Whereas true golden years and genuinely titanic struggles usually require an ensemble cast – squeezing every drop out of a hugely talented squad being a feature of both ‘99 and ‘08 – seasons which are dominated by an individual tend to instead be focused on what fate was avoided rather than what was won. The statistics of ‘where United would be without x’s goals’, whether it was Cristiano Ronaldo, Eric Cantona, or Robin Van Persie quoted eagerly by ABU’s drooling like Dobermans at the thought of a torn hamstring.
Oddly, it’s also been a recent feature of United sides in an age where individualism is supposedly dying out, and the squad reigns supreme. There were few contenders from days of yore – George Best was doubtlessly United’s most effective player at raging against the light in the years of the post-1968 comedown, but he was also backed up by equally superb performances by Denis Law, and glorious though he was, none of Bryan Robson’s seasons stand out so much.
Robin van Persie, the realisation of the dreams of Arsenal fans hacking away at the achilles tendons on their Voodoo dolls aside, looks like he’ll be joining this list if things carry on as they have done so far this season. He’ll be in fine company.
5. Wayne Rooney, 2009-10
After Ronaldo’s departure, the opinions of England’s boreocratic footballing commentariat were neatly divided into eagerly predicting an immediate decline in United as they lost their best player, and, wish being the father of the thought in both cases, anticipating that Wayne Rooney would finally become the player he had threatened to be for so long. Both of these views were both right and wrong.
Rooney certainly did have his best season of his career so far, notching a ludicrous number of goals as he started well and picked up pace from there. Important goals were plentiful among them, he oddly became a supremely gifted player in the air out of nowhere (backed up by a superb debut season from Antonio Valencia) and seemed only to get better as the season went on.
He wasn’t quite the player he’d threatened to become, since his game had become so concentrated on goalscoring, but with United looking dangerous in all competitions, it didn’t seem to matter. Rooney’s run would come to an abrupt halt at the end of the away leg against Bayern Munich when he suffered a crunching injury to his foot thanks to an errant stamp in the last minute.
In the return leg, United threatened to run riot as they blew Bayern away with a devastating opening spell, but soon succumbed to an improbable comeback and found themselves out. Their form faded in the league, and Chelsea duly overtook them to deny them the unique achievement of four titles – or five, as it would have been – in a row. As for Rooney, the important goals are still there, but he’s never struck quite such a terrifying presence since.
4. Ruud van Nistelrooy, 2002-03
On the 12th of March, 2003, Manchester United were two points behind Arsenal at the top of the Premier League table. On the 12th of May, 2003, United were top by five points, Premier League champions, having won 7 and drawn one of their remaining eight games. In those eight games, Ruud van Nistelrooy scored in every single one, 13 goals in total.
You want more – well, that draw was against Arsenal, the scoring opened by Ruud, holding up the ball before receiving it, embarrassing Vieira with a turn and bursting down the right wing and cutting inside to put a dinked finish into the net. Not bad for a poacher. In those eight games he also scored two hat-tricks, and bagged a brace against Liverpool.
Some of the goals were beautiful, but there really is no greater testament to his form than the bare facts. Van Nistelrooy should have won more at United, but with the rivalry with Arsenal at it’s height, few titles felt better than this one. It proved to be more important in the coming years, too, as United would have to store up the glory of it to keep them warm in the long, grinding 4-5-1 experiment.
It’s become fashionable to claim that Van Nistelrooy was too limited and his presence was actually costing United titles rather than winning them. Not since red chinos became de rigeur has there been an easier way of deciding who you should no longer bother with.
3. Cristiano Ronaldo, 2008-09
Cristiano Ronaldo’s previous season had been far more prolific for United as they won the Champions League, but he had the fortune of a remarkable squad playing at the absolute limit of their abilities. With Michael Carrick’s decline and the loss of Owen Hargreaves, United’s midfield problems, that would become familiar and excruciating in the following years, had arrived. Nobody noticed for a year, because Ronaldo was too good for it to matter.
He scored fewer goals, but his gift at conjuring them out of nothing at the most vital moments, regardless of how the rest of the team was playing, was to become a feature of that season. There were no 1-0 (Ronaldo) wins, as there were with Cantona, but there were plenty of vital importance – the crucial game against Aston Villa may be best remembered for Federico Macheda’s winner, but it was Ronaldo who scored two goals out of absolutely nothing, first to settle the nerves of a wobbling United side and second to set up the grand finale.
United have had few players with the sort of presence Ronaldo had at that time – every opposition gameplan was dominated by thoughts of him, with the first question never anything other than how he could be stopped. Teams had appeared to figure it out, in the first of two runs that won the league for United that season, when they embarked on a remarkable run of clean sheets. Yet when that fell apart, and the league looked lost, United were able to go on their second run to clinch it. That was when Ronaldo shone – in that Villa game, inspiring a breathtaking attacking display against Spurs, breaking the deadlock against a determined City. It wasn’t him at his most beautiful, how he’d like to be remembered, but as a soloist, it remains his finest hour.
