With last month seeing the release of “Made in Manchester“, an ebook in which some of the best Manchester United writers around look back at United’s best academy graduates—all proceeds from which go to the Trafford Macmillan Wellbeing Centre—it seemed a good time to pick a top five from the many fine products of United’s remarkable youth system.
It is a fiercely contested list, and there is plenty of room for debate about exclusions, and list order. Get your opinions in in the comments below. Make sure you pick up a copy of Made in Manchester for more about these players, and many, many more. Details of how to do so found in that link. It’s a cracking read for cracking cause.
Rumours that I’ve picked this top five because I was late replying to Scott’s email about the ebook, and all the best ones were taken so I had to write about John O’Shea are totally unfounded.
Without further ado, here is this month’s top five. (I have excluded pre-1960s players because of never having seen them or any substantial footage of them).
5. David Beckham
Some United fans might think this spot is a little high for Beckham. His acrimonious departure has soured his legacy for some reds, and you will certainly meet those who swear up and down that he had his head turned by his pop-star wife, and lost some of his professionalism.
I am not in that camp. I think it’s hard to point to a genuine dip in his performances, and certainly not his on-pitch work rate late in his United career. Admittedly, Becks has always been pretty PR savvy, so it isn’t impossible to imagine him putting in less of a shift in training than he did under the bright lights, but regardless, whatever happened in his last season or two, his United career was a remarkable thing.
The Class of ’92 documentary contains some fantastic anecdotes of what it was like for our local contingent to meet this United-mad Cockney Red. They had never realised that there were people from outside Manchester who felt that strongly about the club. He was a proper fan.
He was also absolutely brilliant. He scored goals that no other player of his generation would have done. He was the finest deliverer of dead balls ever to play for the club. He may have lacked the pace to beat a man on the flanks, but his long range passing was such that he never needed to. He was also remarkably consistent, delivering goals and assists throughout his career. Becks was mint, and warrants his place here.
4. Paul Scholes
Please do not reach for the pitch forks. Number four might not seem high enough for the Ginger Prince, and indeed it may not be high enough for him, but the competition is absolutely fierce, and the top four are all within a whisker of each other.
Paul Scholes’ United career was a superlative defying procession of achievement and execution. Two Champions Leagues, approximately three million league titles, and countless other bits and pieces of silverware. He went from striker, to number 10, to out-and-out midfielder, getting better and better with each shift back down the pitch. Playing alongside Roy Keane, he formed part of the best midfield partnership a side could ever hope to have.
His passing, his shooting, his deep and abiding love of scoring against City. Watching Paul Scholes was rarely less than a joy. Watching his head swivel from side to side when he didn’t have the ball, continually rebuilding the picture of the game around him, was an education. Watching him see, and then execute, a pass that no one else would have noticed was always thrilling. Watching him smack it in from 30 yards apparently at will was the best feeling in football for a while.
No wonder the quotes are so remarkable.
3. Sir Bobby Charlton
Sir Matt Busby’s scouting networks did their job remarkably well. Sir Matt set out to build a team of the best of Britain’s youngsters in the 1950s and Bobby Charlton was spotted as having the potential to be a part of that.
And what a part of it he was. Rarely can a sporting career have encompassed so much triumph and tragedy. Charlton was a force of nature on the pitch, capable of unleashing an absolute thunderbolt of a shot from outside the area. He helped carry England to the 1966 World Cup, with his performance in the semi-final arguably the outstanding individual performance of their campaign.
United’s holy trinity were not together all that long, but their achievements as a collective were remarkable. Charlton was, of course, the one who stuck around the longest, long enough to become United’s record appearance maker (more on that later) and the player who still holds United’s goalscoring record, even if we all assume Wayne Rooney will supersede him soon.
His is not so much a United career as a United life, as he still watches every game from the Old Trafford stands. Having him at third seems almost disrespectful, but the sheer combination of ability and achievement in the top two means third is where he sits.
2. George Best
Best’s achievements at the club are dwarfed by Charlton, but in spite of the latter’s many fine qualities, Sir Matt is not known to have given too many team talks in which he instructed his side to “give the ball to Bobby”.
Best, on the other hand, was the player whom United were instructed to pass to in times of trouble. The magnificent Belfast Boy is considered by many older Reds to be the finest that ever graced the Old Trafford turf, and the most cursory glance at highlights of his career will show you why. Outrageously gifted, he plied his trade at a time when defenders dealt with tricky wingers by simply trying to murder them and their families (okay, perhaps by hacking them down in full flow, but still, some of the tackles Best received were horrific).
Best didn’t seem to care, though, as he continued his career-long commitment to making full-backs look silly, pulling off outrageous skills, and scoring outrageous goals.
Best’s career burned brightly and his off-field problems curtailed it, but his first few years at United were enough to cement his legacy for a lifetime.
1. Ryan Giggs
The best of Giggs couldn’t match the best of Best, but it would be close enough that his capacity to keep doing it for long enough to exceed Charlton’s appearance record, and set a bar that may never been beaten in that particular category, means he deserves the top spot.
Like Scholes, he was a key part of United’s most successful ever period, but he spans another half generation to Scholes, having started sooner, been integral earlier in his career, and even continued longer than the Prince.
A “unique freak” as Sir Alex described him, there is always the risk that Giggs’ longevity becomes the focus of discussion around him, but for the first, say, ten years of his career, he was also United’s most electrifying player.
Combining brilliantly with Eric Cantona, Giggs’ brand of swashbuckling, invigorating wing play was full of bombast and invention, of spirit, endeavour and ability. Like Keane, he was a winner. Like Best, he was an entertainer, like Charlton, he has remarkable resilience and stamina.
He adapted his game, but, frankly, rarely stopped being brilliant. Even in his last two seasons, when, really, his impact would be expected to be minimal, there were genuinely spells when he was United’s best player.
He was the only player who was part of all three of Fergie’s truly great sides, ’94, ’99 and ’08. Not only was he part of them, but he was integral to them. Ryan Giggs is United’s greatest ever academy product, and it seems likely he will hold that title for many years to come.