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Default The Times Top 50 Manchester United players

The Top 50 Manchester United players

Kaveh Solhekol lists the greatest footballers to have graced Old Trafford

Times Online June 3, 2009

50 Cristiano Ronaldo

2003-present, 291 starts, 118 goals

One of the rules of writing for The Times is that you avoid referring to yourself in the first person unless you have been on the newspaper for about 20 years, but, for once, I'm going to let my hair down. Cristiano Ronaldo is probably the second most naturally gifted United player of all time and there’s a good chance that one day he will be mentioned in the same breath as Pele and Diego Maradona. But there’s also a very good chance that he won’t be at Old Trafford for much longer. I’m not trying to be controversial by making him No 50, it’s just that real United legends don’t want to play for Real Madrid and real United legends don’t dive. Anyway, I’d feel like an idiot if he signed for Real this summer after I’d put him in front of real legends such as Bryan Robson, Roger Byrne and Denis Law. If Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro kept his mouth shut and stayed on his feet, he would have been No 3. As things stand, on this list he's No 50.

49 Mark Robins

1986-92, 27 starts, 17 goals

The late-Eighties were not a great time to be a United fan. Alex Ferguson was stamping his authority and getting rid of players such as Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside and all the Old Trafford faithful were watching in return was home defeats by Crystal Palace. Matters came to a head before an FA Cup third-round tie away to Nottingham Forest in January 1990 when newspapers reported that Ferguson would be dismissed if United lost. United beat Forest 1-0 thanks to a goal by Robins and went on to lift the Cup – their first trophy under Ferguson – after another Robins winner against Oldham Athletic in a semi-final replay. If Robins had not scored at the City Ground, Ferguson could have been history – although United have denied that the manager's job was on the line – and that would have meant no treble, no two European Cups, no five FA Cups and no 11 league titles.

48 Brian McClair

1987-98, 399 starts, 127 goals

United are spoilt for choice when it comes to forwards these days but in the late-Eighties they could rely only on a few players to put the ball in the back of the net. One of those players was a hardworking, versatile Scotland international who loved scoring goals. Bought for £850,000 from Celtic in July 1987, McClair scored 24 league goals in his first season and he hit it off with Mark Hughes when the Welshman returned to United in May 1988. Unlike many strikers, McClair had no airs and graces and he was happy to stick around at Old Trafford, picking up trophies and playing wherever he was needed. He loves the place so much that he’s still there, running the youth academy.

47 Tony Dunne

1960-73, 535 starts, 2 goals

In the old days, playing as a full back didn’t mean bombing forward and overlapping, it meant defending and Dunne was one of the best in the business. Signed by Matt Busby for £5,000 from Shelbourne in 1960, Dunne made the No 3 shirt his own for most of the Sixties and he was still the best left back at the club when he was allowed to join Bolton Wanderers in 1973.

46 Dwight Yorke

1998-02, 120 starts, 66 goals

Yorke’s lifestyle and attitude may have let him down at times during his career but his impact at United after his £12.6million transfer from Aston Villa in August 1998 is undeniable. The Trinidad & Tobago forward helped United to win three consecutive Premier League titles and the treble in his first three seasons at Old Trafford and his attacking partnership with Andy Cole was one of the most prolific in the club’s history. A high profile on the celebrity circuit contributed to him falling out of favour and he was replaced by Ruud van Nistelrooy before being sold to Blackburn for £2million in July 2002.

45 Denis Irwin

1990-2002, 511 starts, 33 goals

Irwin never stepped out with a Spice Girl but he never let anyone down in 511 appearances as a left and right back. When he hung up his boots five years ago, Mr Dependable retired having won the European Cup, seven league titles, two FA Cups, one League Cup, one European Cup Winners' Cup and 56 Ireland caps. He repaid the £650,000 United paid to sign him from Oldham in 1990 many times over and at his peak he was one of the best full backs in the world.

44 Joe Spence

1919-33, 510 starts, 168 goals

Spence was working as a miner by the time he was 13 and he was fighting in the First World War when he was 17, so he kept things in perspective when United finished bottom of the first division in 1922. The United sides that he played in from 1919 to 1933 were some of the worst in the club’s history but that did not stop him from scoring once every three games. “Give it to Joe” was a familiar cry on matchdays at Old Trafford in the Twenties and it is a shame that Spence had to wait until 1938 to lift a trophy – the third division North with Chesterfield.

