United managed 2,762 goals under Sir Alex Ferguson, roughly two scored for every one conceded. Everyone will have their favourites of the Ferguson era. Sometimes it’s about context – Solskjaer’s winner in the 1999 Champions League Final and the Mark Hughes volley against Oldham that saved the double spring to mind.
Other times it’s about pure technique – those wonderful Cristiano Ronaldo free-kicks or the long-distance thunderbolts courtesy of Paul Scholes.
It’s almost impossible to narrow them all down to a mere six, but here’s my attempt to quantify United’s greatest goals in 26 years under Sir Alex.
6. David Beckham against Wimbledon (1996)
The opening day of the 1996/97 season: A sweltering day in South London. This writer sits transfixed in the stands as the reigning champions put Wimbledon to the sword. It’s approaching injury time and United have already got the points in the bag courtesy of goals from Eric Cantona and Denis Irwin.
An uncapped Englishman named David Beckham spots Neil Sullivan off his line and tries his luck from the halfway line. The ball sails over the goalkeeper’s head and into the back of the net: a perfect arc. For Beckham, and the rest of us, things would never be the same again.
“It’s the goal of the season and on the very first day” intoned Martin Tyler on Sky Sports. He wasn’t wrong.
5. Wayne Rooney against Manchester City (2011)
The only other goal on this list I witnessed in the flesh, Wayne Rooney’s bicycle kick was later described by Ferguson as the best goal he witnessed at Old Trafford.
Just months after requesting a transfer and leaving the United fans with the very real fear that he might join City, the goal was a hugely significant moment for the club. Even the celebration, turning his back on the away support and adopting a Christ-like pose, seemed laden with meaning.
The technique is astonishing, better even than the young Rooney’s magnificent volley against Newcastle. The context, too, was crucial. Rooney had questioned the ambition of the club in his statement the previous October but this goal was a major moment in helping land United’s 18th league title, drawing level with Liverpool at the top of the tree.
One can only hope some of the prize money was spent on a dictionary for young Wayne so he could look up the definition of ambition.
4. Eric Cantona against Sunderland (1996)
Everything about this was perfect: the player, the goal, the celebration.
The most popular player of the Ferguson era was experiencing a poor run of form in his final season. The great man even seemed a little out of shape. It seemed somehow appropriate that the messiah chose a December fixture to resurrect himself.
Cantona beat a couple of defenders with ease, played a neat one-two with Brian McClair then chipped the ball in off the far post. He stopped, contemplated what he’d done then simply held out his arms and lapped up the adulation of the Old Trafford crowd.
In “Looking for Eric“, the Frenchman suggested his favourite United moment was his assist for Irwin against Spurs but the fans will always cherish this goal as his piece de resistance.
3. Cristiano Ronaldo against Arsenal (2009)
Cristiano Ronaldo could provide an excellent list of best Fergie-era United goals on his own. The free-kick against Portsmouth, the header in Rome and the long-distance strike versus Porto can all be considered among the finest of the 26 years. Indeed, even in this very game, Ronaldo had already scored an astonishing free-kick from a full 40-yards out. The goal I have chosen, though, sums up the very best of Ferguson’s footballing philosophy.
Arsenal had a corner but United broke with breath-taking speed. Ji-Sung Park combined well with Rooney before Ronaldo finished a move he started in his own half. This was sport as poetry. If the goal leaves you cold then they might as well draw a white line around your body.
2. Paul Scholes against Panathinaikos (2000)
Another player whose output could probably dominate this list single-handedly, the finest English footballer of the Ferguson era also scored some of the best goals. Just thinking about his strikes against Aston Villa, Barcelona and Bradford ought to bring a smile to any Red’s face.
The goal I have selected is by no means typical Scholes but it should rank as the greatest team goal of Fergie’s time.
United were 2-1 up and basically just attempting to keep the ball and wind down the clock. A 32-pass move concluded with Teddy Sheringham flicking on Beckham’s pass to Scholes and then the most delightful chipped finish.
The commentator describes it as “divine” and it is not difficult to see why the ginger prince was worshipped by the United faithful.
1. Ryan Giggs against Arsenal (1999)
Possibly the greatest game of the Ferguson era. Probably the greatest player. Unquestionably the greatest individual goal.
The last ever goal scored in an FA Cup Semi Final replay. “A rather weary one from Vieira.” The rest is history. There’s a reason we still sing about it today.
Ferguson called it: ‘The ultimate expression of the natural gifts he has always had since he came to us as a 13-year-old.’ During that run, Giggs truly left the defenders with twisted blood.
I once saw the incomparable commentator Barry Davies on television mention that Giggs had said to him he fears the goal will only be remembered for the hairy chest celebration. Davies simply replied: ‘No it won’t, Ryan. No it won’t.’
The pace, the feet, the finish: This goal is a thing of utter beauty. Davies was right. Giggs has nothing to worry about.