Sir Alex Ferguson’s legacy at Manchester United cannot be denied in the annuals of history.
As important as he was to the club’s fortunes and success, he admits himself that he owes it to the players that have helped him get there. Here we assess the very best players Ferguson has brought to Old Trafford in a traditional 4-4-2 formation.
Goalkeeper (Peter Schemichel)
There is a case to be made that Peter Schmeichel is not just the best goalkeeper for Manchester United – but also ever. 6’4” and as broad as he was tall, the Great Dane commanded respect from his teammates and instilled fear into opposition players.
Moreover, Schmeichel made crucial saves at crucial moments during matches, league campaigns and cup runs to ensure that United marched relentlessly onto victory.
His greatest moment could well have been his stop from Dennis Bergkamp’s penalty in the FA Cup semi-final Replay at Villa Park in ’99 that allowed Ryan Giggs to soon afterwards claim a winner with THAT goal.
Right-back (Gary Neville)
Gary Neville was too short, not strong enough, and lacked sufficient technique to ever become a world-class right back. But he did. His sheer determination and willingness to devote himself to the cause of Manchester United endeared him to the Old Trafford faithful, even as and especially due to the way it enraged opposing sets of fans all the way up and down the country.
The older Neville deserves his spot in this XI, however, due to his application and professionalism that would eventually see the boy least likely captain his boyhood club.
Centre-back (Jaap Stam)
Jaap Stam gets into this team despite his three short seasons at Manchester United. The massive Dutchman had it all; he was physically imposing and would usually win physical duels with the largest of centre forwards, be they Alan Shearer or Duncan Ferguson, but he was also fantastically quick and was rarely caught out by opposition strikers on the incredibly demanding European stage.
Stam eventually left after falling out with Alex Ferguson due to comments made in his autobiography concerning the nature of his transfer from PSV Eindhoven, and it's telling that United leaked goals aplenty after his departure in 2001.
Centre-back (Rio Ferdinand)
Rio Ferdinand is the very definition of the modern sweeper. Strong, quick, clever, and possessing an unparalleled ability to construct from defence – and often under pressure – his seemingly lackadaisical attitude has sometimes been criticised as he has made unnecessary errors at the back.
In truth, however, these errors were largely eliminated from his game once the precocious talent matured into the world class central defender we all knew he would become. In short, the greatest English defender of an entire generation.
Left-back (Denis Irwin)
Denis Irwin was bought from Oldham Athletic in 1990 for a mere and went on to become the model of consistency for Sir Alex Ferguson for over a decade.
In addition to understanding his role in the team and never wavering in his duty to it, the quiet Irishman also possessed a remarkable right foot that was used at set pieces.
It’s worth remembering that, in a team that starred Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona, Mark Hughes, and Paul Ince, it was Irwin who was the regular free-kick taker and – during Cantona’s ban in 1995 – the duty of penalty kicks was calmly assumed by this professional’s professional.
Right wing (Cristiano Ronaldo)
Cristiano Ronaldo just about pips David Beckham for this role in Ferguson’s Best Ever XI at Manchester United, but it could have gone either way for two very similar characters in the world game.
Both were marked for greatness at a young age, Ronaldo commanding a huge fee for a teenager when he moved from Sporting Lisbon to Old Trafford in the summer of 2003, while Beckham famously won a Bobby Charlton Soccer School competition as an eight-year-old.
The two have also cultivated worldwide fame through their exploits both on and off the pitch, which was only ever possible due to a demonic obsession with the perfection of their footballing art – most notably, their deadly proficiency with free kicks.
But Ronaldo wins the jersey here due to his winning an award that Beckham had long quested but never managed, and remains the only Manchester United player to have ever received the FIFA World Player of the Year Award.
Defensive-midfield (Roy Keane)
Only Roy Keane could possibly be considered for his role. The on-field extension of his manager’s relentless will to victory, Keane set about domineering his teammates and opponents alike in the quest for footballing glory. Like Neville, Keane was not a natural talent as a youth, but he developed into one of the world’s greatest players as a result of continual sacrifice to his profession.
His defining moment came in the European Cup semi-final away leg at Juventus’ Stadio delle Alpi when, despite having picked up a booking that would mean he would miss the showpiece final against Bayern Munich, he selflessly ran himself into the ground to ensure his teammates, manager, and club would progress passed the canny Italians.
Without question, Alex Ferguson’s greatest ever captain, despite the fact that he never got to touch the glory he so strove for due to United not making the European Cup Final again during his time with the club.
Central-midfield (Paul Scholes)
Paul Scholes, he scores goals. And what beauties they were, too. The footballing reincarnation of Bobby Charlton, the shy red-headed boy from Oldham who refused the limelight was arguably the best of all the Fergie Fledglings.
Initially beginning his career as a withdrawn striker, Scholes was converted by Ferguson into the best English central midfielder since Gascoigne. His impact for his club has been immense.
Who could forget the all-important winner he scored against Barcelona in the 2007/08 semi final home tie to allow United into the Final in Moscow, or the screamers he scored against the likes of Aston Villa or Bradford, both away?
Ultimately, his influence on the game is immeasurable, with the likes of Barcelona’s Xavi saying that he modelled his game on the Ginger Prince.
Left-wing (Ryan Giggs)
It’s really very simple: Ryan Giggs. Enough said.
Centre-forward (Eric Cantona)
What is there left to say about the enigma that was Eric Cantona. who proved the final piece in the juggernaut that would become Manchester United, and almost sixteen years after his sudden departure from his adoring public?
Perhaps only this, which – if you’ll allow me – leaves behind the realm of football and touches on the metaphysical: Cantona was no ordinary player, and it is not far wrong that he has been called ‘King Cantona’, or even a god, ‘Le Dieu’. For never before or since has a football story come to mirror and parallel so perfectly the myths of antiquity surrounding the archetype of The Stranger; a brooding, potentially malevolent figure who mysteriously arrives in your town from a faraway place, and who then proceeds to do the most incredible and wonderful things beyond our previous imagining, and then – before anyone can thank them, or even ask them why – they disappear into the ether from whence he came.
Cantona transformed Manchester United from also-rans to global phenomena, and it was due as much to his persona as it was to his exceptional footballing qualities. Never to be repeated, his name is still sung from the terraces at Old Trafford who understand that this was Ferguson’s most important signing in his 26-and-a-half-years at the club.
Striker (Ruud Van Nistelrooy)
Ruud van Nistelrooy is not so much a player as he was a goal-machine. Reaching 100 goals for United in 120 games, he was the most potent and natural goalscorer at Old Trafford since Denis Law.
Not possessing the all-round game of a Mark Hughes or the ability and willingness to contribute of a Wayne Rooney, Van Nistelrooy instead preferred to dwell in the forgotten recesses of the opposition’s penalty box, conjuring goals out of nothing with all the alacrity of master of the dark arts of the striker.
A falling out with Ronaldo allegedly precipitated his move to Real Madrid, Ferguson deeming him a divisive figure in his dressing room, but even at the £19m paid in 2001, he seems Ferguson’s best ever buy for the Number 9 role (despite wearing 10).
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