If Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography proves anything about his time in charge then it’s that we were truly blessed. During his 27 years at Old Trafford, United played, for the most part, expansive, attacking football utilising some of the finest players ever to have graced these shores.
Ferguson has repeatedly stated how fortunate he feels to have had so many great footballers in his charge, and picking a best team of his managerial reign is no simple task. Despite this, here’s an attempt at the best Manchester United XI of Fergie’s time.
Perhaps the only player in this side with a genuine claim to being the best ever in his position, Schmeichel was, in Ferguson’s words, “the signing of the century.” The only goalkeeper one felt was more likely to save than concede when facing a striker in a one-on-one situation, he was even immortalised in Coronation Street (what better name for a Great Dane?). Oh, and he even scored goals from time to time.
A hugely popular figure, Neville was the fans’ representative on the pitch. The least technically gifted player in this team, Red Nev was the model professional who emphatically fulfilled every last drop of his potential. His understanding with David Beckham bordered on the telepathic, and his chant—to the tune of David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel”—which concluded with the line, “Neville Neville, that’s the name of his Dad,” will live long in the memory.
The big Dutchman was only with United for three years, but his crucial role in the treble success of 1999 ensures his legacy will not be forgotten. A force of nature with brains as well as brawn, Ferguson regards letting him go as one of his biggest mistakes in management. That tells you everything you need to know.
Paolo Maldini’s natural heir, Ferdinand may not be the most popular figure outside of the red half of Manchester, but he has a serious claim to being United’s finest ever defender. Never quick to throw himself into a tackle, Rio is rarely booked, and his perfect afternoon is one in which he has kept both a clean sheet and clean shorts.
The unsung hero, “eight out of ten” Irwin was the quiet man who rarely had a bad game in more than 350 appearances for United. A set-piece specialist with an outstanding crossing ability, the Irishman never shirked his defensive responsibilities. One could count the amount of mistakes he made in a season on one finger. Not for nothing did Ferguson recently claim he’d be the first name on the team sheet if he were to compile a similar XI.
The only United player to be generally acknowledged as the best in the world during Ferguson’s time, Ronaldo was the defining figure of the manager’s third truly great side. His 42 goals in the 2007-08 season led to a league and European Cup double. The Portuguese star claims never to have seen the “hair-dryer” during his time in Manchester, but the gaffer certainly didn’t struggle to get the best out of him.
The combustible Irishman was the footballing equilateral of an electron—forever there and not there. Even if his contribution wasn’t always the most spectacular, Keane’s consistency was astonishing. The closest thing to the manager on the pitch, the midfielder’s ferocity was only matched by his sheer will to win. His performance away at Juventus in the 1999 Champions League semi-final was arguably the finest individual display of the Ferguson era.
The most technically gifted English footballer of his generation, Scholes was the footballer’s footballer in much the same way as Larry David is considered the comedian’s comedian—basically, the best. The shy, local lad was one of the finest passers in the game’s history and scored some of the most magnificent goals. Put it this way: If Zinedine Zidane reckons you’re the greatest, then you must have done something right.
The most successful British footballer ever, Giggs broke Sir Bobby Charlton’s appearance record for the club in Moscow on the same night his penalty helped bring the European Cup to Old Trafford once again. He has won 13 Premier League titles and not done too badly for himself since Ferguson first saw him play “He was 13 and floated over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind.” He is also responsible for probably the greatest individual goal of Ferguson’s reign.
The final piece of the jigsaw, Cantona is not known by United fans as “Dieu” for nothing. The mercurial Frenchman was the catalyst for all of the club’s subsequent success.
United had not won the league for 25 years when he joined, then proceeded to do so in four of his five seasons at the club. And the other one? He missed a large portion of the season through suspension after attempting to, quite literally, kick racism out of football.
Ruud van Nistelrooy
Van Nistelrooy scored goals. It really was that simple. The ultimate poacher, there can’t have been many players with such an uncanny knack for finding themselves in the right place at the right time. With Ferdinand, the Dutchman was Ferguson’s finest big-money signing.
Edwin Van Der Sar
The hero in Moscow in 2008, he was the man who finally filled the void left by Schmeichel. Ludicrously consistent.
His two late headers against Sheffield Wednesday effectively won Ferguson his first title. A brilliant captain and penalty-taker.
A man-mountain, it is remarkable how much more solid the team looked with him in the centre of defence. Instrumental in the club’s recent success.
Captain Marvel. The hero of Ferguson’s early years, Robbo carried the team almost single-handedly.
Oddly underrated despite his enormous level of fame. The best crosser in the world at his peak and arguably United’s best player in their most successful season.
The last of the street footballers. Not always the most popular, he is still England’s best player by a mile and an integral part of United’s recent triumphs.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
In many ways, the anti-Rooney. Effortlessly lovable, the baby-faced assassin has a strong claim to being the game’s best-ever substitute. He also scored the goal in Barcelona that has to go down as the zenith of Ferguson’s 27 years. Football? Bloody hell.