43 David Herd

1961-68, 264 starts, 145 goals

Herd took time to find his feet at United after his £37,000 transfer from Arsenal in 1961 but no-one can argue with his goalscoring record. Playing alongside Denis Law brought the best out of him and he scored 19, 20, 20 and 24 goals in four seasons from 1962 to 1966, helped United to win the title in 1965 and 1967 and lifted the FA Cup in 1963. In the 5-0 victory over Sunderland in November 1966 his four goals were scored against three different goalkeepers: Jim Montgomery, Charlie Hurley and John Parke.

42 Jaap Stam

1998-01, 125 starts, 1 goal

He was big, he was Dutch and he loved defending. Stam’s first season at Old Trafford after his £10million transfer from PSV Eindhoven ended with United winning the treble and he hardly put a foot wrong until he decided to write his autobiography. Ferguson was not impressed with Stam lifting the lid on what went on in the United dressing room and the Holland defender was sold to Lazio for £16million in 2001. Ferguson has admitted that is one of his biggest regrets – that’s how good Stam was.

41 Noel Cantwell

1960-67, 146 starts, 8 goals

Cantwell would stand out if he was playing today because his two favourite positions were full back and centre forward. Signed for just under £30,000 from West Ham United in November, the Ireland international was a natural leader and he captained United to victory in the 1963 FA Cup Final playing at left back. Many people expected him to succeed Sir Matt Busby as manager, but he left Old Trafford to take charge of Coventry City in 1967. He had been working as a scout for England under Sven-Goran Eriksson when he died in September 2005.

40 Gary Pallister

1989-98, 437 starts, 15 goals

Pallister was a laid-back defender who formed one of United's best ever centre-back partnerships with Steve Bruce. Signed by Ferguson for £2.3million in August 1989, he helped United to win the title for the first time in 26 years in 1993, scoring a rare goal in the final home game of the season against Blackburn Rovers. He returned to Middlesbrough in 1998 after United signed Jaap Stam, but his United career was almost over before it started after a furious row with Ferguson in 1990. "I did have about 101 arguments with him," Pallister said. "The worst one was when he said something to me at half-time that I thought was out of order. It flared up in the dressing room and it was about to turn nasty before other people got involved. I had to go and see him in his office a couple of days later. That was the defining point of my career. I thought it was going to be my last day at the club but we patched everything up."

39 Stan Pearson

1936-54, 346 starts, 149 goals

Pearson was born in Salford in 1919 and as a boy he dreamed of playing for United. His dream came true in 1937 when he set up four goals on his debut against Chesterfield, but he had to wait until the end of the Second World War before he could cement his reputation as a sublime creator and scorer of goals in Busby’s first great United team. Playing predominantly as an inside left, he missed only 13 matches between 1946 and 1953 and his seemingly telepathic understanding with Jack Rowley made their attacking partnership one of the most successful in the club’s history – between them they scored 52 of United’s 95 goals when Busby’s team won the title in 1952.

38 Martin Buchan

1971-1983, 455 starts, 4 goals

Buchan’s first season as club captain ended with United being relegated to the second division, but that should not overshadow the impact that he made at Old Trafford after Frank O’Farrell signed him from Aberdeen for £125,000 in March 1972. Buchan was a cool and cultured centre back who stayed at United for 12 years and led the team out at Wembley three times. There are still stories doing the rounds about his single-mindedness and attention to detail. On one club trip he turned up in a suit and tie when everyone else – including the manager – was wearing a tracksuit. “I wasn’t happy about relegation but I decided to stay and help the club back into the first division,” he said. Buchan did that at the first attempt in 1975 and two years later he became the first player to captain winning FA Cup and Scottish FA Cup teams when United beat Liverpool 2-1 at Wembley.

37 Andrew Cole

1994-02, 231 starts, 121 goals

Cole moved to United from Newcastle United before transfer windows were invented and his £7million signing in January 1995 shocked football. Why would Kevin Keegan want to sell one of the most prolific strikers in the world to one of Newcastle’s main rivals? Keegan asked the Newcastle fans who had gathered at St James' Park when Cole’s departure was confirmed to trust his judgment. Cole scored 121 times in 231 starts at United, while helping himself to five titles, one European Cup and two FA Cups. Oh, and apparently, he was a useless finisher.

