to fouls, and his fierce temper was never far from erupting, but he was an essential player for United.
Born in a suburb of Cork, Keane started his career at semi-professional club Cobh Ramblers before being spotted by Nottingham Forest, who he represented for three seasons.
Upon Forest’s relegation, Keane activated a break clause in his contract; he was all set to sign for Blackburn Rovers until a last-minute swoop by Ferguson saw him go to Old Trafford for a record £3.75 million. Keane could never stay away from controversy for long, but his blood and thunder approach remained popular.
12. Cristiano Ronaldo (2003-2009, 2021-)
The best player to have played for United, the sole reason he doesn’t feature higher up is that most of his best years were played elsewhere. One of the fastest men in football, Ronaldo can dribble and perform a huge array of tricks at speed, in particular a bewildering number of step overs.
He’s also strong in the air, boasting a hang time that appears to defy gravity. CR7 has always been a showman, leading to accusations of arrogance, but he’s won the league and cup in England, Spain and Italy.
Records include most appearances (182) and most goals (140) in the Champions League, most goals in the European Championship (14) and most international goals (115) and international appearances for a major nation (184).
11. Rio Ferdinand (2002-2014)
We perhaps underrated Rio when he was at the club; everyone acknowledged his speed and skill, his positional sense was superb, his timing immaculate and his discipline impeccable.
But still there was a sense that he was just doing what good defenders do, mopping up at the back and giving the defence an air of solidity, possibly because he seemed more European in style than English, being comfortable in possession and calm about playing out from the back, either through distribution or his own running.
But he very rarely made a mistake in his prime years, and when he did he had the speed to make a recovery tackle. Ferdinand went to the West Ham youth academy then into the first team there before moving to Leeds United in November 2000.
Two seasons later he joined United for a fee of £30 million. He’s now recognised as one of the all-time great defenders for club (over 300 appearances) and country (81 caps).
10. Paul Scholes (1991-2013)
Another who played his whole career at United, and what a career it was! Scholes has won everything in the game, including an almost-inconceivable ten Premier League titles.
Scholes first started training with United at 14, although he wasn’t part of the 1992 FA Youth Cup-winning side as there were still concerns about his small stature. His technical and ball-striking ability soon came to the fore, though, and his range of passing, clever movement on and off the ball and vision for the game made him the complete midfielder.
Fellow midfield greats sung his praises, while Thierry Henry once described him as the greatest player in Premier League history. Scholes played over 700 times for United, scoring 155 goals. He had no interest in a celebrity lifestyle and has always lived out of the limelight away from football, but on the pitch he’s one of the all-time stars.
9. Wayne Rooney (2004-2017)
There’s sometimes a sense that Rooney was a supreme talent not wholly fulfilled, but in truth those reservations really belong to England. In the red of United he was a phenomenon, blasting onto the stage as an 18 year old to score a hat-trick in a Champions League match with Fenerbahçe and going on to win every major club honour.
Rooney was born in Croxteth in Liverpool and grew up as an Everton fan. He was associated with the club from the age of nine, but Everton’s precarious financial position forced them into a sale, and in August 2004 he moved to United.
On his signing, Denis Law declared that Rooney would “have all the United records”, and in terms of goalscoring, at least, he was proven right. His 253 goals make him United’s leading goalscorer, and he is behind only Alan Shearer as the Premier League’s top goalscorer. He also has 103 assists, placing him third in the all-time list. Quite possibly the last ‘street’ footballer.
8. Peter Schmeichel (1991-1999)
How many clubs would have a goalkeeper in their top ten players of all time? The answer to that is probably ‘any club for which Peter Schmeichel played’.
The great Dane enjoyed success at Brøndby before being picked up by United in August 1991 for £505,000, a price described at the end of his time at the club as the “bargain of the century” by Ferguson.
Schmeichel was tall but not exceptional for a modern goalie, but his ability to spread himself and ‘make himself big’ in the face of an onrushing forward often created a barrier that was impossible to breach.
In particular, Schmeichel would perform ‘star jump’ saves where his arms and legs would all be spread as wide as possible to fill any gaps. Schmeichel was also mentally strong and could come up with important saves in a game where he had spent the majority of the time as a spectator. His distribution was also excellent, and he could turn defence into attack with one throw.
7. Duncan Edwards (1953-1958)
It’s hard to assess just how good Edwards was, as he was only 21 when he died at Munich, and unfortunately very little footage of him remains.
But we should listen to what his contemporaries said of him, including Busby, who described him as “the most complete player in Britain, and possibly the world,” and Charlton, who said he was “the best player I have ever seen. The best player I played with, for United or England.”
Edwards was equally adept with either foot, strong, powerful in the air and physically dynamic, with a range of passing few have ever equalled. At the time of his tragic death, Edwards had already played 177 times for United, scoring 21 goals, having joined as a teenager and making his first-team debut at 17.
He’d already played 18 games for England. At his funeral it was said that “talent, even genius, we will see again. But there will only ever be one Duncan Edwards.”
6. Denis Law (1962-1973)
Law was born in Aberdeen and grew up in poverty in a council house where shoes were considered a luxury. His talent for football was a way out, and he seized the opportunity with both hands, first with Huddersfield Town and Manchester City, then with Torino in Italy and back to Manchester, this time with United, for who he debuted on 18 August 1962.
