Sporting debates, almost by definition, are futile.
Would a prime Muhammad Ali have had the guile to defeat a young, wrecking-ball Mike Tyson? Probably.
Could the great Jesse Owens out-sprint the great Usain Bolt if he were to race against him today? Probably not.
What would have happened had Juan Manuel Fangio and Ayrton Senna gone wheel-to-wheel in the same era? Who knows.
Definitive answers may be impossible to come by in conversations of this nature, but that doesn’t mean that sports fans won’t delight in engaging in these hypothetical debates. Conversations like these are the lifeblood of many a post-match pint.
In the arena of English football, one debate reigns supreme: Liverpool or Manchester United. Which of these two great clubs has the right to declare itself the most successful in the history of the English game?
On the surface of such a question there may appear to be a simple solution – compare the trophy hauls of each club. However, it could be argued that such a tactic only further enhances the contentiousness of the issue, because whilst United reign supreme in terms of top-division league titles won, with 20 to Liverpool’s 18; the Anfield club boast five European Cup wins to the Old Trafford outfit’s three.
Move a little lower on the trophy ladder and it’s a similar story. United might trump Liverpool in terms of FA Cups wins (11 to seven), but Liverpool have won double the amount of League Cups (eight to four).
All told, United just hold the edge in terms of total trophies won, with 61 to Liverpool’s 59, but bear in mind that they have just eked ahead in the past couple of seasons.
Thus, it could hardly be said that the book is closed on the debate about which is the greater of the two clubs.
Therefore, surely my suggesting a new approach in attempting to ascertain which club can claim to boast the richest history is entirely justifiable. So, here is what I propose: Rather than examining the long lists of trophies won by each club, perhaps we should look instead at the host of world-class players who have starred for both sides.
However, I’m not suggesting we compile a greatest-ever XI for each club, imagine them facing off against each other and attempt to guess which one would come out on top. No, let’s think about it like this: if we were to select a team made up entirely of players who have played for either Liverpool or Manchester United, how many from each side would make the cut?
Goalkeeper: Peter Schmeichel | Manchester United & Denmark
Can there really be any argument about the Great Dane wearing the number one shirt? Yes, Liverpool have had very fine goalkeepers down through the years, particularly Ray Clemence and Bruce Grobbelaar, but many people would make a claim for Schmeichel to be included in an All-time World XI let alone a composite United/Liverpool team like this.
A hulking figure between the sticks at the best of times, Schmeichel appeared to somehow grow in stature when opponents found themselves facing him in one-on-one situations.
Despite his immense physicality he also possessed amazing agility, which allowed him to frequently pull off saves that seemed to defy gravity at times.
Add to that his assured handling, unwavering bravery, a knack for saving penalties at crucial moments in crucial matches, and the fact that he marshalled his back four like a drill sergeant, and you have not only United’s greatest ever goalkeeper but maybe the greatest this game has ever produced full stop.
(Honourable mentions: Harry Gregg, Ray Clemence, Bruce Grobbelaar, Edwin van der Sar)
Right-back: Phil Neal | Liverpool & England
Nowadays full-backs are judged not just on their defensive capabilities but also on their attacking prowess. Phil Neal excelled in both aspects of the game.
A scorer of more than 50 goals for Liverpool, he made a habit of finding the net in important matches, most notably during the 1984 European Cup final triumph against AS Roma. Already having scored their only goal in a 1-1 draw, Neal then stepped up to convert from the spot in what was the first ever penalty shoot-out to decide a European Cup final.
He is also the only player to have featured in each of Liverpool’s four European Cup wins during the 70s and 80s.
Some might argue that Gary Neville was slightly more defensively astute than Neal, but the Liverpool man was undoubtedly more accomplished on the ball and posed a much greater attacking threat than Neville did.