36 Alex Stepney

1966-1978, 539 starts, 2 goals

Every great team needs a great goalkeeper and Stepney was the last line of defence as United became the first English club to lift the European Cup in 1968. The bright lights of Wembley and Old Trafford must have seemed a long way away when Stepney started playing for Tooting and Mitcham in the Fifties but his talents were spotted by Millwall and Chelsea before Busby signed him for £55,000 in 1966. Two years later Stepney repaid his manager by making a crucial save in the European Cup final against Benfica. “I thought as Eusebio raced towards him that all my dreams of winning the European Cup were going to be shattered,” Busby said. “He shot with all his power but Alex held it.”

35 Teddy Sheringham

1997-01, 102 starts, 46 goals

He may have been a flash, big-time Charlie Cockney but he scored THAT goal in the 1999 Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich and that’s all that matters. Sheringham left Tottenham Hotspur in 1997 because he wanted to win something. He returned to White Hart Lane four years later after winning three Premier League titles, an FA Cup and a European Cup.

34 Eddie Colman

1955-58, 107 starts, 2 goals

Colman was the youngest victim of the Munich crash – he was only 21 when he died – and it is safe to assume that he was set to have a glittering career in the game before fate intervened in February 1958. The boy from Archie Street in Salford – the road that became the model for the soap opera Coronation Street – had already played in three FA Youth Cup-winning teams when he made his debut away to Bolton Wanderers in November 1955 and his dribbling and inch-perfect passing were a key feature of the United teams that won the title in 1956 and 1957. His last goal for United – one of only two – was in the first leg of the European Cup quarter-final against Red Star Belgrade two weeks before he died. “He was a boy/man whose every stride and shimmy announced self-belief,” Sir Bobby Charlton said. “But it was also clear to me that he would never be in danger of running away with himself.”

33 Steve Bruce

1987-96, 411 starts, 51 goals

Bruce's face looks the way it does for a reason. During nine years at Old Trafford, he put his head in where it hurts, sniffing out danger and scoring crucial goals from crosses and set pieces. His two late goals against Sheffield Wednesday in April 1993 put United back on track for the title and his defensive partnership with Gary Pallister was one of the best in the club's history. He lifted seven trophies at United before moving to Birmingham City and his strike rate of a goal every eight games is better than a few forwards have achieved at Old Trafford.

32 Rio Ferdinand

2002-present, 309 appearances, 7 goals

Not everyone was convinced that United were getting value for money when Ferdinand turned up in a white suit at Old Trafford to seal his £30million transfer from Leeds United in July 2002. There was no doubting the former West Ham United defender’s ability, but serious questions had been asked about his attitude and his ability to concentrate for 90 minutes. There was no need to worry. Once Ferguson got hold of him, the dodgy hairstyles disappeared and Ferdinand fulfilled his potential by becoming one of the best defenders in the world.

31 Paul McGrath

1982-89, 192 starts, 16 goals

In the Eighties, Paul McGrath was one of the best defenders in the world. Sure, he liked a drink and his knees were dodgy, but when he was fit and sober he was in a league of his own. The writing was on the wall for McGrath when Ferguson replaced Ron Atkinson in 1986 and he was shown the door as the new manager clamped down on the drinking culture at Old Trafford. McGrath's battle with the bottle and injury problems blighted his career but anyone who doubts his ability should watch his incredible performance in Ireland’s 1-0 victory over Italy in New Jersey during the 1994 World Cup finals. “McGrath stayed as cool of mind as the air was hot,” Patrick Barclay wrote, “and eternally vigilant in snuffing out sources of danger; altogether a more impressive figure than his fellow 34-year-olds, the creaking [Franco] Baresi and [Mauro] Tassotti, at the other end.”

30 Jack Rowley

1937-55, 424 starts, 211 goals

Busby’s teams could look after themselves and the steel up front in his first great United team was provided by Rowley, a combative and prolific forward who took no prisoners on a football pitch. Signed as a winger for £3,000 from Bournemouth in 1937, “The Gunner” was turned into an explosive centre forward by Busby and helped United lift the FA Cup in 1948 and the title four years later. He scored twice in the 4-2 FA Cup Final victory against Blackpool and 30 times in the 1951-52 season.

