This Sunday will mark the 20th anniversary of Eric Cantona's infamous kung-fu on a Crystal Palace fan that shocked the football world. Cantona was a world-class player but does he make Manchester United's greatest 11? The Frenchman is one notable absentee from this quality side.
Peter Schmeichel P398 G1
An enormous physical and vocal presence in the goalmouth, Peter Schmeichel’s imposing size, agility, determination to disarm each cross with the contempt King Kong showed for biplanes and express distribution gave United an air of invulnerability and swaggering dominance for eight seasons. Ask most managers for an archetype of their perfect modern goalkeeper and it is likely they would place Schmeichel only marginally behind Peter Shilton.
Picture: The TELEGRAPH
Denis Irwin P529 G33
A right-back by trade who played his last 11 seasons at United on the left, he was excellent positionally, a fine tackler and would gallop forward to pass and cross with both feet. He gave United assurance and authority at the back and was such a calm operator and clean striker of the ball that for several seasons he usurped bigger names to take penalties and free-kicks around the box. Sir Alex Ferguson, with only the tip of his tongue in his cheek, said that his ‘Mr Dependable’ had made only one mistake in 12 years at United.
Rio Ferdinand P455 G8
A classy, effective, lightning quick centre-half who married the defensive grit he had acquired at Leeds to the outstanding physical and technical gifts nurtured by West Ham in 12 seasons at Old Trafford. During the first part of his career it seemed occasionally as if the game came too easy for him and could rely on his pace to get him off the hook. As he began to slow down, particularly after Craig Bellamy’s goal in the 2009 derby finally persuaded him that he wasn’t as sharp as he had once been, his excellent reading of the game was enhanced by a greater discipline. It pleased his manager if not those who had been entranced by his elegance and once harboured hopes of him as an English Beckenbauer.
Picture: REX FEATURES
Jaap Stam P127 G1
Peter Schmeichel said the disarmingly nippy, rugged and powerful centre-half was the best defender he ever played with and selling him in 2001 is one of the few regrets his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, has ever publicly acknowledged. Johan Cruyff called Stam a “one-man defence”, and for United he was a continental upgrade on the reliable domestic duo that had served Ferguson’s first great team with such diligence and durability. More than anyone, he built the platform during the 1998-99 season that took Manchester United the extra step closer to European glory.
Roger Byrne P280 G20
A marvellous competitor and leader whose speed of thought, explosive pace and adventurous play transformed his position and made up for other skills that even his admirers concede were generally unexceptional. He played in 33 successive matches for England during a period when the selection committee made consistency virtually unknown and was killed at Munich in 1958 two days short of his 29th birthday. The captain of ‘the Babes’, he fulfilled his role dutifully, standing up to Matt Busby when necessary but his manager never held it against him. 'An aristocratic footballer, majestic in his movement,' Busby recalled fondly. 'Roger was so fast but at the same time he controlled his movement beautifully, like Nureyev.
Duncan Edwards P177 G21
Simply the most complete player England has ever produced, skilful, forceful, bursting with stamina and natural authority. Bobby Charlton remembers his Manchester United and England team-mate as the best player he has ever seen and if grief at the tragedy of his death at 21 from the injuries he suffered in the Munich Air Disaster is shared primarily by his family and club, it was also felt throughout the country and by lovers of the game everywhere. Don Revie said of him: 'You don't hear many professionals talk lightly of greatness because it is so rare, but that is what I saw in Duncan Edwards the first time I set eyes on him. He reached the same fabulous standard at left-half, centre-half, inside-left and centre-forward. He is the kind of player managers dream about.'
The Irishman joined Manchester United in 1993 for a then record transfer fee from Nottingham Forest and quickly established himself as one of the best midfielders in the English game. The combative, no-nonsense midfielder made few friends on the pitch and he made international headlines in 2001 when he was sent off for a blatant knee-high foul on Leeds’ Alfe Inge Haaland which led to a long-term injury for Haaland.
But Keane’s leadership qualities and ability to control games were never in question and he captained United to seven league titles.
Bobby Charlton P758 G249
Football has provided no more thrilling sight than Bobby Charlton running at full pelt with the ball under his immaculate control and his remaining strands of hair standing proud like ripe wheat. A tremendous dribbler at pace, so fleet of foot he would glide past defenders, and a passer with great vision, it was the vicious power and aesthetic arc of his long-range shooting with both feet that elevated him to his imperishable status. His dourness over the past few decades in his role as a director alienated some hard core travelling Manchester United supporters though none but the fools would allow it to undermine the memories of him as a player. "There has never been a more popular footballer,” said Sir Matt Busby. “He was as near perfection as man and player as it is possible to be."
Picture: GETTY IMAGES
Cristiano Ronaldo P292 G118
Easy to dismiss him in Ron Atkinson’s pungent phrase as ‘an amusement arcade’ in his first season at United in 2003-04 when the stepovers were his tiresome obsession, but to do so would have been to overlook that he was only 18 and as insouciant and intrepid as any teenager. Over the course of six seasons at Old Trafford he matured. Ronaldo began as an occasionally peripheral maverick who could not harness his penetrative skills to a self-sacrifice that would have enabled him unremittingly to feed Ruud van Nistelrooy’s gluttony for the ball. He ended up as one of the greatest all-round forwards in the history of the game. His dead balls, headers, blistering pace, savagely efficient finishing and a tireless work ethic made him simply irreplaceable. United won three titles with him and two in the first five seasons after he left but they have never regained the lethal verve they had with him in his pomp.
Denis Law P404 G237
The first of United’s immortal trio to be awarded the Ballon d’Or in 1964, Denis Law was a raw-boned, quicksilver penalty-box predator who was peerless in the air and complemented his phenomenally refined striking skills with a range of passing to equal the best midfielders. He also had an indomitable aggressive streak that made him yet more prickly and determined to hurt the opposition with a goal or his boot if necessary. To the Stretford End he was ‘the King’, a player of mercurial panache, fearlessness and arrogant spikiness that belied an essentially genial and placid character. ‘He was daring and courageous, he had that bravado about him and he had style,’ said Sir Alex Ferguson of his ‘hero’. ‘He was a truly fantastic footballer.’
George Best P470 G179
Forget the tawdry soap opera that his life became after the great Manchester United side he adorned went past its peak and he went from joint-first among equals to talismanic solo act with too heavy a burden to bear, and remember the enjoyment his sublime skill and devastatingly electric movement brought to the game. No one has written more poignantly or effervescently about him than Hugh McIlvanney, whose line about only one of his exceptional gifts is a gem amongst gems. His balance, wrote McIlvanney, ‘would have made Isaac Newton decide he might as well have eaten the apple’.
Manchester United may have had their worst season on the pitch for two decades last year but they have reclaimed second spot in the list of the football's richest clubs and now have Real Madrid in their sights.