Our regular feature picks out a club’s best XI from the Premier League era and Devin Hermanus has the privilege of selecting 19-time English champions, Manchester United
Goalkeeper - Peter Schmeichel
The rock that most successful United sides have been built upon over the years has been a save pair of hands between the sticks, and they didn’t come any more reliable than Schmeichel. In his prime, the big Dane was an intimidating presence at the back for the Red Devils, his almost two-metre, 100 kilogram-plus frame a frightening prospect for any would-be attacker.
Voted the “World’s Best Goalkeeper” in 1992 and 1993, the towering gloveman won multiple domestic titles while at Old Trafford. Arguably the highlight of his professional career would’ve been captaining the English giants to a second UEFA Champions League trophy in their historic 1999 treble-winning season.
The Red Devils have had their fair share of pretenders don the number one jersey after Schmeichel’s departure - read Fabian Barthez, Mark Bosnich and Massimo Taibi. And along with Edwin van der Sar, comparisons will always be drawn to Schmeichel as to the level of goalkeeping success achieved by every shot-stopper recruited by United.
Right-back - Gary Neville
Along with Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs, as well as brother Phil, Neville formed part of United’s ‘Brat-Pack’; a group of talented players who made the impressive step up to the first team from the club’s youth ranks.
And just like Giggs and Scholes, Neville has only ever played for one professional club, which allowed him to rack up more than 600 appearances in all competitions before his retirement in 2011. Not the most gifted footballer to have played the game, England’s most-capped right-back made up for his shortcomings through hard work and determination.
Centre-back - Gary Pallister
Not as flamboyant as Rio Ferdinand, or as formidable as Nemanja Vidic, many may argue Pallister’s inclusion in an all-time matchday squad for United, let alone a best XI.
But in a time when Twitter was for the birds and flashy displays from centre-halfs were frowned upon, the solid English defender was just what Ferguson needed in his back four. In his nine years with the Red Devils, Pallister won four league titles and several cup trophies to go with his UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup medal in 1991, just missing out on the treble-winning campaign after his return to Middlesbrough.
Centre-back - Nemanja Vidic
In 2006, Ferguson went looking for a tough-as-nails centre-half to complement the flashy Ferdinand in the heart of United’s defence, and the veteran tactician looked no further than Vidic. The defender had made quite a name for himself with both club and country, the Serbian hardman’s no-nonsense approach with Spartak Moscow in Russia perfectly suited to the English top-flight.
He has since gone on to form one of United’s most prominent partnerships with Ferdinand, with the 31-year-old also following in the footsteps of another United defensive hero, Steve Bruce, in having been appointed Gary Neville’s successor as club captain from the 2010/11 campaign.
Left-back - Denis Irwin
Formerly of Leeds and then Oldham Athletic, Irwin was snapped up by Sir Alex Ferguson in 1990 and went on to represent the Red Devils 368 times in all competitions until his exit in 2002. He also wowed the fans with his stunning free-kicks and cool set-piece finishes way before David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo cornered the market on dead-ball speciality.
Along with Schmeichel and Gary Pallister, Irwin easily became one of Ferguson’s most astute and crucial defensive recruits as the Scot plotted United’s rise to prominence in the early to mid-90s. Incumbent Patrice Evra’s influence at Old Trafford may yet surpass that of Irwin, but the Irishman set the benchmark for full-back play for the Manchester outfit.
Right wing/attacking forward - Cristiano Ronaldo
Arriving in England a lanky, brace-faced teenager from Sporting Lisbon in 2003, the skeptics had a field day over whether Ronaldo would be able to stand up to the rigours of English football. Despite a penchant to go down from the most innocuous of challenges, the moment he pulled on the famous number seven jumper worn by Robson, Beckham, George Best and Eric Cantona fans knew he was something special.
His quick feet and keen eye for goal soon made him a constant threat to opposition defences, with the Portuguese ace a vital cog in the Red Devils’ domestic and European successes for five seasons. And while the record books will one day document Ronaldo’s record breaking exploits with Real Madrid, along with his battles with La Liga and world-footballing rival Lionel Messi, United supporters will be able to lay claim to the fact they unearthed a superstar.
Central midfielder - Roy Keane
Love him or hate him, there was no questioning Keane’s influence or leadership success while donning the famous red of Manchester. Ultra-competitive, ‘Keano’ was the glue which held United’s team together from the mid-90s to early 2000s as he took up the mantle of former skipper and midfield maestro Bryan Robson.
His aggressive style of play left many a casualty over the years, but it was the fiery Irishman’s whole-hearted commitment to the Red Devils cause that saw him become the most successful captain in the club’s history.
Central/attacking midfielder - Paul Scholes
United’s third one-club man of the modern era, Scholes has made the third-highest number of appearances by any player for the club behind Giggs and Neville. Arguably one of the most talented players of his generation, the former Oldham youth striker has scored many a memorable goal from his roving role just behind the front two.
At the peak of his powers, the ginger-haired linkman’s creative and intuitive play had fans and critics likening the ginger-haired midfielder to one of the world’s greatest footballers, Zinedine Zidane. Scholes announced his retirement from football in 2011 to take up a coaching job at Old Trafford. However, he reversed this decision on 8 January 2012, and like Giggs, will write his name into United’s annuals once he eventually calls it a day.
Left wing/attacking midfielder - Ryan Giggs
When Giggs finally decides to hang up his boots, there will be only one word to describe the Welsh wizard from then on out: LEGENDARY. The most decorated player in English football history, the 39-year-old also holds the club record for competitive appearances.
A consummate professional, Giggs’ game has evolved over the years from the mesmerising wideman in the early to late 90s, to a deeper, playmaking statesman in his latter years. Touted as a possible successor to Ferguson at Old Trafford, whatever Giggs’ future holds, the adoration and appreciation from the Red Devils faithful for him will never diminish.
Striker - Eric Cantona
Voted as Manchester United’s greatest ever player by the club’s official magazine, ‘King Eric’ was an one-of-a-kind player. Temperamental; mercurial; controversial; misunderstood; these are just some of the words one could use to describe the enigmatic Frenchman.
His notoriety for ill-discipline aside, the former Auxerre, Marseille and Leeds hitman reached the pinnacle of his prowess at Old Trafford. Lethal in front of goal, Cantona scored some of the greatest goals in English football, although he was equally adept at providing the crucial pass or lay-off for the likes of strike partner Andy Cole.
But it wasn’t just his silky skills and crisp finishing that endeared him to the Red Devils faithful. Cantona was a talismanic figure at the club, and he bid them a fitting adieu in his final season when he lead Ferguson’s men to a successful title retention in 1996/97, his fourth successive league crown.
Striker - Wayne Rooney
Having announced himself on the world stage as the then-youngest player to represent England aged just 17, Rooney is widely regarded as his country’s best player. Now 27, ‘Wazza’ has already has won 78 international caps and scored 32 goals, and has featured at two World Cups along with two European Championships.
Rooney has won the Premier League Player of the Month award a record five times, as well as England’s Player of the Year acccolade twice. But it is the former Everton prodigy’s record-breaking exploits for United which are likely to catapult him into the pantheon of footballing greats.
He has scored more than 180 times for the Red Devils as the club’s fourth-highest goal-scorer, and is now odds-on favourite to overtake United legend Sir Bobby Charlton (249) as the all-time leading hitman. More talented than Ruud van Nistelrooy; more creative than Mark Hughes; more versatile than Cole; Rooney stands head and shoulders above his modern-day predecessors at Old Trafford.
Bench: Edwin van der Sar, Rio Ferdinand, Bryan Robson, David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy
By Devin Hermanus