(Honourable mentions: Roger Byrne, Gary Neville)
Centre-back: Alan Hansen | Liverpool & Scotland
The fact that Alan Hansen only made a measly 26 appearances for Scotland probably tells you more about his devotion to Liverpool than it does about his ability as a defender, because, make no mistake about it, Hansen is one of Britain’s as well as Liverpool’s most accomplished ever centre-backs.
He seemed to read the game so well that it made any other defensive work he had to engage in appear almost ridiculously easy.
A classy player who had great confidence in his own ability with a ball at his feet, as well as a good eye for a pass, he would often stride out from the back to orchestrate Liverpool attacks.
Centre-back: Rio Ferdinand | Manchester United & England
Rio Ferdinand is a player who seems to polarise fans – either they rate him very highly or they regard him as being highly over-rated.
Some of that might simply be down to the jealousy of opposition fans. The more discerning critics might point to his relative failures against the very top forwards his era had to offer.
Ronaldo’s hat-trick for Real Madrid in a Champions League quarter-final second leg at Old Trafford in 2003 springs to mind in that respect, but, realistically, could any of even the greatest defenders have snuffed out the Brazilian phenomenon when he was on song?
Fearless, quick across the ground, powerful in the air, strong in the tackle, calm on the ball, Ferdinand truly does possess all of the key attributes a modern defender could possibly hope to have.
(Honourable mentions: Bill Foulkes, Ron Yeats, Mark Lawrenson, Paul McGrath, Jaap Stam, Nemanja Vidic)
Left-back: Emlyn Hughes (Captain) | Liverpool & England
A remarkably versatile footballer, Emlyn Hughes started out as a forward and would go on to play in just about every outfield position throughout his storied career.
Many would argue that he was at his best in a Liverpool shirt when deployed as a centre-back but he was equally comfortable at full-back or in midfield.
One of his greatest strengths as a player was his extraordinary stamina. He seemed to be able to perform at the same physical level in the 85th minute of a match as he had in the first. Hughes was also quick and strong in the tackle.
In truth, he secures his place in this side primarily because of his outstanding leadership qualities. Nicknamed ‘Crazy Horse’, Hughes’ enthusiasm for football was truly infectious and it wouldn’t be long before he was named Liverpool captain and he had the honour of becoming the first captain of the Anfield club to lift the European Cup in 1977, the year in which he was also named the Football Writers’ Player of the Year.
Hughes would also go on to captain his country more than 20 times.
(Honourable mentions – Tony Dunne, Denis Irwin, Steve Staunton, Patrice Evra)
Defensive Midfield: Duncan Edwards | Manchester United & England
Not just Manchester United and England, but the game of football itself was so tragically robbed of Duncan Edwards in the aftermath of the Munich air disaster in 1958.
Despite being just 21 when he died, those who witnessed Edwards in action still regard him as one of England’s finest ever players. Sir Bobby Charlton even went so far as to declare Edwards to be the greatest player he ever played either with or against.
That’s quite a compliment when you consider that Charlton played with both Bobby Moore and George Best, as well as against the likes of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer.
Perhaps it is only right, then, to allow Sir Bobby himself to explain just what it was that made Edwards such a phenomenal player: ‘…the complete footballer. Mighty in the air. Unbreakable in the tackle. Rampaging tirelessly across the pitch. Perfect first touch followed by raking 40, 50-yard passes with either foot. Unstoppable on the run with the ball. Deadly in front of goal.’
(Honourable mentions – Nobby Stiles, Graeme Souness, Jan Molby, Bryan Robson, Roy Keane, Xabi Alonso)
Right midfield: George Best (Manchester United & Nothern Ireland)
Surely the most naturally gifted footballer to ever ply his trade on these shores, George Best was nothing short of a wing wizard; a player who played the game in the same effortless manner on the grandest of European stages as he did when he kicked a ball about the streets of Belfast as a child.
Best is one of the few players in the game’s history who possessed such ability that he gave you the impression that he could do just about whatever he wanted to on the pitch at any given time.
His critics will say that he wasted his immense potential by bowing out at the highest level at the age of just 27. Most of those who were lucky enough to see him play will say that it simply wouldn’t have been possible for him to get any better than he already was.