Law’s time at the club largely coincided with a fallow, post-Munich period, so his honours of two league titles and an FA Cup – though he was famously injured for the European Cup final – vastly understate both his importance and his ability.
But as a goal-scorer, Law was ‘The King’, notching 237 of them in 404 games, including 34 in 46 FA Cup games and 28 in 33 in Europe. With 30 goals in 55 games, he is the joint top all-time scorer for Scotland, matching Kenny Dalglish, who took 102 caps to notch the same total.
5. Eric Cantona (1992-1997)
More than a few good players have wilted when they came to United. The club, and its history, are just too big for some people. Cantona was the opposite. He swaggered in, stuck his chest out, raised his head and surveyed everything as though he were asking, ‘I’m Cantona. Are you big enough for me?’
If ever there was a player that was made for United, it was Cantona. The story of how he came to Old Trafford is legendary; it started with a casual enquiry from Leeds United about the availability of Denis Irwin and ended with the maverick forward signing for United for £1.2 million.
In fairness to Leeds, most commentators felt it was good business – Cantona was talented but wayward, and none of his previous clubs had kept him happy for long. People looked at him, shirt collar turned up, insouciance personified, and saw a dilettante. It was nonsense.
Cantona was an inveterate trainer, dedicated to his craft and frequently found doing extra sessions. That attitude rubbed off on the young players around him, who grew up thinking it was the norm. In his five seasons at the club they won four league titles and two FA Cups, gaining the self-belief that would lead to many more, for which Cantona was the catalyst.
4. Bryan Robson (1981-1994)
Younger United fans might find it hard to believe we ever had a box-to-box midfielder better than Roy Keane. But those of us who were around when Robson was in his prime know that we did.
Robson was Captain Marvel, a man with a ridiculous engine, capable of breaking up play in his own box and still being on the end of a cross into the opponent’s box seconds later. His peak came before Ferguson’s great league-winning sides, so his list of personal honours isn’t as big as it should have been, but his commitment to the cause can never be doubted.
The only problem with Robson was that the team were overly reliant on him, and his regular bouts of injury meant that he did miss games – sometimes important ones. Robbo played 461 times for United – scoring 99 goals, a decent return for a midfielder – but could have played so many more.
He was United’s longest-serving captain and always led by example. Robson also played 90 games for England, in 65 of which he was the captain, scoring 26 goals. Manager Bobby Robson described him as “as good a player as we’ve ever produced”.
3. George Best (1963-1974)
Best was the man who originated the Number 7 legend at United, making the shirt an icon of skill, desire and status. Among its wearers have been Ronaldo, Cantona, Beckham and Robson. But Best was the best of the lot, a supremely talented footballer who could dribble, pass, perform outrageous tricks and score goals.
Busby once said of him that he was the best at everything at the club – best tackler, fastest runner, hardest shooter, most skilful… and as with Cantona years later, the flamboyance was backed by a work ethic that meant Best was a great trainer.
He scored 179 goals in 470 matches – an impressive number for a player who was not an out-and-out striker and was rarely the beneficiary of a tap in. Many of them are memorable, owing to his sublime touch and insane ball control, which enabled him to dribble past defenders and round goalkeepers.
Best had his problems off the pitch, wanting to outdo everyone there as well as on it before finally succumbing to his destructive streak, but as José Mourinho famously said: “Players like George Best never die. What they leave behind them never dies.” Anyone who saw Best at his peak will attest to the truth of that verdict.
2. Bobby Charlton (1953-1973)
Charlton was more than a great player; he was the rock on which the club was anchored in the dark days after Munich, the one constant (even above Busby) who kept the club afloat, kept the dream alive and dragged the club back to the pinnacle of the sport.
For a long time Charlton was at the head of both the all-time appearances list (758) and the all-time scorers list (249), and though he’s now slipped into second place on both, behind Giggs and Rooney respectively, it’s still a mark of the player as to how long and successful his United career was.
Born in Northumberland, Charlton signed to the club as a 15 year old on 9 February 1953, although his mother insisted he start an apprenticeship as an electrical engineer in case the football didn’t work out.
Strong and well balanced, with a piledriver of a right foot – though he was genuinely two-footed – Charlton was equally at home in midfield or up front. He always carried with him the pain of losing his friends and team-mates, but he paid them homage in the best way possible by winning the European Cup.
1. Ryan Giggs (1987-2014)
The Welsh winger made more appearances in a United shirt than anyone else (963) and stands equal seventh on the goalscoring list (168) despite playing as a winger, or latterly a midfielder. Unsurprisingly given his crossing ability, he also holds the record for the most assists in the Premier League.
Born in Cardiff but brought up in Salford, Giggs is very much a Manchester boy and the epitome of a one-club man. He won 13 league titles, two Champions Leagues, four FA Cups, four League Cups, the Club World Cup, the Intercontinental Cup and the UEFA Super Cup; he is the most decorated British footballer in history.
But set aside his longevity and his honours and consider his football. It’s not just that Giggs was fast; he was also balanced and athletic, which allowed him to weave down the left wing beating players for pace or for skill, to go wide or to cut back in.
Frequently dubbed ‘the new George Best’ when he exploded onto the scene as a 17 year old, Giggs, unlike Best, also had the mental fortitude and temperament to cope with both the acclaim and the criticism. His acceleration and ability to change direction while running at top speed led Ferguson to declare that he left defenders with “twisted blood”. A footballing phenomenon.
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