2. Eric Cantona, 1995-96
Perhaps the most obvious one on this list. There were others alongside him of no limited talent either, of course, but the end of the previous season following his ban appeared to confirm Cantona’s status as the team’s focal point. United had not won the league until he arrived – then, gone for half a season, they had gone back to winning nothing. Now he was back, and while supported by quite a cast, his form from March to May told the whole story.
The run began with a vital away trip to Newcastle, four points clear at the top of the league with a game in hand. Context, there was plenty: Keegan’s meltdown, Andy Cole’s return to Tyneside, but it was Cantona who gave United a 1-0 victory, Cole threading a pass through to Phil Neville to cross, which Eric met with a volley cleanly swept into the bottom corner.
The pattern would be familiar. United could only draw their next away game against Queens Park Rangers, but it was Cantona who salvaged it with a last minute equaliser. Arsenal were next – 1-0 (Cantona.) Tottenham followed – 1-0 (Cantona.) After then scoring the first in a 3-2 defeat of Manchester City, Cantona resumed his usual service against Coventry (1-0, Cantona.)
By that time, Newcastle were a shot bolt. An away defeat for United at Southampton couldn’t derail them, and United reclaimed the title. Yet it was Cantona who claimed something else: the evidence to back up his almost otherworldly presence on the pitch, and the proof that there was no individual on whom United’s recent success was more dependent.
1. Bobby Charlton, 1958-59
Everybody knows about Busby and Charlton’s sheer will that helped rebuild United as a force in the ten years between Munich and Wembley, but it’s forgotten how far the sense of determination eclipsing the depression and mourning spread – United probably never had more fervent support than in the months following the disaster. Not due to the sympathy from the wider footballing world, which would not last long – more on which later – but through their own fans.
The hastily-cobbled-together team which carried on the rest of the season took to the Football League like a brick to water, but in the cup, it was very different. In the first game of their sixth-round tie against West Bromwich Albion, an incredible fifteen thousand Reds went on crusade to the Midlands to support the team, and after a replay was earned, a hundred thousand attempted to gain entry at Old Trafford. Albert Quixall, the captain of Sheffield Wednesday whose side had been dispatched 3-0 by the same rabble in the previous round, was one of many to note the overpowering emotion which had carried United through: “We weren’t just playing eleven men, we were playing sixty thousand fans as well.”
A few months later, Quixall would be playing in red, the first major signing of United’s rebuilding project for a record fee. But United had not won a game in the league after Munich, the European Cup had been lost thanks to a 4-0 defeat at the San Siro overturning a quite remarkable 2-1 win at home – both legs played without Charlton, for whom the FA had decided England friendlies were more important. Worst of all, the incredible FA Cup run was brought to an end in a grim 2-0 defeat in the final to Bolton Wanderers. If United’s emotion had not made itself clear in victory, it would in defeat – Bolton’s victorious players were pelted with stones and half-bricks from vengeful locals throughout their journey home. The sympathy from outside the club would soon disappear as quickly as it came.
It’s almost impossible to imagine how negative United must have felt that summer. Busby and the returning players were visibly distraught and gaunt from the experience, the FA had refused to allow United to accept an offer to participate in the European Cup, and in-fighting was rife even amidst the hushed tones around the club. The press and other managers and chairmen would soon come to take back their previous sympathy with interest, one week accusing the club of milking the tragedy and slamming players for “disgracing the memory” of the fallen the next.
Quixall should’ve been the first step in the rebuilding process, but nobody genuinely disgraced the memory more. A keen practical joker (very much the Rio Ferdinand of his day, in the worst way possible) who loved nothing more than wrapping up a steaming shit in fancy paper disguised as a gift from a loved one in his teammates lockers. It was an accurate summation of his time at United, expensive and fancy-looking, but upon further inspection – a simple turd. His continually anonymous performances gave United the sum of four goals in thirty-three appearances for their money.
Fortunately, United’s survivors were not to be written off. The goals came chiefly from three men that season, all of whom were on board the plane at Munich. Albert Scanlon bagged an impressive 16 goals from the left wing. Dennis Viollet was lethal as ever with 21 goals. At the centre of them, the most prolific of all, was Bobby Charlton. As well as notching the highest tally himself, his remarkably complete game was what permitted the others to fill their boots – although if you want to discuss the tactical details of it in context like this, football probably isn’t for you. Or at least not Manchester United.
Charlton scored 29 goals that season, playing like a man possessed from start to finish and dragging United to a barely-believable 2nd-placed finish. Despite coming so soon after Munich, they would not match that for another five years, and topped it the season afterwards. That 1965 title victory was down to another year-long solo display, this time from Denis Law, a season Martin Edwards would compare to two others on this list from Cantona and Ronaldo. But it was Bobby Charlton who had done the same in horrendous circumstances to make it all possible.
Was he United’s greatest ever player? Debatable. Was he the best to watch? Probably not. Was he the one we were luckiest to have? Without any doubt whatsoever.