The fact that he never had the opportunity to flaunt his talents on the World Cup stage is something mourned by lovers of the beautiful game the world over. Nevertheless, Best’s extraordinary abilities were duly recognised when he was named European Footballer of the Year in 1968.
(Honourable mentions – Ian Callaghan, Steve McManaman, David Beckham)
Left midfield: Ryan Giggs | (Manchester United & Wales)
The most decorated footballer in the history of the British game, Ryan Giggs’ longevity, coupled with his uncanny ability to reinvent the way he plays, is so remarkable that people could almost be forgiven for forgetting just how good he was in his younger years, when he operated as an out-and-out left winger.
Sir Alex Ferguson was left hypnotised the first time he saw Giggs in action as a 13-year-old, famously describing like 'a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind.' Boasting electrifying pace, Giggs was able to travel as fast with the ball at his feet as he could without, and he could change direction at breakneck speed, mesmerising defenders in the process.
He scored a host of wonderful solo goals in his early years at United, and comparisons with the great George Best were both inevitable and well deserved. His extra-time winner against Arsenal in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay is regarded by many as the finest goal ever scored in the famous old competition.
(Steve Heighway, John Barnes)
Attacking midfielder: Sir Bobby Charlton | (Manchester United & England)
A part of United’s so-called Holy Trinity of Best-Law-Charlton, Sir Bobby Charlton was a player who could accurately be described as a complete attacking footballer.
An excellent dribbler and a wonderful passer, Charlton also possessed a thunderbolt of a shot in either foot, making him an immense threat from almost anywhere in opposition territory.
Yet for all his outstanding abilities, Charlton would never allow himself to wallow in personal glory.
Having scored three goals to help steer England to the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley, he had no problem placing the needs of the team first when he was asked to stifle the threat of a young Franz Beckenbauer.
The two greats of the game effectively cancelled each other out and England went on to triumph 4-2 after extra-time. Charlton would later go on to deservedly win the 1966 Ballon d’Or.
He remains both England’s and Manchester United’s record goal scorer.
(Honourable mentions – Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard)
Second striker: Cristiano Ronaldo | (Manchester United & Portugal)
If Charlton was the complete attacking player of yesteryear then surely Cristiano Ronaldo is his modern day equivalent – strong, fast, powerful in the air, two-footed, almost ridiculously skilful, and deadly in front of goal – Ronaldo has become in recent years nothing short of a goal-scoring phenomenon.
The fact that he has matured as a player at Real Madrid (where his goal tally stands at a frankly astonishing 202 goals in 199 games) has no bearing on whether or not he should be considered for this side.
Remember that Ronaldo had already helped United win three Premier League crowns, an FA Cup, two League Cups, and a Community Shield, as well as a Champions League and Club World Cup, before he left for the Bernabeu.
Add to this that he is also the only player to have won the FIFA World Player of the Year Award whilst playing in the Premier League and there can be little argument about his inclusion.
(Honourable mentions – Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, Eric Cantona)
Centre forward: Ian Rush | (Liverpool & Wales)
Both sides have produced strikers who possess better strike rates than Rush’s average of 0.52 goals per game. For example, Roger Hunt struck 286 times in 492 games for Liverpool at an average of 0.58 goals per game, whilst Denis Law hit 237 goals in 404 games for United at a strike rate of 0.59. In fact it is Ruud van Nistelrooy who reigns supreme in the strike rate stakes, with a remarkable average of 0.68 goals per game, having found the net 150 times in just 219 matches for United.
What sets Rush apart, though, is that he was consistently deadly in front of goal over such a long period of time. In two spells at Liverpool between 1980 and 1996, the Welshman hit 346 goals in 660 games to make him Liverpool’s all-time leading goalscorer. No player has scored more goals for either club than Rush has.
(Honourable mentions – Roger Hunt, Denis Law, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Fernando Torres)
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