As with any good list, some ground rules are needed. The first is that the player in question had to be playing at United at the time at which their World Cup moment happened – sorry Fabien, you don’t make the cut, though I suspect the fact that you won the thing probably eases the pain.
The second is that it has to be a moment of glory, so no David Beckham getting sent off in 1998, albeit that is an iconic moment. So, without further ado, the top five.
Norman is the Youngest!
On June 17th 1982, against Yugoslavia in La Romareda, Zaragoza, Norman Whiteside achieved the remarkable feat of supplanting Pele as the World Cup’s youngest ever player. Aged 17 years and 42 days, Whiteside became an integral part of the Northern Ireland that advanced against almost all expectation to the second group stage of the tournament.
Whiteside, a United youth product, did not score at the finals, but his record as the youngest player ever to have taken part at a World Cup still stands, and will for at least another four years.
This is good news for Big Norm, because it means he doesn’t have to change his twitter bio.
Bryan is the Fastest!
Staying in Spain in ’82, and just over a week after Big Norm (or Young Norm, as he was presumably then known), had written his way into the record books, Bryan Robson decided he fancied a piece of the action.
England kicked off their opening game of the World Cup against France, and Steve Coppell’s pace nearly allowed him to get on the end of a through-ball, near the right hand corner flag, seconds after the game had begun.
The French left-back did a fine job of marshalling Coppell and the ball slid out of play. Mick Mills grabbed the ball, and tossed it to Coppell, who paused, took a run up, and launched a long throw that would have made Rory Delap proud. As the ball made its way into the box the French defence crowded around Trevor Francis, who managed to flick a header on, into the path of the onrushing United captain. Robson, entirely unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box unleashed a flying/falling volley into the back of the net.
England were 1-0 up, 27 seconds into their World Cup campaign, and Robbo had scored the fastest goal an England player had every managed at a World Cup finals.
United boys run the group stages, 1998.
In 1998, United’s class of ’92 had begun to graduated to their national sides. Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and David Beckham were all in Glenn Hoddle’s squad, but only Scholesey started the debut game against Tunisia.
Hoddle was more tactically astute than the England managers that dominated Scholes’ time with the national team, and he played him in a midfield three which allowed him free reign to operate in his best position. And operate he did, scoring a sumptuous chip to extend England’s lead against Tunisia, showing England what they could have had, if only they were bright enough to notice.
Becks didn’t feature in the first game, but was brought on against Romania following an injury to Paul Ince as England succumbed to defeat. Gary Neville started that game, and all three started the final, crucial group game v. Colombia.
After Darren Anderton had open the scoring, England were awarded a free-kick. There was only ever one outcome likely, as Becks did what he did best, and bent one to the keeper’s right, from 30 or so yard out.
It all went a bit wrong in the next round, but those group stages, with United’s young lads flourishing, foreshadowed the season that was to follow, and it was glorious.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. England are not that good at penalties. Now, let me give you a minute to get over the shock of that…are you okay? Great.
With all that happened in the aftermath of David Beckham’s sending off, against Argentina in 1998, that it would come down to a test of his nerve from 12 yards, against the same opposition in the group stages of the 2002 World Cup was an extraordinary moment of narrative perfection.
It was a moment he had earned. He had almost single handedly earned England’s place in the 2002 World Cup. A fairly dismal qualifying campaign saw England needing at least a draw against Greece. We all know the story. There was a free-kick in the dying embers of the game, and Becks, again, did what he did best and began his rehabilitation in the hearts of the nation. (The hearts of the ridiculous bits of the nation that didn’t already know how obviously brilliant he was, like we did.)
It is fair to say Becks has hit better penalties than the one which sealed his redemption. He just sort of walloped it as hard as he could and trusted to fate, and fate, that day smiled upon him. England might not be that good at penalties, but at that moment Becks was. He celebrated like he had undone a great wrong, like he had paid his penance. From then on his status as an England player was never in doubt.
Nobby and Bobby win the thing
8 years after surviving the Munich Air Disaster, Sir Bobby Charlton won the World Cup. As United fans, we naturally tend to focus on the 1968 European Cup win, and for all sorts of reasons, that was clearly a moment of staggering emotional complexity for Sir Bobby, but the England World Cup win was another truly remarkable achievement.
Charlton was absolutely key to England’s progress in that tournament, scoring against Mexico in the group stages and getting both goals in their 2-1 victory over Eusebio’s Portugal in the semi final. The first, a cool finish from the edge of the box following a rebound, and the second a Scholes-esque wallop from 18 yards.
In the final, Charlton and Franz Beckenbauer rather cancelled each other out, but Nobby Stiles played a crucial part in England’s win, as he would do so many times for United, tigerish in his attempts to break down opposition play.
Their celebrations are iconic, with Stiles’ toothless grin and Charlton’s combover as indelible as Bobby Moore being held aloft with the trophy.
We might care more about their triumphs at Old Trafford, but it’s still nice to see our boys doing well in the World Cup. Here’s to Danny scoring a hat-trick against Italy at the weekend.