His team for the first match he was manager for was Chris Turner, Mike Duxbury, Arthur Albiston, Kevin Moran, Paul McGrath, Graeme Hogg, Clayton Blackmore, Remi Moses, Frank Stapleton, Peter Davenport and Peter Barnes. United lost 2-0 to Oxford United.
How many of those players had you really hard of? For me, I knew four of those. And Oxford are now in the non-leagues. So to commemorate 25 glorious years at Old Trafford, and the remarkable achievements of Sir Alex, which has seen him lift two European Cups and twelve league championships, overhauling Liverpool as the most successful team domestically, here is this writer’s take on his greatest ever XI.
The great Dane, perhaps the greatest. Schmeichel was arguably the greatest goalkeeper of his generation, and some may say the best of any. Signed for just £150,000, he commanded his area and perfected his iconic ‘starfish’ jump. Pulled off many a great save, including a replica of the greatest ever, pulled off by Gordon Banks in the 1970 World Cup. He was the rock on which United’s defence was built, he commanded and organised it ferociously and intimidated strikers, though he developed a fierce rivalry with Arsenal’s Ian Wright. He saved a penalty against Arsenal in the last minute of the 1999 FA Cup semi final which kept the treble alive, and was the closest United came to losing their bid to reach that achievement.
Irwin was a dependable left back who was an integral cog in the United defence. The Irishman was also a dab hand from the penalty spot, and he played during many of United’s greatest days and teams, including their greatest hour in the Nou Camp in 1999, when they beat Bayern Munich to win the European Cup.
Neville is practically an automatic choice having been the first choice right back throughout arguably United’s greatest period and its best teams, including both who won the Champions League. Winning eight league titles, he was integral to United’s defence, and formed a potent relationship with best friend David Beckham until the latter left for Real Madrid. He has also never quite been replaced by England, and as well as defensive stability and organisation, he was a leader, and also provided a useful cross on many occasion.
Ferdinand makes the team as arguably the most naturally gifted defender of the Ferguson years. His anticipation is second to none, and he could be relied upon to bring the ball out of defence with composure and be the first part of many attacks. A United captain, his pace was crucial to his game, and now that he has lost some of it, United are not quite the same as they were.
Vidic is the current captain and gets into the team ahead of Jaap Stam, Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, for his sheer brutal defensive ability and formidable partnership with Ferdinand. The pair have been the best defence in United’s recent history, and certainly under Ferguson. Few defenders get the better of Vidic, and it is for that reason that United have conceded so few goals in recent years.
Beckham arrived on the scene with a memorable goal from the half way line against Wimbledon in 1997. The following year he was at the World Cup being sent off as England lost to Argentina. The finest English player of his generation, as well as the most influential, he has been the heart of all the best England performances in recent years, as well as the nearest of misses. His crossing and passing is still unrivalled even at the age of 36 and playing in the USA. Beckham was at his best in the 1999 season when the treble was won, and the icon of the greatest United team.
The most decorated player under Ferguson has to be in the side. Still going strong, Giggs’ adaptability has helped him continue to perform at the highest level at a ripe old age. Arguably the player who aged the finest of the youngsters brought through by Ferguson in 1996. Giggs’ running and skill have been a feature of his time in charge. The goal which won that semi final against Arsenal in 1999 will live long in the memory of United fans, and if Schmeichel’s penalty save in that game was the most crucial of the treble success, Giggs’ goal was the most important.
The captain and leader of that United treble winning team, Keane was a warrior few would cross. His never say die spirit and work rate were key to his success, but Keane was blessed with the technical gifts to go with it and make it at the top level. His performance against Juventus in 1999 when United were 2-0 down in the Stade delle Alpi will never be forgotten by United fans.
Some say the most technically gifted Englishman of his generation, or the English ‘Xavi’, though Beckham would run him close, and is possibly more technical. But Scholes was also a brilliant player, with the intelligence and passing skill so rarely found in an Englishman. He adapted from being a striker to a midfielder, but never lost his famous forward’s tendency to tackle over zealously. United fans would forgive him for that though.
Cantona, or ‘The King,’ is in some eyes the best in the time of Sir Alex, but he was not there for the treble or their greatest hours after taking an early retirement. The controversial but undoubtedly brilliant forward had a touch that captivated the audience and his finishing wasn’t bad either.
Ronaldo is the only player in recent memory who has won the World Player of the Year award at Old Trafford. The Portuguese is sublime, and was phenomenal at Old Trafford, scoring forty times. Ronaldo was certainly the best player of the United team which won the Champions League in 2008, and his astonishing goalscoring made him one of the best players the Premiership has ever seen.
Substitute: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
A greatest team of Sir Alex Ferguson could not be complete without a certain Norwegian substitute. Solskjaer dreamt of scoring the winning goal in the European Cup final the night before United played Bayern in Barcelona. He came on and scored with practically the last kick of the game to win the competition for United. The super sup of all substitutes, United’s and Ferguson’s success would not have been achieved without the baby faced assassin.