29 Brian Kidd

1963-74, 257 starts, 70 goals

Kidd is one of the links between the great United sides of the Sixties and the Nineties. As a player, he was a speedy striker who could score with his head and both feet and he got his chance to impress during United’s tour of Australia in 1967. His most memorable moment in a United shirt was scoring on his 19th birthday in the 1968 European Cup final win against Benfica at Wembley. As Ferguson’s assistant, he danced on the pitch when Steve Bruce scored two crucial goals against Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford in April 1993 and he was in the dugout as United won four titles in five seasons. His relationship with Ferguson fell apart in 1998 before he moved to Ewood Park to become the manager of Blackburn Rovers.

28 Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

1996-07, 216 starts, 126 goals

Solskjaer scored 126 times for United but one goal stands out - the winner in the European Cup final in Barcelona in 1999. United have just equalised in the first of three minutes of injury time against Bayern Munich; David Beckham takes a corner, Solskjaer sticks out his right foot and United complete the treble. "I worked for the best manager of all time,” Solskjaer said when he retired last year. “I played with the best players in the world and in front of the best fans. I am very proud of what I achieved but very humble as well that I was given the opportunity to do that.”

27 Ruud van Nistelrooy

2001-06, 200 starts, 150 goals

The Holland centre forward was at Old Trafford for five seasons and averaged three goals in every four games he started. Whenever United played you could almost guarantee that Van Nistelrooy’s name would be among the scorers. It’s just a shame that he joined Real Madrid after allegedly falling out with Cristiano Ronaldo and Ferguson in July 2006. “I would say he is better than I was,” said Denis Law, the second-highest goalscorer in the club's history.

26 Dennis Viollet

1950-62, 293 starts, 179 goals

United have had many great forwards but not many of them can claim to have scored 32 times in 36 league games as Viollet did in the 1959-60 season. That he did so only months after being injured in the Munich air crash makes his achievement even more remarkable. Next time someone starts banging on about Law, Ronaldo and Van Nistelrooy, tell them not to forget Dennis Viollet.

25 Tommy Taylor

1953-58, 191 starts, 131 goals

When Busby signed Taylor from Barnsley in March 1953 he insisted on paying £29,999 because he did not want the forward to have to deal with the pressure of being a £30,000 player. Any doubts that Busby may have had about the second division player’s temperament disappeared when he scored twice on his debut in a 5-2 victory over Preston North End at Old Trafford. Taylor’s goalscoring ratio in the United sides that won the league title in 1956 and 1957 was two goals in every three games and he also scored 16 times in 19 England matches. He celebrated his 26th birthday a week before he died at Munich.

24 Billy Meredith

1906-1921, 335 starts, 36 goals

Meredith played for Manchester City in an FA Cup semi-final when he was 49 and he could probably do a better job than some of Mark Hughes’s players if he was still around. Born in 1874, Meredith went on to become one of the game’s first superstars but his career was often clouded in controversy. In 1904 he was accused of bribing an Aston Villa player to lose a match and banned from playing for City for 18 months, although the charge was never proved. He was at the centre of another storm four years later when he fought against the Football Association’s attempts to break the players' union. “The corners of the field are there to be used,” he said before he died in 1958. “We used them when I was playing. Now you can almost pick mushrooms there.”

23 David Beckham

1991-2003, 356 starts, 85 goals

Before Beckham became a brand he was a very good midfield player with an endless supply of energy and a right foot that could put the ball anywhere on the pitch. Having helped United to dominate the Premier League he then started hanging out with pop stars and playing for England and it was downhill from there. He loves marketing, so he can be No 23, his shirt number at Real Madrid.

22 Norman Whiteside

1981-89, 256 starts, 67 goals

Whiteside deserves legendary status because he loved scoring against Liverpool and because he scored one of the most memorable goals seen at Wembley. In May 1985 United were playing Everton in the FA Cup Final. Ron Atkinson’s team were down to ten men in extra-time when Whiteside cut in from the right and curled an unstoppable strike past Neville Southall. Two years earlier he had become the youngest player to score in an FA Cup Final and in 1982 he became the youngest player to play at the World Cup finals when he appeared in all five of Northern Ireland’s games in Spain aged 17.

