With 20 league titles, three European Cups, 12 FA Cups and five League Cups to their name, Manchester United are a club with a rich and distinguished history. Here is a run-down of 10 of their greatest players of all time.
10. Wayne Rooney
Rooney became United’s highest ever scorer earlier this year, as a late free-kick against Stoke City saw him overtake Bobby Charlton in the all-time rankings. His Old Trafford career may have petered out but it’s important to remember just how good Rooney was during his peak: he netted 34 times in all competitions in both 2009/10 and 2011/12, by which time he’d already played a starring role in the Red Devils’ treble season of 2007/08.
The Liverpool-born forward didn’t quite live up to the (excessively lofty) expectations people had for him during his teenage years, but his place in United’s history books is secure.
9. Cristiano Ronaldo
Another member of the aforementioned treble-winning team, Ronaldo is arguably the most successful player to have ever pulled on a United shirt. A superb performance for Sporting Lisbon in a friendly encounter with Alex Ferguson’s men in 2003 resulted in senior United players pleading with the Scot to sign the young winger, who ended his debut campaign in England with an FA Cup winner’s medal around his neck.
That was only the start: the Portuguese developed into the world’s greatest footballer at Old Trafford, with his stunning showings in 2007/08 – Ronaldo scored 42 goals as United won the lot – still some of the best the Premier League has seen.
8. Duncan Edwards
Tragically, Edwards only played five full seasons as a United player. A victim of the Munich air disaster in 1958, the left-half passed away at the tender age of 21 and was cruelly robbed of the chance to fulfil his potential – both as a footballer and, more importantly, a human.
Yet even in a relatively short space of time, Edwards made a significant impression. Labelled a “complete” player by none other than Bobby Charlton – “he was strong and had a fantastic football brain… right foot, left foot, long passing, short passing” – the 18-time England international was a key contributor to Matt Busby’s men’s title triumphs in 1956 and 1957.
7. Paul Scholes
“He scores goals galore,” sang the Old Trafford faithful, but Scholes did much more than that. The local lad, arguably the jewel in the Class of ’92 crown, racked up 499 appearances for United, the only club he ever represented. Scholes’ role evolved over the years, from box-to-box scorer to deep-lying playmaker, but the one constant was his influence on the team.
Eleven Premier League titles, three FA Cups and two Champions Leagues puts him among the club’s most decorated players, while Zinedine Zidane, Edgar Davids, Xavi Hernandez and Thierry Henry are just some of the high-profile names who heaped praise on Scholes during his career.
6. Eric Cantona
What a signing. Acquired from Leeds United for just £1.2m in November 1992, Cantona proved a transformative figure at Old Trafford. It wasn’t just his ability that caught the eye – although scoring 82 goals in 185 club appearances certainly helped, so too the many more he created for team-mates – but his personality too.
Indeed, the Frenchman’s aura lifted those around him and was an integral factor in United ending their championship drought in the 1992/93 campaign, as well as their subsequent successes in 1994, 1996 and 1997. He remains an idol to the club’s supporters, who continue to sing about “King Eric” to this day.
5. Roy Keane
Keane’s £3.75m move from Nottingham Forest to United in 1993 was a British record, but there’s no doubt that the Irishman was worth every last penny. Earmarked as a replacement for the ageing Bryan Robson, Keane went on to surpass United’s legendary midfield general in terms of on-field impact and achievement.
He may only have been handed the armband in 1997, but Keane was essentially a captain throughout his time at the club. A fearsome leader who demanded commitment at all times, the midfielder was also a terrific footballer – something which is often overlooked – and frequently one of the first names on Alex Ferguson’s team sheet. A return of seven league titles, four FA Cups and a Champions League tells its own story.
4. George Best
Northern Irish club Glentoran presumably regret dismissing Best as “too small and light” during his teenage years. He may have ended up at United anyway, of course, but the Belfast-based outfit’s decision to pass on the future star saw Best move to Old Trafford at the age of 15.
The wing wizard was an instant hit at United after nailing down a spot in Matt Busby’s first team in early 1964. Fans were shifted to the edge of their seats whenever Best picked up the ball, but he was decisive as well as decorative: by the end of his United career in 1974, he’d scored 181 goals and laid on several more. A genius who was flawed, but a genius nonetheless.
3. Denis Law
Law had two spells at Manchester City, but the striker’s best years came with their cross-city rivals. United were still recovering from the Munich air disaster when Law arrived at 1962, but the Scottish striker helped restore the club’s domestic pre-eminence by scoring 28 goals in 1964/65 as the Red Devils scooped the First Division title. Law’s contributions that season were enough for him to win the Ballon d’Or, an award which has eluded his compatriots ever since.
He later added a European Cup to his honours list, although injury prevented Law from appearing in the last four or the final in 1968. Nevertheless, the 237-goal centre-forward is one of United’s greatest ever players.
2. Ryan Giggs
Not many footballers in the history of the game can better Giggs’ medal haul. Thirteen Premier Leagues, two European Cups, four FA Cups, three League Cups – the Welshman enjoyed incredible success during his time at United, which encompassed more first-team appearances (963) and league outings (672) than any other player to have represented the Red Devils.
Giggs began his career as a tricky winger and ended it as an intelligent central midfielder. His longevity, particularly at such a big club, was astonishing: the United academy graduate took part in 24 seasons at senior level, before finally hanging up his boots aged 40 in 2014.
1. Bobby Charlton
Until Wayne Rooney’s goal against Stoke City in January, Charlton was United’s all-time record scorer; he may have been overtaken in that particular ranking, but to many he remains the Red Devils’ greatest ever player.
The World Cup winner was a survivor of the Munich air disaster and did his best to honour those who lost their lives on that tragic night in 1958. Charlton, an attacking midfielder rather than an out-and-out centre-forward, scored 249 goals for United in total, while he claimed the Ballon d’Or in 1966 and finished second in both 1967 and 1968. He may have ‘only’ won three league titles (and a European Cup) at Old Trafford, but the way Charlton lifted United back to the top post-Munich makes him one of the club’s biggest ever legends.
By Greg Lea
Greg Lea is a freelance football writer for FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and various others. Follow his Twitter account @GregLeaFootball for anything and everything related to soccer and more.