21 Billy Whelan

1954-58, 96 starts, 52 goals

Whelan was 22 when he died at Munich but he had already scored 52 times in 96 games and won two Championship medals. The Ireland inside forward did not play against Red Star Belgrade, but he was a member of the squad and he was one of the eight United players who died in Germany on the flight home. Legend has it that as the United’s plane attempted to take off for the third and final time, Whelan, a devout Roman Catholic, whispered, “If this is the end, then I am ready for it.” His place in the side against Red Star had been taken by Bobby Charlton. “His forte was to scheme, to shape possibilities with his skill and excellent vision,” Charlton said. “Whelan scored so many goals from midfield, he would be a wonder of today’s game.”

20 Wayne Rooney

2004-present, 236 appearances, 97 goals

Ferguson does not always strike it lucky when he goes for broke in the transfer market but the £25million that he spent on Rooney in August 2004 already looks like a bargain. Rooney plays from the heart and his commitment to the cause, tireless displays and crucial goals have made him one the greatest players ever to have worn the club’s famous red shirt. And he’s still only 23.

19 Harry Gregg

1957-67, 247 starts

Gregg never lifted a trophy during a decade at Old Trafford but he did enough, on and off the pitch, to become one of the greatest goalkeepers in the club's history. Signed for £23,000 from Doncaster Rovers in 1957, he was at the centre of controversy in the 1958 FA Cup Final when he was knocked unconscious as Nat Lofthouse scored Bolton Wanderers' second goal in their 2-0 victory. Three months earlier he had become a hero in the real sense of the word when he rescued survivors from the burning wreckage of United’s plane at Munich. “Munich became a crucial part of United's folklore but the truth of what happened at Munich is important,” he said. “That's why it both saddens and angers me that the crash has also become an industry which certain people have perpetuated and profited from through half-truths, outright lies, myth, distortion and exaggeration. The behaviour of some people after Munich rankled with me very much, and continues to do so, especially when the anniversary comes around.”

18 Shay Brennan

1957-70, 358 starts, 6 goals

There were 59,848 people at Old Trafford when Brennan made his debut on February 19, 1958 in United’s first game after the Munich disaster. Brennan, who was a 20-year-old reserve full back, played at outside left and scored twice in United’s emotional 3-0 victory. “I had as little idea about playing on the wing as the man in the moon,” he said. He made his league debut three days later against Nottingham Forest and he went on to become the first English-born player to play for Ireland. During 13 years at Old Trafford he played in two championship-winning teams - in 1965 and 1967 - and he was also in the starting XI for the European Cup final victory in 1968. He died in June 2000 having played for only one league club.

17 Gary Neville

1991-present, 569 appearances, 7 goals

Neville is a United legend who is loved, adored and revered for his devotion to the cause and if he wasn’t playing – a rare occurrence these days – he’d probably be following the team home and away. He captained the youth team to victory in the FA Youth Cup in his first season at the club and he has won everything there is to win – eight titles, two European Cups and three FA Cups – in the past 18 years. "Manchester United is the only club I ever wanted to play for," he said. And manage?

16 Mark Hughes

1983-86 and 1988-95, 453 starts, 163 goals

Nobody could hold the ball up like Hughes and no-one had chunkier thighs than the Wales legend. Hughes’s specialty was scoring crucial, spectacular goals and one of Ferguson’s best early decisions was re-signing him from Barcelona in 1988. "Sparky" scored both goals when United beat the Spanish club in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final three years later and he won two league titles at Old Trafford before he moved to Chelsea and Blackburn Rovers. Last heard of managing a club who have not won anything for 33 years.

15 Paddy Crerand

1962-71, 397 starts, 15 goals

Crerand was a fiery Scottish midfield player who did the dirty work while Best, Law and Charlton grabbed the glory and scored the goals. Signed for £53,000 from Celtic in 1963, he played a key role as United lifted the European Cup for the first time five years later. His recent autobiography was called Never Turn the Other Cheek and he liked a challenge so much that he even tried to broker a peace deal with the IRA. "I met ten of them in the middle of the night in Derry," he said. "They were working-class lads and I told them that they needed to renounce violence. I said the only way of solving problems is by dialogue, not by shooting each other, but all they wanted to talk about was United and Celtic."

14 Nobby Stiles

1960-71, 395 starts, 19 goals

Norbert Peter Stiles was born on May 18, 1942 and he grew up to become one of only three Englishmen to lift the World Cup and the European Cup. Small and shortsighted, Stiles needed to fight all his life to get to the top but he never shirked a challenge after becoming one of the first and best holding midfield players in the world. He won two titles at Old Trafford in 1965 and 1967, the European Cup in 1968 and the World Cup with England in 1966.

13 Paul Scholes

1994-present, 604 appearances, 142 goals

Will there ever be another player like Scholes? The former England midfield player started training with United when he was 14 and his self-effacing and down-to-earth style has made him one of the most popular figures at Old Trafford. Forget flash cars, diamond earrings and late nights, Scholes has been the model professional since he made his United debut - notwithstanding one out-of-character hissy fit after he was asked to play for the reserves - and in his prime he was described by Zinedine Zidane as being technically the best player in the world.

12 Johnny Carey

1937-53, 344 starts, 18 goals

They don’t make them like they used to. As an Irishman, Carey did not have to fight in the Second World War, but he joined the Queen’s Royal Hussars instead of returning home to Ireland in 1939. “A country which gives me my living is worth fighting for,” he said, before returning to Old Trafford to lift the FA Cup in 1948 and the title in 1952 as United’s first post-war captain. ‘Gentleman John’ played in every position except outside left for United and he was invited to meet the board when he retired in 1953. The minutes of the meeting recorded his standing at the club and in the game: “He covered his career in glory and set a shining example to all who follow him.”

11 Bill Foulkes

1952-70, 685 starts, 9 goals

Imagine if Cristiano Ronaldo worked down the mines during the week and played for United on Saturdays. That’s what Foulkes did at the start of his Old Trafford career. Playing first as a full back he came into his own when he switched to centre half after he survived the Munich crash. Ten years later, he was an integral member of the side that lifted the European Cup at Wembley in 1968 and he scored in the 3-3 semi-final, second-leg draw with Real Madrid that got United to Wembley. “I’m proud to have been part of it,” he said. “For those of us who lost our friends coming home from a European tie, our victory seemed the right tribute to their memory.”

10 Peter Schmeichel

1991-99, 398 starts, 1 goal

Schmeichel is probably the greatest goalkeeper to have worn the club's famous green, yellow, blue or black jersey. The Denmark No 1 was brought for £530,000 from Brondby in 1991 and Sir Alex Ferguson described his transfer as the bargain of the century and he spent the next eight years frightening opponents - and his own defenders - with his total command of his penalty area, his imposing presence and his lethal long throws. He left Old Trafford at the peak of his powers in 1999 but only after he had kept United on course for the Treble by saving Dennis Bergkamp's late penalty in the FA semi-final replay at against Arsenal at Villa Park.

9 Roger Byrne

1951-58, 277 starts, 19 goals

Few players redefine the position that they play in, but Byrne was an extraordinary man, an extraordinary captain and an extraordinary defender. While other full backs were happy to stay in their own halves for 90 minutes Byrne would use his blistering pace to bomb forward to create and score goals. When he died in 1958 in Munich, United lost a captain and the best full back in the world. “Here was a player ahead of his time,” Ivan Ponting wrote in Manchester United: Player by Player. “Roger Byrne exuded class and charisma. He would have stood out in any company, in any era.”

8 Denis Law

1962-73, 398 starts, 237 goals

Law was the original King of Old Trafford and with George Best and Bobby Charlton he formed United’s Holy Trinity. Law, the 1964 European Footballer of the Year, just could not stop scoring and he was never short of opportunities playing alongside Charlton and Best. He was having a knee operation when United lifted the European Cup for the first time in 1968, but his 237 goals in 398 starts will always assure him of legendary status at Old Trafford.

7 Ryan Giggs

1990-present, 805 appearances, 148 goals

Things you need to know about Ryan Giggs: 1. He doesn’t dive. 2. He’s never put in a transfer request. 3. No-one’s played more games for United. 4. He’s won 11 titles, two European Cups and four FA Cups. 5. Hello! didn’t pay for his wedding.

6 Roy Keane

1993-2006, 458 starts, 51 goals

In 1990 Brian Clough spent only £10,000 on an Irish teenager who would become one of the best players in the world. Roy Keane made his name at Nottingham Forest before he found the perfect stage for his talents at Old Trafford. Who can forget the bust-ups, the dust-ups, the snarling confrontations, the fierce determination and burning desire to always come out on top? Anyone lucky enough to have been at the Stadio Del Alpi in Turin in April 1999 when United recovered from 2-0 down to beat Juventus 3-2 witnessed one of the greatest ever performances by a player on a football pitch. “Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him,” Ferguson said. “I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player.”

5 Bryan Robson

1981-94, 437 starts, 99 goals

United supporters have become used to watching a team full of legends but for long stretches of the Eighties it felt as if there was only one truly great player at Old Trafford. Robson would run through brick walls for United and his body still bears the scars of the battles that he fought for club and country. He had to wait until he was 37 for a league championship medal but his determination to win at all costs kept United ticking over and in the hunt for trophies until Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford in 1986.

4 Eric Cantona

1992-97, 184 starts, 82 goals

He came. He turned up his collar. He conquered. "If there was ever one player, anywhere in the world, who was made for Manchester United, it was Cantona," Ferguson said. "He'd been searching all his life for somewhere he could look at and feel: this is my home. When he came here, he knew: this is my place."

3 Duncan Edwards

1952-58, 177 starts, 21 goals

Those who saw him play believe that Edwards would have become the greatest English player of all time if he had not been on the United plane that crashed in Munich in February 1958. Edwards joined United in June 1952 and he had already won 18 England caps when he died at 21. “The greatest? There was only one. Duncan Edwards,” Jimmy Murphy, the former United assistant manager, said. “If I shut my eyes I can see him now. Those pants hitched up, the wild leaps of boyish enthusiasm as he came running out of the tunnel. He played wing half, centre half, centre forward and inside forward with the consummate ease of a great player. He was quite simply a soccer colossus.”

2 George Best

1963-74, 470 starts, 179 goals

Maradona good. Pele better. George Best.

1 Sir Bobby Charlton

1956-73, 756 starts, 249 goals

Bobby Charlton made his United debut in October 1956 and survived the Munich crash in 1958 before going on to lift the World Cup with England in 1966 and the European Cup with United two years later. His unblemished record of service for club and country is so legendary that when he came around to writing his autobiography he had to write two books – one on United and one on England.

One image sums him up. After United beat Chelsea in the Champions League final in Moscow in 2008, Charlton was asked to lead the team up to collect their medals and the European Cup. When he reached the top of the stairs, Charlton refused to allow Michel Platini, the Uefa president, to place a winners’ medal around his neck even though it was the 50th anniversary of Munich. He was only a spectator and the glory belonged to the United players.

When he retired from playing in 1974 he tried his hand at management before returning to Old Trafford to work as a director. In 1986 he did his best to convince the board to appoint Ferguson when other influential voices wanted Terry Venables to replace Ron Atkinson. Charlton got his way and for that - and the fact that no player has scored more goals for United or England – he has to be No 1.

*More than 50 great players have played for Manchester United. These are some of the players who also deserved to be on the list:

Arthur Albiston, Viv Anderson, Johnny Berry, Jackie Blanchflower, Francis Burns, Nicky Butt, Michael Carrick, Allenby Chilton, Henry Cockburn, Jack Crompton, John Connelly, Steve Coppell, Alex Dawson, Jimmy Delaney, Mike Duxbury, Patrice Evra, Diego Forlan, Brian Greenhoff, Jimmy Greenhoff, Owen Hargreaves, Gabriel Heinze, Paul Ince, Ronny Johnsen, Mark Jones, Joe Jordan, Andrei Kanchelskis, Henrik Larsson, Lou Macari, Sammy McIlroy, Gordon McQueen, Charlie Mitten, Kevin Moran, Willie Morgan, Johnny Morris. Remi Moses, Arnold Muhren, Phil Neville, Jesper Olsen, Paul Parker, David Pegg, Albert Quixall, Charlie Roberts, David Sadler, Albert Scanlon, Lee Sharpe, Jack Silcock, Frank Stapleton, Gordon Strachan, Carlos Tevez, Sandy Turnbull, Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Vidic, Ray Wilkins, Ray Wood.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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